Those fat 4-by-6 envelopes from Houston still arrive about once a week. Each one is stuffed with photocopies of dozens of bizarre published items that are liberally highlighted in glowing colors and with red comments inked on the margins.
A typical example is a sheet containing three news stories labeled "Assault with a dubious weapon." One story is about a nurse in Maryland attacking a colleague with a banana; the second describes an Ohio man murdering his wife by beating her with banjos; and the third, datelined Alabama, is headlined, "Preacher charged with assault by rattler."I'll admit that these stories are not really legends, but they could conceivably enter folklore someday.
Charles D. Poe is the source of this flood of material, and his return-address stamp - also in red - appears on each envelope and every single photocopied scrap. And the source and date of each item is identified.
This material goes into a folder marked "The Poe File," which I described in a recent column. Since then, Poe has not let up, and the stuff he found in print recently is as strange and wonderful as ever.
Consider these headlines: "Golfers play past corpse on back 9"; "Robber dies as gun fires in his pants"; "Appeals court's spirited ruling declares house legally haunted"; "Born to be great: 2 arrive at 1:23:45 6/7/89" (this one is a story about two babies born at the exact time and date to yield that perfect sequence of numbers).
All of these items come from reliable news sources, not tabloids.
In a note tucked among the clippings, Poe referred to his "dabblings in armchair folklore," and admitted that most of the odd items he copies for me may simply be authentic weird news stories, not technically part of folklore.
But sometimes he finds true legend references or even staples of modern folklore, like alligators in sewers, microwaved pets and rumors of aluminum pull tabs exchanged for kidney dialysis.
The latest batch of Poe File material emphasized military lore. In sources from newspaper articles to spy novels and wartime documentary books, Poe found repeated instances of the same doubtful stories given new twists by different writers.
For example, rumors about enemy atrocities are rampant in all wars, and Poe found strikingly similar undocumented accounts of mutilated corpses and tortured civilians in several sources. Another persistent war story, Poe's collection shows, is that American soldiers who caught incurable venereal diseases in Vietnam are being detained on a secret island by the government.
Poe's sharp eye spotted a World War II parallel for the story. Rumors then attributed the quarantine plan to Eleanor Roosevelt, and the story became so persistent that the First Lady was obliged to publicly deny it.
Another military story that I was unaware of before Charles Poe gathered several references was that parts of certain weapons, including the handgrip of the M-16 rifle, were believed by soldiers to have been made by the Mattel toy company.
The best feature of the Poe File is that it brings together variant versions of stories, suggesting how tales get recycled and revised.
For instance, Poe sent me three accounts of something that different American astronauts supposedly said. Was it, as one clipping claimed, Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott who said about his thoughts before launch, "You just sat there thinking that this piece of hardware had 400,000 components, all of them built by the lowest bidder"?
Or was it Walter Schirra who, according to another report, phrased the idea differently: "Everything that makes this thing go was supplied by the lowest bidder"?
Or was it really Gus Grissom who posed the idea as a question: "How would you feel, taking off, sitting up there on top of 50,000 parts, knowing that every one had been let to the lowest bidder?"
I don't know who, if anyone, said it first, and the Poe file provides no answer. However, it does carefully preserve each version of the story and its published sources.
So I'm very grateful to Charles D. Poe, his persistence, his rubber stamp, his scissors, his copy machine and his highlighters.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.
1992 United Feature Syndicate Inc.