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‘LEGENDS’ -- WHAT’S FACT, WHAT’S FICTION?

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Readers frequently send me what one recent letter called "candidates for legendhood." These are news stories with some odd twist that suggests that they may actually be - or eventually become - urban legends. After all, legends have to start somewhere.

Occasionally I receive follow-up proof of legendhood. That is, I hear variant versions of these same stories circulating by word of mouth. So I keep such clippings in my "miscellaneous" file, just in case.Some of these news clips contain names, dates and other information that clearly stamps them as factual, even though they may sound too bizarre to be true. Take these five items, for example:

Fake steroids were sold to athletes via the black market. One male athlete bought and used birth control pills, thinking they were steroids.

Living worms in uncooked fish were consumed along with homemade or carelessly prepared sushi and sashimi.

An elderly victim of a pit bull attack was further injured when the ambulance carrying her to a hospital was involved in an accident.

An innocent man was apprehended by police because a bank withdrawal slip he handed to the teller had a stick-up note penned by someone else written on it.

A burglar tidied up the place he broke into, emptying trash, doing dishes, folding laundry, etc. before making his escape.

News stories like these may be repeated, elaborated upon and eventually "folklorized" (to coin a word), thus emerging as genuine legends.

Some of the other items that readers clip and send sound highly suspicious. Consider these five snippets from newspaper stories that otherwise deal with real events:

A friend of a Honolulu columnist swears it is true that a teamster who was asked to provide urine for use in his drug test brought a sample from his wife instead; the teamster was supposedly found to be pregnant.

Eskimos from Canada's Northwest Territories staying in a Montreal hotel are said to have brought a seal with them which they butchered in the bathtub and cooked in their room.

A Detroit paper mentioned that a 19th century pope decreed that muskrat meat could be lawfully consumed by Michigan Catholics on the meatless days of the liturgical calendar.

In an article from Milwaukee on the destructive nature of jealousy, a wife is said to have destroyed a new Mercedes, thinking it belonged to her husband's ex-wife, when it was actually a present for her.

A friend of a friend of a Kansas City columnist carried an old purse to hold the dog droppings when she walked her dog; a mugger kicked the dog and snatched the purse. He was caught and charged with cruelty to animals.

Although these items were included in genuine news articles, there's a difference between them and the first five: They have close parallels that circulate as urban legends, and their sources are essentially hearsay.

Thus, it's hard to tell when we're getting straight news vs. news sprinkled with a dose of urban legends. Each story needs to be checked out separately, which seems to be my job.

I keep files of ALL the likely material that readers send me, hoping that I'll have the right clipping on hand when a "new" legend based on an old news story emerges.

So readers render an important service when they snip out an urban legend, or a possible emerging legend, and send it to me. I try to match the variants of printed stories with oral stories, thus deciding which might be advanced from mere candidacy to actual legendhood.