Chasing our own tales

As a lifelong history buff, I was always bugged by urban legends.

Well, not exactly always: As a kid, I believed them. And how could I not? First, I was pretty much a literal babe in the literal woods. And second, while I was naive, so was whole country. We thought good always triumphed over evil, that politicians were honest, and that sugar was good for you. As for urban legends? Listen, the term itself was never used till 1968, so even if I’d had an idea there was something fishy about the stories, I didn’t know they fit a very specific category of malarky.

The first one I remember was the $150 Corvette. While it sounded too good to be true, and WAS too good to be true, I believed it completely.

The next one was a few years later, when my friend’s mother talked about Hollywood’s first “Platinum Blonde,” Jean Harlow. Somehow, Marilyn Monroe’s name came up, and my friend’s mother started talking about Jean Harlow. At that time I had no idea who Harlow was, nor should I have, since she was a movie star of the ’20s. But after the convo, I never forgot her, and for one compelling reason: According to the mom, Harlow died at 26, killed by her hair dye.

This was, as are all ULs, total bumpf. Tragically, Harlow died at 26 from kidney disease, attributed to a childhood case of scarlet fever. Ironically, while her hair dye didn’t kill her, it sure raised holy hell with her hair, since it was a combination of ammonia, Clorox bleach and Lux detergent.

After that, it was the standard old-time UL fare — the killer in the backseat, the vanishing hitchhiker, the disappearing bride, the poisoned dress, the killer with the hook for a hand, and so on.

Finally, in my mid-teens, the UL groove started to pick up, most notably with the beauty queen with the bouffant hairdo. In case you never heard that gem, here ’tis. Keep in mind this was around 1960, when teased and sprayed hair was all the rage (at least in cities and the burbs — I can’t recall any of them as a presence here).

So the gal of this UL, rather than using hairspray, kept her ‘do in place with honey. Maybe it was some kind of weird verbal disconnect — a beehive hairdo kept in place with bee poop. Who knows. And because it’d be too difficult to replace the honey, she never washed her hair. Then one fine day, without warning of any kind, she keeled over dead. Boom — just like that.

But that’s not the story’s end — it’s just its beginning. Once the sawbones started to perform the autopsy, he suddenly SAW the cause of death. It was ants. Yes, all the while she’d been slathhering on Sioux Bee’s finest, emmets galore had been feasting — and not just on the mel. Yep, you got it: Industrious little souls that they are, they’d burrowed through her skull and had devoured her grey matter — however little of it there was to begin with. RIP, Queenie.

Acid tests, failed

When LSD came into vogue, sometime around 1966, ULs took a really kooky turn. First was the story, reported in mainstream media no less, about a bunch of college students who dropped acid, stretched out in the green grass and gazed rapturously a the sun. As a result, as befits the snottily moralistic tone of ULs as object lessons, their retinas got charbroiled, and they were permanently blinded.

There was another one about some acid head who cracked up so badly he had to be permanently institutionalized. See, he thought he’d turned into an orange. And, to cap this one off, the poor slob just sat in his room, refusing to let anyone near him, lest he be touched and turn into orange juice. Presumably, none of this would’ve happened if either he’d never taken acid in the first place, or had been more thick-skinned, so to speak.

My rave fave LSD UL is the zonked-out babysitter. When Mom and Dad come back home, she greets them at the door, telling them the turkey’s in the oven and is ready to eat. “Turkey?” they say in unison, “What turkey?” You can, I’m sure, figure out the rest.

The circle unbroken … at last

All right, so much for urban legends. But what about rural ones? Well, now we come full circle and back to last week’s column.

The problem with ULs is their sources remain as elusive as El Dorado, Bigfoot and intelligent Facebook comments. Where they took place is never pinned down. In one telling, it was Sandusky, Ohio; in another it’s Boise, Idaho; in another it could be Kennebunkport, Maine. And the person telling the UL was never there when it took place. Instead, they heard it from their barber, who was told by his brother, who knew the guy married to the woman who saw it happen. And on and on and on …

But rural legends — at least the ones taking place in My Home Town — stand a chance of either being verified or debunked, since there could be someone here who truly knows the story. And that’s exactly the case with my last column.

It concerned something a friend told me (who, predictably, heard it from another friend). The story was, Tom Ratigan was in the Waterhole and called for drinks on the house by announcing, “When Ratigan drinks, everyone drinks.” There was, of course, a rush on the bar. After they’d all stiff-wristed their freebies, Tom announced, “When Ratigan pays, everyone pays.” He then paid for his drink and left the joint — and everyone to pay for their drinks.

Now here’s the fly in the ointment. I’d heard that story, except with a twist: It wasn’t Tom Ratigan who’d done it but his father Frank. And it didn’t take place in the Waterhole but in Little Joe’s.

So was the first version true? Was the second version true. Was part of it true and part of it false? Was none of it true?

Good questions, and ones I had no answer for till earlier this week, when I got an email from Patrick Ratigan, Tom’s brother and Frank’s son. In addition to being a fine broth of a lad, Patrick is also Father Patrick Ratigan, former St. Bernard’s parish pastor.

Here’s his email, word-for-word: “I distinctly recall Dad telling me about the time he went into Waterhole #3 and pulling that prank.”

And that settles it once and for all, because if the good padre says it, by me it’s gospel.


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