True recently hit its 25th anniversary. But can a weird news story that I posted at NASA before This is True was “invented” be traced? This weekend I decided to find out, since it’s a pretty “famous” story considering it never ran in the newsletter.
I gave a brief speech last week, and part of it was about the origin of This is True: that I posted stories on the bulletin board outside my office (read: cubicle) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was a hit with my co-workers, who urged me to turn my little hobby into a column, which I eventually did, and later quit JPL to work on True full time.
“I’d clip weird little stories out of the newspaper,” the line in the speech goes, “and I couldn’t help but to write little quips on them — sometimes really pushing the envelope.” The example I give next is one very early item “about a woman who kept two things under her pillow: an asthma inhaler, and a gun. One night she had an asthma attack. [Pregnant pause to let the audience figure out what happened next.] My comment: ‘There she goes, shooting her mouth off again.’”
Yeah, that’s “pushing the envelope,” especially these days when the gun issue is such a contentious topic. But the crowd on Thursday gave me the response I was going for: a mixture of laughs and groans.
Now and then I’ve searched my hard disk to see if I could find that story, but always came up empty; I knew it was from before True started. After the speech last week, it finally occurred to me that I have a folder in a file cabinet with about an inch thick of paper — original postings from my bulletin board at JPL. I got it out, dug through it …and found the clip! Here are a few examples of those early stories that led to the creation of This is True, including that very clip in the upper left (click to see larger):
Why Photocopies? When my NASA buddy “Jawn” Bosley left JPL in the early 90s, I’d always make two copies of every story: one for my bulletin board facing the hallway, and one that I’d mail to John. An original-original would have my handwriting on it directly, like the one with the red pen. Note the yellow highlighting: when I created This is True I knew I couldn’t just publish news stories verbatim and comment on them as I did on the bulletin board, since that would violate the newspapers’ copyright. In True, we summarize the important parts of each story — such as what’s highlighted in these examples — and then add the tagline (commentary). That’s definitely allowed under copyright law.
You’ll notice the “shooting” story is particularly short, but I hadn’t remembered it gave her name. (And naturally it happened in Florida!) Both points really help to research details, so I dove in.
The Story Details
Vicki Childress was 38 at the time: it apparently happened Monday, October 21 (or maybe in the early hours of Tuesday the 22nd), 1991. Stories that I found in my research note she worked in aircraft maintenance at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station, and she was not killed. It’s unclear if she was a Navy service member or a civilian maintenance employee.
“I didn’t even know I had hold of the gun until it went off,” she told a reporter from her bed at the Florida Keys Memorial Hospital. She said she was “kind of in transition” between awake and asleep when she had her asthma attack, and the accident happened when she grabbed the .38 special 5-shot revolver instead of her inhaler. She didn’t actually pull it out from under her pillow, let alone stick the barrel in her mouth, but rather shot herself through her pillow.
“The bullet struck her top jaw bone and fragmented,” the police report says, and broke several teeth. I’ll bet she was wide awake after that!
“I don’t recommend anybody keep a loaded gun that near them when they’re sleeping,” said Captain Obvious — er, I mean Detective Richard Heber of the Key West Police Dept.
It’s plausible in large part because revolvers don’t have safeties. Grab a revolver firmly and, if a finger is inside the trigger guard, it can fairly easily discharge. It’s much less likely that someone would actually hold a gun properly and stick the barrel in their mouth after “confusing” it for an asthma inhaler.
Art Imitates Life
The 2003 romcom Intolerable Cruelty (George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones) uses the idea as a plot point. Clooney’s character (a divorce attorney) ends up marrying Zeta-Jones’ character (a “marriage-for-money predator”), realizes his mistake, and decides to hire a hitman to kill her to get out of it. The asthmatic hitman “Wheezy Joe” (Irwin Keyes) wasn’t asleep, but in a struggle “Wheezy Joe mistakes his gun for his asthma inhaler, and kills himself.”
(Summary info from Wikipedia.)
The real case with Vicki Childress is such a succinct example of pure This is True that when the Los Angeles Times did a lengthy writeup in early 1996 about this nerdy guy at JPL figuring out how to bypass newspapers using the Internet to launch a feature column (more on that below), it was one of the stories the reporter summarized to provide an example of my commentary.
That reporter even interviewed my secretary, who I called “Ms Dot” (much to her amusement). She was the co-worker who most strongly urged me to turn the bulletin board hobby into a formal column. “You’d read it and gasp,” Dotti Johnson told him on the record. “Randy’s comments were always funnier than the articles themselves. If I was in the office and heard guffaws, I knew he had put up new batch of stories. Pretty soon, people started coming by from other departments.”
Figuring Out the Timing
The next question I had was, how far back did my JPL bulletin board items go? That is, when did I start clipping articles out of the newspaper to put up at work? Because I was very sure that the 1991 “shooting her mouth off” story was nowhere near the first story posted on my bulletin board.
Back to the file folder. I think this is the oldest clip, and amusingly it slams dumb lawyers — which became another of my favorite topics over the years. Thanks to the New York Times’ “Times Machine” (here; subscription required), I found when it was originally published: April 25, 1987, or less than a year after I started at JPL (October 8, 1986). The Times notes it came over the AP wire the day before, but either way, I’m thrilled that I was able to nail down the date, and surprised that it was that early.
But alas, when I pulled it down and stuck it in the folder I don’t seem to have kept whatever comment I made on the story, which was probably jotted on a piece of paper behind it. Oh well!
So in a way, True is well over 25 years old: I say in my first real blog post that I had posted the newspaper bulletin board clippings “for years” before I got the idea for how I could make True a real publication — a business that would let me get out of Los Angeles. I just didn’t realize that it was more than 9 years!
The L.A. Times Helped
Now, about that Los Angeles Times reporter and the profile he wrote.
Reporter John Glionna and I were vaguely acquainted: we knew a few people in common, and crossed paths now and then. A reporter at the New York Times had written a piece about True, and the next time I saw John I gave him a copy, taunting that he had been scooped by the competition on a story right in his backyard. He decided to firmly one-up the paper from the other coast, and boy did he ever: it ran above the fold on the front of the Style section on January 3, 1996, and it spanned about 1,500 words plus a gigantic color portrait.
That brought thousands of new readers, led to an appearance on the CNN Morning News, which brought even more thousands — and kept me on my two-year business plan schedule to move to Colorado and write and publish full time.
Glionna and I later became Facebook friends. He’s retired from the newspaper but still does long-form reporting as freelancer. When I saw him post about his new web site, which has copies of past and current articles, I went and took a look. It had a number of …um… problems, and to be helpful I gave him a list of suggestions for improvement.
His response was he thought those were great ideas, but the guy who helped him build the site was hard to reach, and would I consider doing the work instead? (And he’d be happy to pay!) I don’t usually do outside work like that, but hey: he’s a friend, so I agreed.
“You’re missing one,” I eventually told him: the profile he did on me. I had to laugh at his response: he didn’t remember he had written one! I sent it to him, and now it’s the oldest example of his work on his site. You can read the full text of that 1996 profile there, and while you’re on his site consider signing up for his email list to get notification of new articles he posts. I set that up for him too! 🙂
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