Coming clean

February 21, 1991

Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism. I didn't make that up. Somebody said it, but I don't remember who. Whoever it was, he probably had a lot of stuff lifted from him without getting any credit.

I've decided to come clean. All my columns, for the last year and a half, were swiped directly from "Ask Babs," an advice column distributed by United American Features between 1943 and 1949. I found the clippings in my grandmother's attic three years ago, and have since been using them for my own gain.

Most of Babs' columns dealt, in one way or another, with the reasons why young women should save themselves until marriage, and the tragic consequences of not doing so. But with clever cutting and pasting, and the substitutions of crucial nouns and verbs, her articles could be customized into pieces suitable for the Daily's unchaste audience. Some examples:

An early column of mine about salmonella was lifted, almost directly, from a morality fable about social diseases. I just switched the ending. In the original, the heroine died, barren and husbandless, in a state asylum. In my version, the heroine lost her lunch and swore off raw cookie dough forever.

Another one of mine, telling readers to "sleep late, avoid yogurt and don't drink decaf," had, in its original form, advised girls to "get up early, drink plenty of milk and don't talk to strangers." I later used the same Babs piece to recommend that the youth of America "sleep with sheep, smoke clove cigarettes and pray regularly to Satan."

And then there were my frequent letters-to-the-Devil pieces, easily concocted by taking original 1940s letters, replacing "Dear Babs," with "Dear Lucifer," and inserting biblical passages wherever appropriate. For example, I substituted "the infernal lake of fire" for "the boy-danger zone," and "wailing and gnashing of teeth" for "kissing and petting and goodness knows what else."

My column telling women, "Don't feel like you have to shave, unless you really want to," was written by simply subverting every principle of grooming Babs ever held dear. Such perversion of principles, Babs claimed, would leave young women "coarse, hairy and manless," and surely lead to "depravity, dungarees, and other unladylike interests."

Last July's "Advice to the lustlorn," piece was copied almost word for word from Babs. I just substituted the letter-writer's alias Name and address withheld for the original Frustrated in Fresno.

A column of mine during the Gulf War, comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, originally was about Hitler, whom Babs criticized for his poor posture and vegetarianism. In her eyes he was "worse than that bushy-faced Mr. Stalin, and surely Miss Eva Braun could do better than the likes of him."

There, I've confessed. I feel much better now. Were Babs still alive -- rumor has it she died of a Vicks' Vapo-Rub overdose -- I would write to her and beg her forgiveness. Now I can only ask forgiveness from you, the reader, to whom I've passed on plagiarized material and bad grooming tips.

© 1991 Randel Shard. First published in The Minnesota Daily on February 21, 1991