A couple of weeks ago, a good friend received a phone call. When she hung up, it was obvious something was wrong. She said her stepdaughter had called to tell her that there had been a warning on "the news" announcing there was going to be a gang initiation at Wal-Mart that night and three women were going to be shot.
I immediately saw it for what it was: an old urban legend that had been exhumed, brushed off and had life breathed into it yet again. I tried to tell her that but she was adamant. After all it had been on "The News."
OK, let's look at specifics here. What news outlet had made such a vague, irresponsible announcement? My money was on FOX News but that was just the Democrat in me talking. My friend didn't know exactly who carried the breaking story, just "the news." So which Wal-Mart? She didn't know. Best to stay away from all of them.
I again tried to talk reason. If this were true, why would these bloodthirsty gangs make it public knowledge? She said maybe an informant had put out the word. Anyway, it was on "THE NEWS."
That afternoon I heard several other mentions of the bloodbath scheduled for later that evening.
My daughter, Molly, received a text message from a male co-worker with the same warning and the added exhortation to "Text all the women in your address book NOW. This is not a hoax!! It was on THE NEWS!!"
When I arrived home that evening, I logged onto gainesvilletimes.com to see what they had to say about this looming threat to public safety.
I could imagine Stephen Gurr interviewing a sheriff's department spokesman to find out just how many gangs were actually going to participate in this scheduled initiation. Harris Blackwood would report on the statewide reaction to the situation and announce prayer vigils at each local church with "First" in its name.
Debbie Gilbert would interview Dr. David Westfall from the health department for tips on what to do about a gunshot wound until the paramedics arrive. The Times editorial board would come down staunchly against gang violence. Again.
Silly me. The story The Times actually ran was by Ashley Fielding and it was headlined, "Officials say text message about gang initiation is a hoax." Well, duh. Told you so.
For years, I've received e-mail warnings, forwarded by well-meaning friends, with dire alerts dealing with gangs who shoot anyone who flashes bright headlights at them, hide underneath cars in parking lots and reach out with knives to slash the ankles of passersby, leave infected needles in coin return slots of pay telephones (where they found the pay phones, I have no idea) and all sorts of other deadly mischief.
There have always been urban legends. One of the oldest is the Cinderella story. It's been traced back to ancient Egypt where it was said the slave girl Rhodopsis was washing clothes when an eagle took her sandal and dropped it at the feet of the Pharoah. After a kingdomwide search, he found her and they eventually married. And of course lived happily ever after.
Retread urban legends continue to make the rounds from time to time but now, with the help of the Internet, they don't just have wings, they have jet propulsion.
Hardly a day goes by that I don't receive messages about a missing child named Ashley Flores (that hoax has been going around since 2006); indignant e-mails about "In God We Trust" being removed from the new $1 coin (it's there, just moved to the edge); dangers of reusing plastic water bottles (overall, they're quite safe); and petitions against giving Social Security benefits to illegal aliens (bunk, total bunk).
A good way to differentiate between a legitimate threat and an urban legend it the Rule of Proximity. If the warning comes from an actual named individual, it may have credence. If it comes from some anonymous source, like the brother of a police official's secretary's grandmother, it's grain of salt time. Snopes.com is an excellent clearinghouse for urban legends as well as a great way to wile away an hour or two.
By the way, did you hear there was a UFO crash in Clermont in 1947? Authorities gathered up the bodies and hushed up the crash, but the remains are still here, cryogenically frozen in the basement of the Northeast Georgia History Center.
Really. It's true. My cousin's neighbor's daughter's babysitter heard it on THE NEWS.
Originally published in the Gainesville Times April 2, 2009