Here lies Jim Cook, Arizona’s official state fibber
Truth is overrated.
Most of the time, it’s boring. “The wind blew.” So what?
“It blew so hard I saw a chicken lay the same egg twice.” Really?
Sometimes telling the truth is necessary, but most of the time the plain truth is just that: plain. It is better to lie.
I was reminded of this the other day when I came upon an obituary, published nearly two years ago, for someone I admired. His name was Jim Cook. He worked at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, where I landed my first newspaper job.
Jim was a gentlemanly, painstaking reporter who wrote with the grace of a slumming angel. He was bulletproof accurate. Finally, however, he began to realize that veracity had limitations. He left Phoenix for the town of Wickenburg and founded the Institute for Factual Diversity.
Its purpose was to shed the shackles of fact and expand the truth.
Jim Cook appointed himself the official state liar.
His legacy is a trove of essays about Arizona, a place he loved. Jim’s words are worth reading. They offer insight into his state and its humor for people here in California, just across the Colorado River, but as different from Arizonans as bourbon is from creme de menthe. For one thing, Californians never lie.
Jim published a newsletter, the Journal of Prevarication, and several books, including “Arizona Liar’s Journal,” “Arizona Liar’s Almanac” and “Dry Humor: Tales of Arizona Weather.”
“When I was a kid,” he wrote, “the Painted Desert was still white sand with numbers on it.” His family was broke. In fact, he said, “we were so poor that our pancakes only had one side.” The Cooks lived in a house trailer. It was so cramped, “we had to go outside to turn around.”
“I spent most of my youth alternating between Phoenix, which was then a small city, and much smaller places,” he said. “In one place, the town limits signs were on opposite sides of the same post.” The Independence Day parade was so short it had “to go around the block and come back through downtown to make it look longer.”
When Jim moved to Wickenburg, he lived not far from a dry river called the Hassayampa. (“Legend says he who drinks from the Hassayampa will never tell the truth again.”) One day, he said, an Arizonan returned from a visit to New York. A friend asked what he thought of the Hudson River. “‘Couldn’t tell much about it,’” the Arizonan said. ‘It was full of water the whole time.’”
The Hassayampa was once the habitat of a rare fish, the sand trout. “Successful fishermen often used water for bait,” Jim said. The sand trout became extinct in 1947. “A flash flood drowned the last school.”
Arizona is so dry that when Noah built his ark, the state got only 1.75 inches of rain. “It was dry that year,” Jim said. “Lord, it was dry. You had to spit three times to hit the ground.”
The state is parched because of its extraordinary warmth. “During recent summers in Phoenix, the paving was so hot that my shadow frequently got up and walked alongside me.”
“Even the nights are hot. We have to use moon block if we go out.”
Yuma is the worst — “hotter than $2 brake pads.”
“Did you know that our dairy cows give evaporated milk?”
In Yuma, “Baptists give out rain checks for total immersion.”
Arizona’s heat, of course, is generated by an abundance of sunshine. There is so much that sundials run 30 minutes fast. Arizona is one of the few states that do not switch to daylight saving time. It tried during the 1960s, “and the daylight we saved that year is still stored in big warehouses on the desert near Yuma.”
Nonetheless, the mountains in northern Arizona get cold. (“Ironed out flat,” Jim said, “the state might be larger than Texas.”) Up in the hills, “I have seen a cup of coffee freeze so fast that when we thawed it out, it was still hot.”
And the wind blows.
“Winslow is the windiest town in Arizona,” Jim said. “[It is] the only place where the Weather Service rain gauge is mounted horizontally.”
Jim Cook told his final lie in January of last year. He was 76.
His obituary, written by Don Dedera, a friend and fellow writer, began this way: “A kind colleague via email brings an allegation that Jim Cook has died. I reject this rumor out of hand.”
Jim is immortal, Dedera said. He was no petty fibber; he wrote in the tradition of Will Rogers and a less-caustic Ambrose Bierce. “Jim elevated prevarication to an art form.” For instance, he “maintained that it once got so cold in Winslow, a lawyer was seen with his hands in his own pockets.”
“Even Jim’s soft-spoken self-deprecation bore a hint of fraud: ‘One dismal day I caught myself telling the truth, but managed to lie my way out of it.’”
“For his family,” Dedera said, “the loss is real and grievous. Sympathies extended, most sincerely. But at another level, let me believe that a world without Jim Cook is not only patently impossible, but utterly unbelievable.”
Now that’s the truth.
Richard E. Meyer is a former Times staff writer.
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