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The urban legend

In to the Wind

September 5, 2012
By Mike Gilchrist , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

We've all heard them. Many of us have read them in alarmist emails arriving on our computer. They seem to have a life of their own. Sometimes we keep them alive by retelling or forwarding emails on to other unwitting souls. They are patently untrue and sometimes damaging.

Of course I am talking about the urban legend. An urban legend is something that is told and retold, sometimes with additional embellishment, and passed as the truth. Before the advent and widespread use of the computer, we simple called them "wives tales." But, those wives tales have become more sophisticated, and in the Internet age can spread like a virus from person to person in short order.

Back in the day, when we just called them wives tales, they were hard to debunk. If you didn't believe it, all you could say was "nah, I don't believe that!" It was hard to go to a book or some other reputable source and prove the tale spinner wrong.

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I heard it all the time during my childhood. Mom never let us eat an hour before we went swimming. If we did, we were sure to get leg cramps and drown. She never let us eat before we went swimming; if we did, we had to wait. It's easy to track that one down these days as a wives tale. There is no veracity to the tale.

"Hair grows back thicker and darker if you shave it." Every teenaged boy did just that in hopes it would, and every teenaged girl, and even some exceptionally hairy women dared not. That dear reader is another wives tale.

One wives tale which has evolved into an urban legend and is currently making the rounds in email circles is that dabbing liquid soap on a tick is the best way to remove the pest. Yep, the advice is just an old wives tale run amuck.

One of my favorites is the old admonition to not swallow your gum. The way it was told to me is that it would lodge in your appendix, and if you did it enough times, you would die. The other version was that it took seven years to pass through your system. Wrong, and wrong.

A more contemporary wives tale, but one I heard on the cusp of the explosion of personal computers involves another technology which was just beginning to take hold at the time. It was said that eel skin wallets would demagnetize the magnetic stripe on your credit cards. Inquiring minds want to know!

Being one of those people who sat glued to the television set when man first set foot on the moon, and acutely aware of the space shuttle program, I was dashed when a wives tale I firmly believed was disproved. I always believed the only manmade object on earth visible from the surface of the moon is the Great Wall of China. Guess what? It just isn't so!

One widely believed wives tale is that humans only use ten percent of their brains. I guess we should have been asking "Then what do we do with the other ninety percent?"

How about the advice to leave a window open if a tornado strike is imminent? Supposedly, that will allow the pressure to equalize and keep your home from being destroyed. Matilda, if a tornado is going to hit your house, no open window is going to save the trusses!

I was once told that from the bottom of a well, during the day, one can see the stars in the sky. I hate to admit I fell for that one. It didn't even dawn on me to ask what fool was looking at the sky from the bottom of a well. Did they fall in? Did they intentionally climb to the bottom of a well? How did they get back out? Remember Baby Jessica? They had to dig a parallel shaft to get her out.

Remember the television show Mr. Ed? I'll bet you thought Mr. Ed was a horse of course. It just isn't true. The real animal behind the mouth moving and foot stamping was a Zebra named Amelia. And you were content in that belief weren't you?

Some of the email variants that have been circulating, sometimes for years can beverysophisticatedand convincing. Someone spends a lot of time spinning a tale and making it sound true.

One, which was forwarded by a family member and read by me, involved Lee Marvin and Bob Keeshan, more commonly identified as Captain Kangaroo. The email tells how both of them fought together at Iwo Jima, and spins a spectacular tale of uncommon valor. The truth is while Lee Marvin did indeed see combat duty at Iwo Jima, the Captain did not. In fact, Keeshan entered the service near the end of WWII, and never saw any combat.

If you have a computer, and want to check to see if that astounding email you just received is true, or want to check up on what you think is a wives tale told to you by your brother in-law, there is a definitive source available to you. You can go to and check for yourself the validity of thousands of stories, tales, and popularly held beliefs.

It is probably a good idea to check the truth on any email story you pass on to your circle of friends. At the speed with which information arrives these days, it is good to have a site at which you can learn the truth.

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the "Local Columns" button.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2005 - 2012 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342



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