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The Truth Is a Beautiful Thing

September 14, 2009

Sir Walter Scott, famous Scottish author, wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

The people of South Carolina have experienced up close and personal this proverbial truth.

The Palmetto State has recently suffered a black eye. Our governor left the state capitol. His staff reported that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. A reporter for The State newspaper met the weary governor arriving at the terminal in Atlanta on a flight from Argentina. The governor had not been truthful.

Just last Wednesday Representative Joe Wilson of Columbia interrupted an address by the President of the United States before a joint session of Congress. During the President’s speech the South Carolina Republican shouted out “You lie!”

Senator John McCain called Wilson’s outburst “totally disrespectful.”

Joe Wilson apologized. The incident gave South Carolina another black eye.

My mother’s punishment of choice when I said a bad word, spoke ugly to or about another person, or told a lie was to wash out my mouth with yellow Octagon soap. She often repeated my granny’s refrain, “The truth is a beautiful thing.” Granny was quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I was taught that the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” was more than a courtroom rule. It was for everyday life. Before I ever saw an episode of “Perry Mason” or “Matlock” on television, I was taught to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God. My grandfather used to say, “Always tell the truth even when it hurts, and a lot of times it will.”

One of the most intriguing guests to appear on the television program “To Tell The Truth” was Frank Abagnale. The show featured Gary Moore as host and regular panelists Bill Cullen, Kitty Carlisle, and Peggy Cass. Three contestants, all claiming to be the same person, were brought onstage. Only one was telling the truth; the other two were not. The panel was to discern, by asking questions, who was truthful and who was lying. When Frank Abagnale appeared as a guest on the program, he was the truth teller. He was, however, the greatest imposter of them all.

Frank Abagnale wrote Catch Me If You Can: The True Story Of A Real Fake, his autobiography. In the Steven Spielberg movie based on the book, Leonardo De Caprio plays the part of Frank. When this true-crime story first appeared in 1980, it made the list of best sellers in The New York Times Book Review.

In a period of five years, Frank Abagnale passed $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries. He did it by perpetrating one scam after another. He impersonated an airline pilot traveling around the world in the cockpit of jets, even taking over the controls. He also played the role of a pediatrician and faked his way into the position of temporary resident supervisor at a hospital in Georgia. Posing as a lawyer, he passed the Louisiana bar exam, and conned his way into a position in the State Attorney General’s office. He taught a semester of college-level sociology with a fake degree from Columbia University.

In reality, Frank was a teenage high school dropout following his parent’s divorce. At first his con game was a matter of survival. Then he became enamored with the challenge and the ego trip that came with playing important men. Both the book and the movie treat with humor his years of impersonations, swindles, and felonies. Abagnale was arrested and convicted of his crimes. He was released from prison after five years on the condition that he would cooperate with the government apprehending counterfeiters.

Most of us have taken our share of true-false quizzes during our school years. The simple truth is, we take them every day. Mark Twain said, “Lying is mankind’s most universal weakness.”

Consider the quandary of a pastor who had been trying diligently to teach his two children, an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter, to tell the truth. One Sunday, after the morning worship service, his children were by his side when an elderly woman from the congregation presented him with a homemade cake. He took the cake home where his wife engaged him in conversation.

“Who made the cake?” she asked.

“Mrs. Hawthorne. It’s her famous red velvet cake,” the pastor replied.

“We won’t be able to eat it,” his wife said. “Just throw it away.”

“Why can’t we eat it?” the surprised reverend asked.

“It will be full of cat hair. You’ve been in her home. She has five or six cats. They walk all over the kitchen counters. She calls it red velvet cake, but it’s cat hair cake.”

The skeptical pastor cut the cake. His children eagerly watched. Sure enough, the cake was full of cat hair. The disappointed children sighed. The cake was tossed into the trash.

The following Sunday, the children were again standing by their father’s side as he greeted people at the church door. Mrs. Hawthorne asked, “Preacher, did you like that red velvet cake?”

Fully aware that his children were listening for his answer, the quick-thinking dad responded, “I’ll tell you the truth, Mrs. Hawthorne. A cake like that just doesn’t last very long around our house!”

The truth is a beautiful thing.

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2009

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