November 12, 2006

Urban Legendary Exploits

Most all of us—those of us who weren’t, you know, orphans—grew up with family stories of one kind or another. An aunt who was a wing-walker and a spy, a cousin who moved to New Zealand and formed a religious cult, a father who was arrested for drunkenly exposing himself during a Tony Orlando show in Branson.

      I certainly grew up with stories—not those in particular, but a few that come close. Tales of civil war heroes and low-rent criminals. My mom’s close encounter with Charlie Starkweather. My dad’s adventures with Boxcar Willie in the Air Force.

      My favorites were the stories about my Grandpa Roscoe Knipfel. I’ve written about Roscoe quite a bit over the years, even naming the central character in a novel after him.

      Thing is, I never knew Roscoe—not that I remember, anyway. He died when I was about a year old. The only evidence I have that I ever met him is a black and white photograph of a wide-eyed, large-headed child (me) poised on the huge knee of an enormous balding man in suspenders and glasses (Roscoe).

      When I was young, though, I was regaled with Roscoe tales. Apart from running the family farm, he was also a self-taught electrician and inventor. But the stories that really stuck with me concerned Roscoe’s practical jokes. He was an incredibly cruel practical joker—but his pranks almost always had a point to make.

      He caught my dad—then a young boy—sneaking a plug of chewing tobacco behind the barn one day. But instead of smacking him, he played along for awhile. Then he instructed my dad that, after having chewed it for awhile, the proper thing to do was swallow the plug.

      My dad never touched tobacco products again.

      My all time favorite Roscoe story, though, concerned his battle with the county over a covered bridge.

      In the 1940s, Roscoe and the family lived on a farm in Hammond, a small town in northwestern Wisconsin. He also worked as an electrician out of a shop in Hudson, about twenty miles away. Every morning on his way to the shop, he drove across a covered bridge which spanned the Hudson River (which is a little smaller than the one here in NY). Well, then one day, without consulting Roscoe, the county decided to start charging a nickel toll to cross the bridge.

      This, Roscoe felt, was ridiculous. He’d been driving over that bridge every morning for years—and now they were going to start charging him for it?

      But he was a law abiding man, and so yes, he’d give them their damn nickel—but he’d only do so on his terms. So the day after he learned about the new toll, Roscoe left for work with a nickel, a pair of pliers, and a lighter.

      I’m sure you see where this is going.

      As he approached the toll taker, he gripped the nickel in the pliers, and heated it with the lighter until it glowed. Then, as he passed the toll taker, he casually dropped the red-hot nickel into the poor fellow’s outstretched hand before driving on.

      He did this a second morning, and a third—until finally, on the fourth day, the toll-taker waved him on through without paying. He never paid another toll on that bridge.

      My dad first told me that story in the early 1970s, and in later years I also heard my uncles tell the same story. I’ve been repeating it ever since—even including it in one of my books.

      Everything was just fine.

      Then about a year or so ago, I was doing some research for a new project, part of which included working my way through a stack of books by Jan Harold Brunvand. Brunvand is a respected folklorist, and the world’s foremost authority on urban legends. He’d gathered thousands of stories over the years—those “it happened to a friend of a friend” tales of spiders in hairdos, hippie babysitters and killers in backseats—tracing their spread and evolution across the country and over the generations.

      I wasn’t sure how any of this would help the project I was working on, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

      Now, Brunvand’s books are often arranged by theme, and one of the sections of The Vanishing Hitchhiker was entitled “Halloween Sadists,” in which he related incredible stories (literally) about razor blades in apples, Halloween pranks gone terribly wrong, and what have you.

      Well, right there in the middle of it all was a very brief mention—barely a paragraph—that gave me pause. Apparently there’s a story that’s been circulating for years concerning some cruel son of a bitch who would heat up pennies and drop them into the outstretched hands of unsuspecting trick-or-treaters.

      If that wasn’t bad enough, another of Brunvand’s books, Curses! Broiled Again!, contained a long section called “Toll Booth Gags,” which concerned (obviously) pranks people have supposedly played on toll-takers.

      Now, while none of the toll booth pranks he described involved dropping heated coins into the toll-taker’s hand as an act of protest, it didn’t take much to put those stories and the Halloween bit together, and find them pointing straight at my Grandpa Roscoe.

      This deeply saddened me for some reason. This story I’d grown up with—this centerpiece of my knowledge and understanding of my grandfather—was in all likelihood nothing but an urban legend. Worse, it was one that I had been spreading myself for over thirty years.

      Similar things had happened to me before. Morgan and I were sitting at a bar in the East Village one summer afternoon, when I told her a story I’d read on the AP wire that morning.

      It seems a man in Missouri was forced out of a hotel room after a few days by an increasingly putrid stench. When the hotel management investigated, they discovered the stench was coming from a rotting corpse hidden under the bed.

      “That sounds like an urban legend to me,” Morgan said.

      “Oh, no, no, no,” I insisted. “It’s true—I read it on the AP wire!”

      Of course, having been a working journalist as long as I had been at the time, I should’ve known better than to say such a thing. That night, I looked the story up in one of Dr. Brunvand’s books, just out of curiosity, and sure enough there it was.

      I’m such a sucker sometimes. But you know, we’re surrounded by institutions—like religion and Homeland Security—which are based on urban legends which people have chosen to believe with all their hearts. In most cases, certainly, I prefer the cold, brutal truth—but not when it comes to my Grandpa Roscoe. I would much rather believe in his exploits, as well as the stories about corpses in hotel rooms, dogs that aren’t what they seem, and the guy with the axe who lurks in the old sanitarium, for a very simple reason. Unlike religion or Homeland Security, these other, smaller, more entertaining stories help make life’s possibilities seem much more interesting than they actually are.

      The point being, I guess, that I should really stop reading books about urban legends.


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