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Heard about the guy who found the dead mouse in his Coke? I think it's time to set the record straight about this piece of Cokelore.

Many people have read or heard presumably reliable accounts of a mouse that was inadvertently sealed in a bottle of you-know-what. And they wonder: Did a cola-loving customer really tip back a frosty bottle only to discover the little rodent on the bottom after he'd drained the bottle? And did the victim sick from the shock and haunted for life by a fear of cola really sue the bottler and win hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages?R.H. of Milwaukee, one of many readers who believe such stories, wrote to me recently demanding an explanation for the account of the legend in one of my books. "One of your so-called urban legends isn't," R.H. said, in the debunking spirit of a true folklore aficionado. "It's an actual event, really several as shown even in courts of law.

"Your column has too light a tone," Mr. H. went on, "leading the reader to believe that you don't take any story seriously."

I plead guilty to taking most of the wild stories I hear with a grain of salt, R.H. But I'm in the wild story business, so it's my job to doubt. Beyond that, though, I plead innocent to all charges.

First of all: Yes, I do know about the lawsuits involving mice in Cokes. There are cases and cases of this stuff and I don't mean cases of Coke bottles full of mice, but cases brought before courts of law.

In fact, much of my mail asking about bottled mice comes from lawyers or law students who remember studying the suit brought by Ella Reid Creech of Shelbyville, Ky., against a Coca-Cola bottler (1931), or Patargias vs. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago (1943), or the 1971 case in which 76-year-old George Petalas was awarded $20,000 in a suit against an Alexandria, Va., bottler.

Petalas, The Washington Post reported, found the legs and tail of a mouse in a bottle of Coke he bought from a vending machine outside a Safeway store. He was hospitalized for three days, and afterward, no longer liking meat, lived on a diet of "grilled cheese, toast and noodles."

A search of published appeals-court records conducted in 1976 turned up 45 such cases against soda bottlers, the first in 1914. And one can only guess how many similar cases were never appealed or were settled out of court.

Most of the people who tell the mouse-in-Coke legend don't know the legal history, though. What they do know is a good story, whether it's told by a friend, a neighbor or co-worker. The tellers assume that somewhere, sometime, an actual lawsuit was brought against a soft-drink bottling company.

So while the lawsuits are real, the stories are not, because they are so far separated from the original facts that they've turned into folklore. In this way, a story can be both an actual event and a legend. And the mouse-in-Coke legends, like most urban legends, have lives of their own completely separate from the facts.

What has occurred, I believe, is something like this: The theme of foreign matter contaminating food is a popular one in urban legends. And "Coke" has become virtually a generic way to refer to soft drinks. So the legends get started and gain credibility from lawsuits that people vaguely remember, in which mice were said to be found in soda bottles. And naturally, it is usually Coke that is mentioned in the legend whether or not the original suits were against Coke.

As the legend spreads by word of mouth, the trauma is exaggerated, the drama heightened. And the size of the settlement, of course, grows and grows. The end result: The indignation against the giant corporation that is selling contaminated food is pumped up to a full measure of outrage.

It just goes to show you that, as S.R. of Massachusetts says to me, recalling an old epigram about court testimony: "We fill in the lowlands of our memory with the highlands of our imagination."

Jan Harold Brunvand is the author of "The Mexican Pet," a collection of urban folklore. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.

(C) 1988 United Feature Syndicate Inc.