I swear the Hatchet Man was real.
Growing up in the sticks, all us little kiddies knew the legend of the Hatchet Man. He had chopped up a bunch of kids way, way back in the stone age -- the '50s. Ever since, he had wandered the lonely stretch of State Road 213, carrying a hatchet and locks of hair from his victims.
Heck, with that kind of buildup, any guy walking with a stick in his hand was the Hatchet Man. Nobody was going to mess around.
Just about every well-settled area in America has some strange legend, or well-spread rumor. A haunted house. A woman who dried off her wet cat by putting it in the microwave. A Hatchet Man.
Urban (and suburban, for that matter) legends are the other boogeymen in the closets, the ones that you can't see when you squint your eyes the right way, or stare at the coats so long that they move. Sometimes, they literally are in your closets. The first rumor of backward devil messages on records hit sometime in the early '80s, and we went scavenging in the closets for the offensive discs.
"What does it say?"
"Burgle bork blagle."
"Sounds like Satan to me!"
As technology has become better, the rumors spread faster, and more thoroughly. There aren't so many regional legends any more. But there are lots of national rumors. It's kind of a shame. It was nice knowing that the Hatchet Man was all mine, wherever he was.
Here are some latter-day false favorites:
Mikey, cover boy for Life cereal, died in the early 1980s after he tossed a couple of packages of Pop Rocks candy into his mouth, then downed a can of Coca-Cola as a chaser. Undoubtedly the strangest killing-off of a pop culture figure (except for that sack of potatoes buried in the Meadowlands end zone). Are we a nation of necrophiliacs, or what? Why did we kill Paul McCartney? Or The Beav, Jerry Mathers, in Vietnam? Or even more mind-boggling, Abe Vigoda? I mean, Fish?
Certain hair conditioners use aborted babies as ingredients. What an utterly disgusting rumor. Although, when you consider all the animal matter used in products, it's not hard to extend that one a little farther into The Twilight Zone. Remember "Soylent Green"?
In a strange sidelight, there actually is a shampoo on the market today that uses human sperm as an ingredient. Kevis of Beverly Hills uses a cloned version of something called hyaluronic acid, found on the tip of the little foot soldiers. According to Kevis' release, "just as sperm penetrates an egg, Kevis penetrates the hair cuticle and follicle. And, it works on both men and women." Don't think I'll be finding out.
Rockets shot into space affect the weather. And the Russians have a weather machine that creates hurricanes, but it only works between the months of April and November.
If you swallow watermelon seeds, a watermelon will grow in your stomach. Same goes for apple trees. Commonly spread by funny uncles to unsuspecting kids at picnics.
"The Super Flush." The idea that if everyone got up to use the bathroom during the Super Bowl commercial breaks, that the water pressure would drop dangerously low and destroy the sewer systems of the world, creating chaos and warfare against the three nations that didn't get the Super Bowl and still had indoor plumbing capabilities. You make the call.
Rock stars are easy targets. Here's just a smattering: Mama Cass choked to death on a pork sandwich. She didn't. She had a run-of-the-mill heart attack. Mr. Green Jeans is Frank Zappa's father. Wrong. See "Son of Green Genes." Then, there's Rod Stewart and stomach pumping. 'Nuff said. The Rod himself debunked this truly vile myth on VH-1 not too long ago.
Slugs scream when you salt them down. Nope. However, they do shrivel up and make nasty snot stains on your sidewalk, however. Kids: Try this at home.
"Life is like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're going to get." Actually, like life, if you're canny enough, you'll know what's coming. Many chocolatiers use their own codes for what is in a chocolate, ranging from a v-shaped ridge on the top, to crosses, and other stylistic shapes. Whitman's simply supplies a map. Right on the box lid.
Of course, some of those odd legends out there have to have some thread of truth. Maybe even a whole garment. Some strange but true stories of the cosmic highway patrol:
Coca-Cola works as a contraceptive. In the '40s and '50s, it was kind of popular to "Have a smile -- and a Coke." In Third World countries, the cola reportedly is used as a post-coital douche. Strangely enough, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article some years ago that said Coke markedly reduces sperm motility. Just don't drink it after eating Pop Rocks.
The Sears catalog was a preferred toilet paper in the early 1900s. This, unbelieveably, is true. My father remembers using it as late as the 1950s, as he was growing up on a farm in Maryland, and making routine trips to the outhouse. The catalog's popularity isn't so much for the cool stuff you could buy, like guitars made out of tabletop materials, but because much of the paper stock wasn't coated and made for a more comfortable throne experience. You think that's bad, ponder corncobs.
I have to thank my Uncle Cecil for explaining a lot of these legends. Cecil Adams, longtime columnist for the Chicago Reader, exposed many of these myths, and has inspired many to great heights.
There's one other uncle I have to thank: that anonymous Uncle Somebody who convinced me at a picnic I was in deep trouble for eating watermelon seeds. I was afraid to drink water for days.
Wayne Lockwood is a staff writer for the News in Boca Raton, Fla. His work is distributed by Knight-Ridder News Service.