Have you ever lived next door to The Most Interesting Man In The World? I don’t mean the distinguished Latino gentleman who is a fixture of beer commercials, but a real live human being whose life should be chronicled in at least one good book. Well I have. And I loved every day of it.
When the first house I shared with my Mrs. in the early 1990s began to burst at the seams from our growing family, we relocated to a new neighborhood. A new old neighborhood actually, one that dated back to the latter part of the Eisenhower Administration. Which seemed quite new considering that our old house dated to the latter part of the Coolidge Administration. The large wooded lots, rolling hills and unique 1950s-era homes appealed to us and we eventually found one.
One thing we quickly learned was that there were quite a few of the original owners still living around us. These were folks who were getting quite elderly and were not very active. One, however, was quite different.
“Have you seen the old man next door? The way he drives his riding mower looks like he’s in a race!” exclaimed Marianne one day when I came home from work. Within the next couple of days I was outdoors and saw that she was right. But very quickly the old man in Bermuda shorts shut down his mower and walked over to welcome me to the neighborhood.
“Name’s Clarence, but everyone calls me Curly” he said as he doffed his sun hat and smacked his bald head with the palm of his hand.”You’ll see me out here a lot. I mow my grass every 3 days.” With a big smile he concluded: “I’m 95 years old, what the hell else do I have to do?” After offering to be available if I needed anything, he went back to work.
As I got to know him from our periodic outdoor chats (“You should cut your grass at THREE inches because its healthiest that way.”), I got to learn a bit of his story. He had been a World War I fighter pilot and eventually retired from the U.S. Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel before going into life insurance sales in the 1950s.
“My best friend and I were going to enlist and my father asked which branch. We told him we were going into the infantry. But he asked us ‘Why not enlist in the Cavalry, then at least you can ride a horse.’ It sounded like a good idea so we did. And the Cavalry turned out to be where the Air Corps started.” Curly made his first flight on May 6, 1918.
He became a big deal in pre-war aviation in Indiana, eventually landing in charge of Fort Wayne’s airport which was then known as Baer Field. He was called up from the reserves for World War II and was a bigshot in military air traffic control and was probably responsible for choosing the location for Grissom Air Base in north central Indiana. After the war he was appointed Director of the Aeronautics Commission of Indiana, where his life was promoting airports anywhere he could get them.
I learned that even after he ceased regular flying, Curly would still go up in an airplane every year on the anniversary of his first solo flight. “I have to go up with an instructor” he said to me. “Nobody will let me go alone at my age because of insurance.” And indeed he did, which was proved when he set a Guinness world record as the oldest active pilot in 1995 at the age of 97.
It was not, however, his fame that made me love living next door to Curly. He was just fun. He could (and would) talk about anything (“Ask me the time and I’ll tell ya how to build a clock.”) We invited Curly and his wife Lois over for dinner once or twice and they had us over for coffee, pie and cards once. Lois was a sweet lady who had lost most of her vision by then and twice every day I would see Curly back his Cadillac out of the garage and head up the street to a restaurant for lunch or dinner.
I should have been surprised (but wasn’t) when he told me that he was driving his wife and a friend to Tennessee for the weekend. “I’ve just gotta get away” he said. I hope I am that together when (if?) I hit my mid 90s.
Curly died not three weeks after that record-breaking flight and his wife was forced to move to a nearby nursing home, where she died very soon after.
I said at the beginning that someone as interesting as Curly just had to be the subject of a book or two, and it turns out he was. His daughter wrote one called Cap Cornish: Indiana Pilot which was published through the Purdue University Press. He was also listed in a section of a book called Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped The Hoosier State.
Curly’s house has changed hands a couple of times since his death and I have been on friendly terms with each of the owners. But it has not been the same. How could it?
I have had many good neighbors through the years and some of them still today. In most respects they have been normal folks pretty much like you or me. But Curly Cornish was different. He may not have actually been The Most Interesting Man In The World, but he comes as close as anyone I will ever meet.