Author: Cornish, Rick

Fifty-Plus Firsts
When you wake up in the morning, stick your head out from under the covers and can see your breath, you know it’s cold. Even for the mountains, it’s very, very cold. My head went back under the covers and stayed there another forty-five minutes or so until the propane heater did its work. There, in the blissful warmth and safety of my many-blanketed, many-quilted, many-dogged bed, I lay pondering today’s Welcome column. Competing topics began popping up as fast as democratic and republican presidential candidates…..the SuperGrass auction, the new BB that’s finished and available for download, the progress we’re making on our Irvine Foundation grant, the recent interesting, even challenging, threads on the Message Board…..but by the time I’d jumped out of bed, showered, dressed, gotten latte’s and sat down at my computer, none seemed more worthy of sharing with my extended family than a listing of personal firsts since I turned fifty.

I’m sure there are a lot more, but here are the actual firsts I’ve taken the time to write down in the past four years. (Note: They are certainly NOT listed in order of importance. In fact, none of the items below have any importance at all.)

It was not until after living half a century that I witnessed my first dead cow on the side of the road. It was a black and white one. I was driving to Stockton from Jamestown, on Highway 108, and the moment I saw it, actually from quite a distance, I knew exactly what it was—a dead cow on the side of the road. Took me more than fifty years to see one for the first time, and thankfully I’ve never seen it again.

Here’s another one. I was driving through the town of Marysville, stopped at a red light, and I happened to look to my right at a mortuary and saw a big plume of black smoke rising from a smoke stack at the rear of the building. In fifty years I’d never seen smoke from an actual cremation.

Not that all of my 50-year firsts are death related. I was fifty-seven before I’d ever heard or read the word bonobo. After listening to an NPR Science Friday pod cast about bonobos, I remember wondering how it was that I’d lived the better part of my life without every being aware of these creatures. Oh, what creatures? “The Bonobo (Pan paniscus), until recently usually called the Pygmy Chimpanzee and less often the Dwarf or Gracile Chimpanzee, is one of the two species comprising the chimpanzee genus, Pan. The other species in genus Pan is Pan troglodytes, or the Common Chimpanzee. Both species are chimpanzees, and the term can be used both to refer only to the larger of the two species, Pan troglodytes, and to both species together. To avoid confusion, this article follows the growing trend to use "chimpanzee" to refer to both members of the genus. The Bonobo was discovered in 1928, by American anatomist Harold Coolidge, represented by a skull in the Tervuren museum in Belgium that was thought to have belonged to a juvenile chimpanzee, though credit for the discovery went to the German Ernst Schwarz, who published the findings in 1929. The species is distinguished by an upright gait, a matriarchal and egalitarian culture, and the prominent role of sexual activity in their society. (From Wikipedia)”

Another of my firsts involved my good friend and work associate, Johnny Arguelles. Johnny showed up to work one day, quite late, and explained that he’d gotten two traffic tickets on the way to the office. One for speeding, another for making an illegal left turn. Never before in my entire life had I heard of anyone getting nailed twice in one day. I mean, I’m sure it’s happened plenty of times, but I’d just never heard of it happening until after my first fifty years.

Here’s a penal first. I was driving to San Luis Obispo about four years ago and I stopped at an In and Out Burger for lunch. After gobbling my cheeseburger and fries I stopped in the men’s room to wash up and, inside, I found a uniformed prison guard with a prisoner. The guy was wearing an orange jump suit and was handcuffed and shackled. When I walked in, the two were discussing their favorite burgers. The guard said he favored In and Out; the prisoner was a fan of the Big Mac. Again, I’m sure guards are hauling prisoners around all the time, and everybody’s got to eat. I’d just never seen this before…..not until I turned fifty-two.

Okay, bluegrass content. It was Grass Valley, 2001, over in the tent camping area, maybe two in the morning. I walked up to a jam with my left handed fiddle and stepped up right next to another left-handed fiddler. Shocking. For him and for me. I’ll never forget it. Neither of us acknowledged it, but we played several tunes together. A first and probably never to b repeated.

Got any of your own 50-plus firsts? Let me know. And have a wonderful Sunday.

Posted:  1/21/2007

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email