Some Urban Legends Refuse To Die

Urban legends (modern folklore*) are wildly improbable stories that travel at the speed of light, precisely because the people who tell them are so utterly convinced they’re gospel. Most often, the teller insists that the event happened to their cousin’s boyfriend or an uncle’s ex-wife or to ‘a friend of a friend’. (That’s why a lot of Urban Legend collectors refer to these tales as FOAF’s–Friend-Of-A-Friend stories.)

You know the ones I mean: stories about a woman bitten by venomous spiders nesting in her beehive hairdo; stories about angry ex-spouses and cement-filled Cadillac convertibles, microwaved Chihuahuas and kids decapitated by a ceiling fan while jumping on a hotel bed. Never happened, any one of them. Simple common sense would tell you that. But urban legends still crop up regularly. Most surprisingly, sometimes they are even true. Usually, however, they aren’t.

Some especially persistent (or amusing) Urban Legends:

We only use 10% of our brains–FALSE

“Eureka” on the Sci Fi Channel and “The 4400” on USA Network both cite the “we only use 10 percent of our brains” non-fact. The legend is repeated on Eureka by a genius / mechanic who should know better. On the 4400, a very smart computer technology guru repeats the legend to explain how the 4400 gained supernormal abilities…apparently, even 50+ years in the future, the legend lives on. The legend is particularly beloved by psychics and mystics who assert that their paranormal abilities and powers stem from their ability to use “more than ten percent” of their brains. They may genuinely be gifted, but this is not the reason.

Drugged travelers awaken in ice-filled bathtubs only to discover one of their kidneys has been harvested by organ thieves. –FALSE

The plot of the 2 April 1991 episode of the TV show Law and Order (titled “Sonata for Solo Organ”) featured the theft of a kidney. Law and Order is a story-driven hour-long drama that prides itself in taking its script ideas from real-life contemporary news. In this case, the writer said he’d heard this tale from a friend, and the friend had assured him it came from the pages of a newspaper. Yet no one could find that article.

The 6 February 2006 episode of the TV series Las Vegas (titled “Urban Legends”) references this legend when Danny and Mike enter one of the Montecito’s hotel rooms to discover a man missing a kidney lying in a bathtub full of ice.

This legend also shows up as the plot of the 1993 movie The Harvest. You’ll also find it in the 1998 Will Christopher Baer novel Kiss Me, Judas, and it makes a gruesome appearance in the 1998 slasher classic Urban Legend. The 2001 film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back includes a sequence during which one of the lead characters dreams he wakes up in a tub of ice after selling one of his kidneys.

Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand mentions in The Baby Train that he first heard this horrific story in early 1991. Very shortly thereafter he was swamped by it coming in from every direction, told as happening in various large cities. In this earlier incarnation, friends discover the victim either in his blood-soaked hotel bed, on the floor, or propped up against the side of a building. It’s only at the hospital that the grim “truth” of the missing organ becomes known.

By 1995-96 a couple of interesting little twists were added to the basic story — the victim was now being left in a bathtub full of ice, the “friends” seemingly disappeared, and the “If you want to live, call 911” message became firmly woven into the fabric of this tale. The traveler was now clearly on his own, his fate solely in his own hands. (A much scarier story that way, don’t you think?)

Yet another noteworthy change saw the businessman version of the legend seemingly localize to Las Vegas. No longer told as happening in Your Town, USA, this flavor of the myth appeared to have taken up permanent residence in Sin City, the place where Bad Things Happen To The Unwary (especially “the unwary” who were seen as having deservedly brought it upon themselves, married men intent upon getting up to some play-for-pay hanky-panky). In this “Las Vegas” version, the man was drugged in his hotel room by the very woman he’d brought up there with him, the ubiquitous Vegas hooker.

The kidnapping, string of murders, and wood chipper incident portrayed in the film Fargo actually took place in Minnesota in 1987. –FALSE

Fargo opens with: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Great opening. And not a word of truth to it.

Fargo’s Fargo creators, the Coen brothers, are known for their playfulness, the inclusion of “little touches” that add to a film. Given the Coens’ reputation for this, you’d think any responsible film reviewer would have made at least a stab at confirming this bold claim before blithely passing it along as fact. (Had they done any checking, they would have quickly discovered that nothing so much as vaguely resembling that level of carnage had occurred in Minnesota. Not in 1987. Not ever.) As a result of those reviews, an even greater number ended up believing what the Coen brothers had to have thought no one but the incredibly gullible would fall for. Their little leg-pull went over big time.

The Coen brothers like a good in-joke as much as anybody. Next time you view Fargo, look for the name of the actor who played “the man in the field.” You’ll discover the entry listed as an odd squiggle that looks very much like Prince’s signature. (I’m told the fellow who actually filled that role was J. Todd Anderson, one of the Coen’s storyboard artists. The squiggle is Prince’s signature laid on its side with a smiley face added. Wonderful joke, that. Laid on its side because the character is lying dead in a field.)

If there’s still any doubt, follow the credits through to the very end. You’ll find the standard tiny-print disclaimer about “no resemblance to any persons living or dead . . .”

The film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on a true story.–PARTIALLY TRUE

When The Texas Chain Saw Massacre hit movie theaters in 1974, it quickly supplanted the previous year’s top horror flick, The Exorcist, as “the most terrifying movie ever made.” Unlike The Exorcist, however, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre eschewed standard production values and modern special effects in Leatherface favor of a grainy documentary-like approach with decidedly low-tech visual effects. The tale of five young students who unwittingly meet up with a sinister hitchhiker, the mask-wearing maniac Leatherface (whose mask is actually made from dried human skin, not leather), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre turned “a lumberjack’s tool into the stuff of nightmares and the blood-curdling scream into an art form,” in the words of Toronto Star writer Melissa Aronzyk.

The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been touted with the tagline “Inspired by a true story,” leading many horror fans to wonder whether the grisly film was actually based on real events, or whether the claim is simply another bit of Hollywood promotion intended to attract filmgoers via the extra-chilling lure of a macabre tale not entirely the product of a screenwriter’s imagination.

So, true story or not? Certainly there was no real family of cannibalistic chainsaw murderers slaughtering people in Texas, nor any actual series of chainsaw-related killings. Writer/director Tobe Hooper said the inspiration for the film came from his spotting a display of chainsaws while standing in the hardware section of a crowded store.

Hooper has also said that he based the character of Leatherface on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who robbed graves (his own mother’s supposedly among them), allegedly engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism, and murdered at least two women in the 1950s (one of whose corpses was found hanging naked — decapitated and disembowelled — in Gein’s residence).

Police eventually discovered the remains of 15 different mutilated female bodies in Gein’s filthy farmhouse, parts of which (mostly skin and bones) had been fashioned into a variety of bizarre objects (including drums, bowls, masks, bracelets, purses, knife sheaths, leggings, chairs, lampshades, and shirts), as well as a refrigerator full of human organs.

Gein later admitted to killing two women, one in 1954 and one in 1957. He was suspected of involvement in the disappearance of four other people in central Wisconsin (two men and two young girls) between 1947 and 1952, but the remains found in his farmhouse all came from adult females, and none of them matched up with any of the four missing persons. (Gein maintained that with the exception of the two women he had admitted killing, all of the body parts in his farmhouse had been taken from corpses he dug up in the local cemetery.)

Gein’s story inspired (at least in part) the Norman Bates character — a young man who murders women out of a twisted sense of loyalty to his dead mother — in the classic thriller Psycho, and the Buffalo Bill character–a transvestite serial killer who murders women to make use of their skin–in the horror novel Silence of the Lambs.

Although the the Leatherface character and the events depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre differ in many substantial ways from what is known about the life and activities of Ed Gein (most notably in that Gein was apparently far more a grave robber than a murderer, and he didn’t go around slicing up live victims with a chainsaw), there are definite similarities between the film and the Ed Gein story as well (e.g., hanging a murder victim’s corpse in the house, making functional use of the skin from dead bodies, elements of cannibalism). Whether these similiarities are sufficiently close to justify the statement that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was “based on a true story” is up to filmgoers to decide for themselves.

See Stephen King’s book “Gerald’s Game” for a twist on this story.

Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16 dress.–PARTIALLY FALSE

Actress/Estee Lauder spokesmodel Elizabeth Hurley was recently named “Babe of the Century” in some poll. This apparently caused her to lose her senses, because she went on to gratuitously dump on Marilyn Monroe — who’s hardly in a position to defend herself. Hurley says that the screen legend was overweight, peaking at a dress size of 16. “I’ve always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat,” Hurley told Allure magazine in an amazingly tactless moment . . . “I went to see her clothes in the exhibition, and I wanted to take a tape measure and measure what her hips were. (laughter) She was very big.” [Columbus Dispatch, 2000]

The fascination with this “fact” about Marilyn Monroe’s dress size is not its literal truthfulness per se, but the implication it carries: that our standards of feminine pulchritude have become so extreme that the woman who has been idolized as the world’s premier sex symbol for half a century would be considered “chunky” or even “fat” by modern standards. (Conversely, some of today’s celebrities seem to be fond of invoking the “fact” that Marilyn wore a size 16 dress as a means of asserting that they themselves are, if not thin, in better shape than the renowned Marilyn Monroe was.) Marilyn may (at times) have been a little heavier than today’s ultra-svelte models, but the notion that she was “fat” (even by today’s standards) is based on misinformation or misunderstanding.

A woman of Marilyn’s height, at the extreme of Marilyn’s weight range (140 lbs), would probably wear a size 12 dress today (which is the same dress size listed for Marilyn in the book The Unabridged Marilyn). Perhaps at one time she did wear dresses that might have been considered size 16 (or even 18) back in the 1950s, but she almost certainly did not wear dresses equivalent to today’s size 16.

Perhaps we should end by pointing out that although Elizabeth Hurley is a bit taller (about 3 and a half inches) than Marilyn Monroe, her measurements and weight are similar to the figures reported for Ms. Monroe.

One of the women in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only used to be a guy.–TRUE

The 1981 film For Your Eyes Only was the twelfth in the James Bond series and marked the fifth appearance of Roger Moore as secret agent 007. Like all Bond offerings, the non-stop action was sprinkled with bodacious babes, about one of whom questions subsequently surfaced. But Caroline Cossey was a ‘Bond girl’ in only the most fleeting of ways: She appeared but briefly on screen in For Your Eyes Only, and film credits describe her as “girl at pool,” a designation she shared with ten other actresses.

Tula (Caroline Cossey), one of the “Bond girls” appearing in that film was a transexual, a man who had undergone a sex change. Ms. Cossey began life in 1954 as Barry Cossey but later decided to live as a woman. She changed her name to Caroline in 1972, began taking hormone tablets, had breast augmentation surgery, and in 1974 underwent the final sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to transform her into a woman. From about 1979 to 1986 Caroline worked as a fashion model and actress under the name Tula, and she caught a break in 1980 when she was cast in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Shortly after the film’s release in 1981, however, the UK tabloid News of the World “outed” her as a transsexual and disrupted her modeling and acting career.

The babe in Power Station’s video for “Some Like It Hot” is Tula (she’s also the inspiration for the Montzo Algora-esque cover art). It’s rumoured that bassist John Taylor (also known for his work with Duran Duran) dated her–he had a well-known fixation with James Bond and Bond Girls and did date other Bond Girls (notably Janine Andrews). Only Taylor knows for sure how far his rumored ‘date’ with Tula went, but he never seemed too bothered by the fact that people discussed it.</i>

The Amityville Horror is based on a true story.–COMPLETELY, UTTERLY, DEMONSTRABLY FALSE

This urban legend annoys me to no end. The book it is based on is full of inconsistencies. The whole thing has been proven to be fake over and over again (the only people who seem to insist on perpetuating the untruth are the famous paranormal investigators who became involved with the Amityville hoax, Ed and Lorraine Warren).

I shouted at the television set more than once when advertisements for the 2005 remake were aired. Stupidity! Lack of research! Argh! Plotz!!

Some horrors just won’t die, and The Amityville Horror is a case in point. The tale of a reportedly demon-infested house in Amityville, New York, became a best-selling novel in 1977 and a hit horror film starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder in 1979. Several inferior movie sequels followed in its wake (including a 3-D version), and 15 April 2005 saw the debut of a remake, this one starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George.

Scary films are a dime a dozen, but what initially drew the public’s interest to the original version of The Amityville Horror was the claim Get out! that it was based on real events. The producers of the 2005 remake were also intrigued by the Amityville case not so much due to the horror film’s scary details, but because the tale was allegedly true. (Several DOZEN websites would have set them straight: do a Google search for “Amityville Horror and hoax” and see what I mean.)

Co-star Melissa George was attracted to the role because, she said, “If you’re going to do a scary movie, you might as well do The Amityville Horror, a true story, a famous book, a well-known moment in American history.” A famous book, yes. A moment in American history, perhaps. But a true story? Not.

The story behind the story began on 13 November 1974, when six members of an Amityville, New York, family were killed. The parents, Ronald and Louise DeFeo, were shot in bed while they slept, along with their two sons and two daughters. The sole remaining family member, Ronald Jr. (“Butch”), was arrested for the crime, convicted, and sentenced to prison. With the family dead (and Butch in no position to inherit the place), the house went up for sale. The horrific nature of the massacre unnerved the otherwise quiet Long Island neighborhood, though no supernatural activity was associated with the house at 112 Ocean Avenue.

The following year, a new family, the Lutzes, moved into the house. George and Kathy Lutz, along with their three children, said that shortly after they moved in, their six-bedroom abode became a Hell house. It seemed that perhaps the demons that drove Butch to slaughter his family were not in his head but in the house. An unseen force ripped doors from hinges and slammed cabinets closed, noxious green slime oozed from the ceilings, a biblical-scale swarm of insects attacked the family, and a demonic face with glowing red eyes peered into their house at night, leaving cloven-hoofed footprints in the morning snow. A priest called upon to bless the house was driven back with painful blisters on his hands, famously told by a demonic voice to “Get out!” And so on.

Joe Nickell, author of Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings (and who personally visited Amityville and interviewed later owners of the notorious house), also found numerous holes in the Amityville story. A few examples of these discrepancies:

* The Lutzes could not have found the demonic hoofprint in the snow when they said they did, because weather records showed there had been no snowfall to leave prints in.

* Though the book details extensive damage to the home’s doors and hardware, the original locks, doorknobs, and hinges were actually untouched.

* The book and film show police being called to the house, but, Nickell writes, “During the 28-day ‘siege’ that drove [the Lutz family] from the house, they never once called the police.”

Over and over, both big claims and small details were refuted by eyewitnesses, investigations, and forensic evidence. Still, the Lutzes stuck to their story, reaping tens of thousands of dollars from the book and film rights.

The truth behind The Amityville Horror was finally revealed when Butch DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, admitted that he, along with the Lutzes, “created this horror story over many bottles of wine.” The house was never really haunted; the horrific experiences they had claimed were simply made up. Jay Anson further embellished the tale for his book, and by the time the film’s screenwriters had adapted it, any grains of truth that might have been there were long gone. While the Lutzes profited handsomely from their story, Weber had planned to use the haunting to gain a new trial for his client. George Lutz reportedly still claims that the events are mostly true, but has offered no evidence to back up his claim.

Liar, liar, pants on fire. Your nose is as long as a telephone wire.

Student mistakes examples of “unsolvable math problems” for homework assignment and solves them.–TRUE

This legend is used as the setup of the plot in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. As well, one of the early scenes in the 1999 film Rushmore shows the main character daydreaming about solving the impossible question and winning approbation from all.

This legend combines one of the ultimate academic wish-fulfillment fantasies — a student not only proves himself the smartest one in his class, but also bests his professor and every other scholar in his field of study — with a “positive thinking” motif which turns up in other urban legends: when people are free to pursue goals unfettered by presumed limitations on what they can accomplish, they just may manage some extraordinary feats through the combined application of native talent and hard work. And this particular version is all the more interesting for being completely true!

One “Solve Me!” Day in 1939, George Bernard Dantzig, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, arrived late for a graduate-level statistics class and found two problems written on the board. Not knowing they were examples of “unsolvable” statistics problems, he mistook them for part of a homework assignment, jotted them down, and solved them. (The equations Dantzig tackled are perhaps more accurately described not as unsolvable problems, but as unproved statistical theorems for which he worked out proofs.) Six weeks later, Dantzig’s statistic professor notified him that he had prepared one of his two “homework” proofs for publication, and Dantzig was given co-author credit on another paper several years later when another mathematician independently worked out the same solution to the second problem.

George Dantzig (himself the son of a mathematician) received a Bachelor’s degree from University of Maryland in 1936 and a Master’s from the University of Michigan in 1937 before completing his Doctorate (interrupted by World War II) at UC Berkeley in 1946. He later worked for the Air Force, took a position with the RAND Corporation as a research mathematician in 1952, became professor of operations research at Berkeley in 1960, and joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1966, where he taught and published as a professor of operations research until the 1990s. In 1975, Dr. Dantzig was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford. George Dantzig passed away at his Stanford home at age 90 on 13 May 2005.

The clanging of rock on metal leads a work crew to discover a decades-old wrecked car — with four skeletons inside — a few hundred feet off the road.–TRUE

An episode of TV’s Law and Order (“Ramparts,” original air date 13 January 1999) opens with a van containing the skeleton of a decades-old murder victim being dredged from the Hudson River. Could this be based on a true story? Yes.

Many true instances of long-dead bodies discovered in wrecked automobiles have been reported over the years, the most notable being the case of Susie Roberts from Gainesville, Georgia. Roberts and a friend disappeared on their way home from a dance in the nearby town of Dawsonvile one day in 1958. Although the friend’s body turned up a year later, Roberts’ body remained undiscovered until workers building a bridge found and pulled the car containing her remains from the bottom of Lake Lanier thirty-two years later.

The most similar real-life version of “car filled with skeletons discovered by happenstance” would probably be the case of Kimberly Marie Barnes and her four friends, who disappeared from Palm Beach in a van one summer evening in 1979. Their fate remained unknown until a mud-filled van was spotted in Palm Beach County canal by a fisherman eighteen years later; the automobile was dragged out and came within seconds of being shredded for scrap when a Miami salvage yard manager noticed a shin bone fall from the van. Investigators later found a total of five skulls inside.

John Wayne died with 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter in his colon–FALSE

Recent informercial for The Seven Day Miracle Cleanse repeats the legend that John Wayne died with “a colon weighing 40 pounds” and that Elvis Presley also had a colon weighing 45 pounds. The also claim that about a dozen celebrities use their system (or one like it) “to lose weight”. This is not true. (A particularly severe case of fecal impaction cited involved a mere half pound of blocked-up poo. The company speading this rumor has a web address:

Everyone on the planet is separated by six degrees from everyone else.–FALSE

One of the most famous claims is that anyone can reach anyone else through a chain of acquaintances no more than six people long. This idea, known as “six degrees of separation”, is a measure of our social networks.

The phrase was coined by an American academic, Stanley Milgram, after experiments in which he asked people to pass a letter only to others they knew by name. The aim was to get it, eventually, to a named person they did not know living in another city.

The average number of times it was passed on, he said, was six. Hence, the six degrees of separation.

It is a seductive idea.

Films have been made about it, there are parlour games based on it and mathematics has begun to propose theories for why it should be true [actually, mathematicians have begun to study the patterns of links that make different distributions, nothing more and nothing less. Any connection to the “six degrees” phenomenon is just commentary on more general studies of the phenomena of social networks]. But is it?

Judith Kleinfeld, a professor psychology at Alaska Fairbanks University, went back to Milgram’s original research notes and found something surprising. It turned out, she told us, that 95% of the letters sent out had failed to reach the target. Not only did they fail to get there in six steps, they failed to get there at all.

Milgram was a giant figure in his world of research, but here was evidence that the claim he was famously associated with was not supported by his experiments. [deletia] “The pleasing idea that we live in a ‘small world’ where people are connected by ‘six degrees of separation’ may be the academic equivalent of an urban myth,” she says.

Now Professor Kleinfeld argues that what is more important is not the number of links, but the quality. Even if you were able to say you could get to the Queen in three steps, it would tell you little about how well you are really connected with her.

We like the idea of six degrees of separation, she says, because it makes the world feel more intimate. But there are barriers – like race and class – she argues, that can sometimes make separation real and deep.

Of course, just because a letter fails to reach its target does not mean that it could not have done it in six steps by some other route. But that is a reasonable hope, not a fact.

The belief that it has been proved that we live in a world of six degrees of separation does not seem to be true.

Note also that the scope of the original study was entirely within the U.S. (from Wichita to Cambridge.) So even if it were true, it wouldn’t apply to “everyone on earth,” it wouldn’t have anything to do with the queen, and we wouldn’t live in a “world of six degrees of separation.”

A study (may have been mentioned in National Geographic) was done by a woman who wanted to test the 6 degrees thing by tracing her connection to a random tribesman in Nepal. It took her nine steps, and the study concluded, like Milgram’s original wording, that six degrees is the average number of steps, not the maximum.

A man has been living at a Paris airport since 1988.–TRUE

The 2004 Tom Hanks film The Terminal is loosely based upon the experiences of Merhan Karimi Nasseri.

Nasseri’s story is remarkable for its pathos and complexity. It begins in Iran in 1977, when Nasseri, fresh from studying in England, was expelled for protesting against the shah. His expulsion left him without a passport.

Nasseri came to Europe. He bounced from capital to capital, applying for refugee status and being refused, again and again, for nearly four years. In 1981, his request for political asylum from Iran was finally granted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belgium.

That decision gave him refugee credentials, which in turn allowed him to seek citizenship in a European country. The son of an Iranian and a Briton, Nasseri decided in 1986 on England with the hope of finding relatives there.

He got as far as Paris, where in 1988 his briefcase containing his refugee documents was stolen in a train station.

Nasseri boarded a plane for London anyway. But when officials at Heathrow Airport found he had no passport, they sent him back to Charles de Gaulle. At first, the French police arrested him for illegal entry. But as Nasseri had no documents, there was no country of origin to which he could be deported.

So he took up residence in Terminal One. From its circular confines, he and his attorney, the Paris-based human rights lawyer Christian Bourget, battled to define his status and send him to London. In 1992, a French court finally ruled that Nasseri had entered the airport legally as a refugee and could not be expelled from it.

But the court could not force the French government to allow him out of the airport onto French soil. In fact, Bourget said, French authorities refused to give Nasseri either a refugee or transit visa. “It was pure bureaucracy,” said the lawyer. French immigration authorities have no comment on the case.

On 17 September 1999, an international travel card and a French residency permit were put into Nasseri’s hands. With them, he’s now free to leave the airport, either to take up residency in France or to fly to another country that will allow him entry. He refuses to sign them, however, because they list his nationality as Iranian, and he wants it listed as British. He remains at Charles de Gaulle airport, using the excuse that he’s determined to stick to this point rather than face life outside the terminal. Nasseri, who has since adopted the name “Sir, Alfred Merhan” (that’s not a typo — Nasseri took both the title and its misplaced comma from a mistake in a letter from British immigration), is still living in the airport. He does not lack for money, as Dreamworks paid him a rumored $250,000 for the film rights to his story.

A man soared three miles above Los Angeles in an “aircraft” consisting of an aluminum lawn chair tethered to helium weather balloons.–TRUE

In 1997, a story about a lawnchair balloonist named Larry Walters began to circulate all over the Internet as a tale about another putative winner of the “Darwin Award” for stupidity above and beyond the call of duty. The story was essentially true, although Larry had actually made his flight fifteen years earlier, and many of the details presented in the 1997 version were made-up or greatly embellished.

The incredible flight of Larry Walters, a 33-year-old Vietnam veteran and North Hollywood truck driver with no pilot or balloon training, took place on 2 July 1982. Larry filled 45 weather balloons with helium and tethered them in four tiers to an aluminum lawn chair he purchased at Sears for $110, loading his makeshift aircraft (dubbed the “Inspiration I”) with a large bottle of soda, milk jugs full of water for ballast, a pellet gun, a portable CB radio, an altimeter, and a camera.

And how about that totally ridiculous story of Larry, the guy who attached 42 helium balloons to an aluminum lawn chair in his girlfriend’s backyard and, armed with a six-pack and a pellet pistol, soared to 16,000 feet over Los Angeles? The story claimed he stayed aloft for an hour and a half and was spotted, in flight, by the pilots of at least two airliners. Legend had it that Larry executed a controlled descent by shooting out selected helium balloons with his air pistol. But only after his feet started to get cold.

Outlandish as it sounds, there was a guy–a Los Angeles truck driver named Larry Walters–who, on July 2, 1982 actually did all of the above – and lived to talk about it on the David Letterman Show. He almost didn’t make it. Some of his balloons got snarled in power lines and caused a blackout in an L.A. residential neighbourhood. Larry could have been, quite literally, toast, but his chair cleared the lines and he and his lawn chair came in for a three-point landing.

Officers from the Federal Aviation Agency were waiting for him. They’d never had to deal with a flying lawn chair before, but they improvised brilliantly. Walters was charged with ‘reckless operation of an aircraft’, ‘failure to stay in communication with the tower’ and (my favourite) ‘flying a civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate’. They dinged him 1,500 bucks for his little adventure.

Ever wonder how urban legends get created? Here’s one way: Marshall students win Library Friends ‘urban legends’ writing contest. Never trust anything you read in “Dear Abby” or hear from Paul Harvey, two well-known vectors for urban legends. That e-mail you got that swears some outlandish story is “absolutely true”? It’s probably not.

* Italicized material not otherwise credited all belongs to


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