Longtime Northern California journalist Cliff Larimer, now a resident of Texas, sent the following essay to friends recently and then followed up with another e-mail assuring fans, “I’m not dead yet!” — the message also included a mock tombstone, see below. He graciously gave me permission to reprint it all here.
And, in conclusion
Those last words
By Cliff Larimer
The Word Merchant
(Parts of the following have previously seen a printed page.)
WORDS ARE WHAT I do/did for a living and have always been an important part of what leisure time I’ve ever allowed myself.
That off the clock stuff has always included a lot of social intercourse, the majority of it by letter, e-mail or notes in the sand. There once was a lot of telephone time, but that’s mostly history because you can’t look, let alone see, eye to eye that way … something I learned over years as a beat reporter. Cops, city managers, pompous politicians and a host of others are usually more forthright when you are looking right at them. And they can’t hang up on you.
I correspond regularly with perhaps two-dozen people, frequently with about half of those. I hear from quite a few others … and … I’m … getting … behind on answering some of those. But if you’re one of them, you’re on my list.
It’s changed a bit in these waning years of my life’s grand adventure. Sadly, for me, my short list is no longer dominated by old newshawks and newshens. That because those old birds have flown off to the Big City Room in the Sky and can no longer chirp, talk and squawk with those of us still scratching.
I can think of three of those one-time regulars whose demises I can only surmise, because I quit trying to e-mail them when the computer told me their in-boxes were full.
Some come and go.
Like a girl I went to grade school with but had not seen or heard from in 60 years became a regular, albeit sometimes flaky, correspondent. I lost her a few months back when I wrote a column where I concluded I was probably an atheist. With capital letters and strings of exclamation marks she ordered to never invade her in-box again.
My politics and beliefs have chased away a lifelong buddy. He can’t tolerate me thinking Muslims have every bit as much right to their beliefs as do Bible toters. He doesn’t like my distaste for that Trump person.
Some great correspondents are still with me.
A girl from grade school days who’s had an adventurous, mostly full life and speaks intelligently about when she has done, seen and is still doing in the middle of 2016.
Two other women. One from high school who has been my muse for decades, but in recent years the gap between communications grows and the words slow.
One who is married to one of the brightest of my high school acquaintances. I’ve only met her face to face twice, but for a dozen years she has done more than any other person in my life to encourage me to write and to often challenge what I write, most of the time constructively.
And there’s that other girl. My wife. She is a marvel. For more than 50 years she’s stood by me through all the bad and the good. Sadly, the last dozen years she’s not done as much standing, not since she broke her hip.
Three or four guys I’ve known since grade school trade words with me. Some great discussions, even when we agree to disagree.
Some newer acquaintances have also become regulars. Men and women who worked in this or that town where I’d parked my bindle for a time before moving on.
Over my decades in the newspaper profession/trade, if you’re good at it you learn early on you have to handle every source differently, treat every reporter and every
editor you are in charge of differently … so what’s saucy to one goose might be just fine for a gander.
In doing all this, I’ve found you can only go so far with it; you can only give up a small bit of what you are to do it. If you try patting some troublesome reporter on the back and it doesn’t work, then you probably need to kick them out the door.
Same with the e-mail list.
In trading words in letters and e-mails, I have a handful of correspondents with whom I with some frequency engage in healthy debate or flat out argue with. There are perhaps three people I enjoy immensely but who are overly sensitive and tend to take umbrage when there’s no real reason to.
Got the cold shoulder a couple years back from one of the umbrage takers, a longtime friend. After not hearing from the nice lady for some weeks, I’d sent a short note asking if the wall had gone up because of something I said. Of course, I was already fairly certain it was.
She did reply, a part of which is printed below:
“It was not particularly what you said, it was the tone. All my friendships at this point in my life are affection, supportive and a pleasure to experience. Crude, sarcasm directed at me and the impression that the information that is being given is done so by one who has all the facts and, therefore, is capable of making a judgment doesn’t work well. I asked an elderly friend when she was dying what she felt was most important in life. Her response: ‘to be kind.’”
And, a part of my reply follows:
“… to borrow from the great Popeye, “I yam what I yam.”
I find it difficult to press the keyboard wearing 16 ounce gloves, although I do dance around the ring more lightly with some than with others when I trade words and thoughts.
It is impossible for me to float like a butterfly all the time …
Most important in life, were someone to ask me, is to help more people than you hurt. Looking back, I think I’ve done that …”
The lady got over her pout, but found it again late last year and has ordered me to never darken her inbox again.
IT DID GET ME TO THINKING about last words, or near last ones, uttered while the soon-to-depart soul was still of this earth and not in it.
Now we all think about our expiration date. Some know when it is coming, others get one big surprise. Most of us would like some legacy of words for others to recall.
I have no wish for immortality, but I have given great thought to what great advice I might pass on before I pass on. Coming up with anything of worth has been a flummoxing endeavor, and I find that surprising because I do have a catchy way with words.
I started a list of 10 “Words of Wisdom” a few years back, not many weeks after a stroke felled me and I survived, choosing not to go gently into that dark night. Drawing on my own life experiences, my object was to provide good advice on ways to make individuals’ lives better while they are having them. The list:
1 – Take good, good, good care of your teeth.
2 – Do not cohabitate until you can afford a domicile with two bathrooms.
3 – Only have short-haired dogs.
4 – Never leave that last piece of pie in the refrigerator. Never. Eat it right now. It will go bad or someone else will eat it.
5 – Wear loose-fitting clothes.
6 – Learn to spell; have subjects agree with verbs.
7 – Stay away from Fox News.
8 – Never drink white wine, or any beer made in St. Louis or Milwaukee. John Cleese of Monty Python fame calls it “gnat piss.”
Okay, the list is not complete, but over the last nearly 80 years that’s all I’ve been able to come up with.
FROM THIS POINT ON in this essay, let’s just deal with last words. Of famous or at least heard-of people. Few offer advice. A few reflect. A few dealt with the last breaths in ways that have a certain cachet that make them special to this aging scrivener. In no particular order, let’s look at some.
— Am I dying or is this my birthday? ….. Lady Nancy Astor in 1964 when she woke briefly during her last illness and found all her family at her bedside.
— Don’t let poor Nelly starve. ….. Charles II, king of England and Scotland. He died in 1685. Nell Gwynne was his mistress.
— Turn up the lights; I don’t want to go home in the dark. ….. O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) 1910.
— Damnit!…Don’t you dare ask God to help me. ….. Joan Crawford to her housekeeper who began to pray aloud. Died 1977
— Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries’! ….. Convicted murderer James French shouted those words to members of the press shortly before he died in the electric chair in Oklahoma in 1966.
— Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel. ….. George Appel was executed in the electric chair in New York in 1928. He murdered a police officer.
— Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough! ….. Karl Marx 1818.
— I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. ….. Actor Errol Flynn shortly before dying from a heart attack in 1959. It has been reported he was buried with six bottles of whiskey.
— Either that wallpaper goes, or I do. …..Oscar Wilde, writer, died 1900.
— Money can’t buy life. ….. Bob Marley 1981.
— You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can get with a kind word alone. …..
Al Capone, died of cardiac arrest in 1947.
— I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room – and God damn it – died in a hotel room. … Eugene O’Neill, writer, d. 1953
— Don’t mourn for me. Organize!” ….. Joe Hill Union organizer. Executed by firing squad in Utah in 1915 for two murders he probably did not commit.
— I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct. …..Dominique Bouhours, famous French essayist and grammarian. Died 1702.
— Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something. ….. Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary, death by firing squad 1923.
— I have tried so hard to do the right thing. … President Grover Cleveland, died 1908.
— The bastards tried to come over me last night. I guess they didn’t know I was a Marine…. Pfc. Edward H. Ahrens, died 1943. During the battle of Tulagi, Private Ahrens was mortally wounded while single-handedly fighting back a group of Japanese soldiers attempting to infiltrate Allied lines. After his superior officer discovered Ahrens the next morning surrounded by dead Japanese troops, he whispered these words and died.
— Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him. ….. John Barrymore, actor, died 1942.
Folks, as you wander around the internet or look at books of quotations, you find this a couple of times.
It is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Gene Fowler, a journalist, newspaperman, screenwriter and author, was a close friend of Barrymore and also W.C. Fields. He would write Barrymore’s biography, “Goodnight, Sweet Prince,” in which he details Barrymore’s life. Fowler was from Denver and his first newspaper job was with the Denver Post.
It says on Wikipedia, “His assignments included an interview with frontiersman and Wild West Show promoter Buffalo Bill Cody
. He established his trademark impertinence by questioning Cody about his many love affairs.”
Fowler’s story of Barrymore rates a read. Barrymore was a great actor, a wild person and an alcoholic. The booze took him, pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver, in 1942 when he was 60.
Fowler was at his bedside. He recounts in the book how Barrymore, close to death, beckoned to him and tried to say something. Fowler bent close, his ear near Barrymore’s lips.
I may have to paraphrase a bit, but the last words, just a whisper, he uttered were to Fowler. He told Fowler there was one thing he had to know before he died.
Fowler waited, and the words the great actor uttered were, “Are you really the illegitimate son of Buffalo Bill?”
And Barrymore died, Fowler trying to stifle a laugh as the great actor faded to black.
Last words? I’ve decided on mine, and I’d think I’d also like them on my tombstone, if there is one:
“Stop the presses!”
Runner up, for the tombstone:
“He drank dark beer, red wine and pissed printers ink.”