Author: Cornish, Rick

Why I never make things up

I'm an honest person. But there was a time in my life, when I was young and eager to impress, that I sometimes stretched the truth. Nothing big, just a little exaggeration here, a little white lie there. Okay, even an occasional whopper. But what could be the harm I figured. And then I found out by nearly getting myself whacked. Let me explain.

Famous Estates Illustrated was a book, actually a series of books, used by estate planners and attorneys to sell their services. It was a book about famous (and not so famous) very rich dead people. A financial planner would sit with his wealthy client, open the book to, say, Louis Armstrong and there, on two opposing pages, would be a big photo of Sachmo, a brief biographical sketch of about 350 words, a summary of the terms of his last will and testament and a breakdown of all his estate’s assets, probate settlement costs and the bottom line—how much dough his family got. See there, Mr. Jones, Armstrong’s assets were about the same as yours and look…see there, the estate was raped by state and federal taxes. Now, we can do a lot, lot better than that.

Not exactly great literature, but the year was 1971, I was fresh out of college, and I had a degree in English which, according to my parents, was real close to no degree at all. And of course my sole ambition in life was to write the great American novel. Making a living writing anything, even something as grimly dry as Famous Estates Illustrated, was light years better than checking groceries at Albertsons. So when I was offered some free lance work—that of traveling around the country researching probate files and micro-fiching obits at local libraries and then returning home to write up the profiles--I concocted a scheme. The owner of Famous Estates paid precious little for the researching and writing, but he was more than generous when it came to paying expenses, which would include air travel from one city to the next and all lodging, food and incidental expenses. So what I would do would be to fly just a little, hitch-hike mostly, stay in flea-bitten hotels instead of nice hotels mostly and eat saltine crackers and fruit mostly. And with the money I’d save in expenses, along with what I was being paid for the actual work, I could afford to write biographies of famous dead people half the time and the great American novel the other half of the time. I had a plan.

To get the hang of it, I did a local trip first and drove my ’56 VW Bug. San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and down to L.A. On each trip I’d visit the probate court first, collect information on twenty famous dead people (Jack, the owner, furnished me with a hit list) and then go to the local library and photocopy obituaries. It took me a little over three weeks to knock out 100 biographies, 100 “Will Highlights” and 100 “Probate Abstracts”. (This was about a week longer than I’d planned, but I figured the more I did, the faster I would get.) Then I spent a week working on my novel (which amounted mostly of sitting in front of my IBM Selectric typewriter wondering what in God’s name I was going to write about. Thirty years later and I still haven’t figured that one out.)

My first real research trip, the trip during which I learned never to make up stories, was to the East. I flew to Boston, then hitch-hiked to Providence, took the bus to New York City, then hitched to Philadelphia and finally to Lancaster, PA. From there I’d head home via a Pam Am flight from JFK back in New York. Before flying off to Boston I’d never been out of California except a few times to Tahoe and once to TJ. I was twenty-two, traveling alone, actually a freelance writer and I was tasting life for the first time. It was one of the truly great times of my life. There were huge adventures, life-changing experiences in each of these cities…the two days spent in each town could be the basis of an entire story by itself. But for this story, suffice it to say that by the end of the second week of my journey I was dropped off at Exit 231 on Interstate 78 just outside of Lancaster. It was a warm summer afternoon, I was on the home stretch and I was happy as a clam.

I walked the half-mile into town. I’d already decided that I would stay in a decent hotel my last two nights on the road and, coming into Lancaster’s main street, I spotted a four story Holiday Inn towering over the rest of the buildings. It was a clean, nice little town, nothing like the big cities I’d just come from, and the street was bustling with activity. As I approached the hotel, I could see a knot of people gathered on the sidewalk in front. There was a white news van with a TV broadcast antennae on top—KLTV—ALL THE NEWS YOU NEED TO KNOW.

“Sir, sir, what do YOU think of the news?” A young woman holding a microphone and wearing a mini skirt had grabbed my shoulder and turned me toward the camera. I was on TV.

“What news?” I asked.

“Spiro Agnew, the Vice President of the United States, has just resigned from office.”

I let out a yelp and danced a little jig.

“Can we assume,” the young woman asked, “that you welcome this news?”

“Welcome? WELCOME? Are you kidding, this is a great day for the U.S. A GREAT DAY.” I yelped again.

“And why is that?”

“Because Spiro Agnew is a crook, a money-grubbing, dishonest politician of a crook who should never have been elected in the first place. And because his resignation brings us one step closer to the big guy who’ll be taking a tumble next, I suspect.”

“President Nixon?”

“Yes indeed, mam, President Richard M. Nixon. Millhouse Nixon. Yes, yes, yes.” I was ecstatic. I danced another little jig.

“And sir, let me ask, what you do?”

“Do?” I asked.

“I mean, for a living? Are you just passing through?” She was eyeing my backpack.

“Oh, yes, passing through. I’m a freelance writer. Here in Lancaster doing some research. For a book.” Man it felt good to say that.

“Oh, really, what sort of book?” The camera was still rolling.

“Well, ah….” And this, my friends, my daily column readers, is the point at which you meet the real me in 1971. The superficial, petty, dishonest, insecure me.

“Well….it’s ah, it’s sort of an EXPOSE’”, I said, instantly regretting that I’d lied. Actually, I regretted it in less than an instant. A nano-instant.

“Really,” the young mini shirted reported said stepping closer. She was absolutely drop dead gorgeous. “And what will you be exposing in our fair city?” I could smell her perfume now.

“You know…..the regular. Corruption, graft, ah, general scandal type stuff. Can’t really say more than that.” My voice trailed off and I just stared blankly at the reporter. In the next moment she was interviewing someone else. Mine had been about thirty seconds of fame, not fifteen minutes.

My room at the Holiday Inn wasn’t a room at all. It was a palace. My beds, two of them, were the size of regulation snooker tables, there was a television that actually worked, with a remote control that worked and the TV was color. And best of all, I had my own personal, completely unshared, clean bathroom. After nearly two weeks of bare light bulbs, cracked plaster, floral-patterned linoleum floors and the unrelenting fear of the dreaded bed bug, I was back among the living. I showered, put on decent clothes and went down to the hotel bar.

“Scotch rocks,” I told the bartender, loving the way that sounded. Scotch rocks. The Holiday Inn lounge was full, it was the end of the workday and apparently this was one of the downtown after work hangouts. A minute later I had my drink and was just taking my first sip when the woman sitting on the bar stool to my right nudged me.

“Heh,” she said, “isn’t that you?” She pointed at one of the ceiling-mounted TV’s. I was dancing my jig of joy there on the sidewalk, my huge, bright orange backpack heaving up and down on my back.

“And what’s that on your back?” she asked.

I told the woman my story, truthful
Posted:  1/18/2004

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