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Urban folklore: If it sounds unbelievable, it probably is


An elderly man, he spoke firmly and precisely. "I'm calling to give you a story about a very shocking and dangerous situation that is being covered up by school officials in Hoffman Estates."

And what is this dangerous situation?

"A volunteer blood drive was held at the Conant High School. It was for senior students only. Blood was given by 317 seniors. The blood has since been tested, and 61 tested positive for the HIV virus."

If true, that is indeed shocking. Are you on the school faculty?

"No. But the information was given to me by a friend who is very active at the school, and she has been for many years."

And what is your friend's name?

"I can't give you her name because she doesn't want to become directly involved. But as I said, she is very active at the school and had access to this information. Obviously, the school doesn't want this information to get around, but I'm sure if you did some digging you could confirm it."

I told him that I doubted very much that I could confirm it.

"You don't think that if you investigated, you could get them to admit it?"

That wasn't it, I said. I doubted that it could be confirmed because I was certain it was just a lot of baloney.

Indignantly, he said: "I am not lying to you." And I told him that I was sure he wasn't lying.

Then I asked him if he had ever heard of urban folklore: Amazing and shocking stories that people believe and pass around as fact.

"Yes," he said. "You've written about that. But this isn't the case. My friend is not the sort of person who would do something like that. And if you looked into this . . ."

I assured him that I would. And that if he would watch this space, he would see the results.

All it took was one phone call to William Perry, the principal of Conant High School.

"No, it's not true," he said. "I heard the same thing. One of my assistants told me that he heard it from one of the students.

"That rumor is almost generic. Every school that has a blood drive seems to have that rumor. It's not just limited to this area. You can go to other suburban areas, north or west, and you'll hear similar rumors after every blood drive.

"Our assistant superintendent has a daughter in high school in Crystal Lake and after a blood drive there, there was a rumor that a lot of kids tested positive.

"I don't know how they start or why they start, but they do. The thing that really concerns me is how harmful they can be. It's really a disservice."

How and why do they start? That's easy. After a while, talking about the weather or the latest sports scores gets boring. So someone hears a "what if" or a "maybe" idea and they turn it into an "absolutely" or "positively" fact.

In this case, the caller had exact numbers, as relayed by his knowledgeable friend. Out of 317 students, 61 had tested positive.

As it turns out, blood was donated by 125 students and 37 faculty members.

"And, no," the principal says, "no one had the HIV virus."

Most of the urban folklore stories are harmless, even fun. My favorite, which a North Shore socialite once passed on to me as gospel, is about the poached salmon dinner. After the guests have eaten, the host's cat is found dead outside the house. The cook admits the cat had nibbled at the fish. The guests are rushed to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped. Later, a neighbor comes by and expresses his remorse for having hit the cat with his car. That one has been around in one form or another (tuna salad, egg salad, sardines, etc.) for decades.

And the wonderful choking Doberman. A man comes home and finds his dog gasping. He takes the pet to the vet, who finds human fingers lodged in the mutt's throat. The cops search the home and find a bleeding burglar unconscious in the basement.

The leading authority on these yarns is Prof. Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah.

We asked him about the suburban blood drive story. It's not unique to Chicago, he said. It's popping up all over the country: Texas, Ohio, California.

"I thought it had run its course, but it must be spreading from place to place," he said.

But unlike the salmon, the Doberman, and the hundreds of other folk tales, it isn't harmless or funny. The reality of AIDS is enough to worry about, without goofy stories being peddled as fact.

So as I promised the old gent who called me, his story has been checked out.

Now maybe he can show this to his friend -- the lady who is "very active in the school and had access to" the information. And he might tell her:

"Myrtle, if you want to be the life of the party, why don't you just take up telling dirty jokes?"

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