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August 22, 2006 > You're kidding, right?

You're kidding, right?

by Steve Warga

Do you have a friend or relative who sends hundreds of emails to hundreds of addresses - seemingly every week? Don't we all? Of course, it's always a "friend or relative," never yourself, right? Well, if any of this applies to you, you've probably made plans to sit up half the night, August 27, to witness a unique, once in a lifetime, celestial event; a frightening one too, perhaps. After all, how strange will it feel to see a huge reddish orb, the planet Mars, appearing just as big as the full moon? Sounds like science fiction, doesn't it?

Well, the "science" part may be debatable, but rest assured, this whole scenario is purely fiction! Without getting into any other evidence, the fact is, this hoax first appeared on the Internet three years ago and has enjoyed a resurrection every year since. The only thread of validity in this story is that Mars did come closer to Earth in August, 2003 and again in October, 2005, but only in relative terms. It was still some 40 million miles away.

How far is that? Well, if you threw the kids and the dog in your minivan and headed for the annual Martian Mania Spaceball Championship, it would take about 78 years worth of driving at 60 miles per hour (that's Earth years, by the way). As they say in car ads, "Your mileage may vary!" And just imagine how cranky the kids would be by then. Okay, the point is, that great red planet never came even close to moon-size distance.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says we should be thankful. "If Mars did come close enough to rival the Moon, its gravity would alter Earth's orbit and raise terrible tides."

Of course, this whole scenario was only a hoax, perpetrated by an anonymous web user, with apparently far too much time on his hands. Why? Who knows? There's noting malicious about these "urban legends;" they're misleading, perhaps, but not harmful to anything but one's level of gullibility. There's nothing new about them either. Although the Internet has enabled the false stories to spread farther and faster, these vast practical jokes have been around for a very long time.

Remember "Mikey," the boy who "hates everything" in the Life cereal commercial? Well, he did not, in fact, die from eating "Pop Rocks" candies and drinking Coke, as rumored for years. The actor who portrayed lovable Mikey, John Gilchrist, works in advertising today in New York City. Through no fault of his own, the false story caused General Foods, makers of Pop Rocks, to spend millions of dollars defending the safety of their candy.

Ever let your kids watch "Mr. Rogers" on PBS? Would you still let them watch if you knew Rogers was a Navy SEAL assassin in Viet Nam? Well, according to another urban legend, Rogers was credited with 25 "kills" during his years of service in the Navy's elite commando unit. Or was it, 125 kills? Depending on which junk email you received (but never forwarded), you found one or the other number. But relax, mom and dad, junior isn't undergoing subliminal assassin training in that otherwise benign "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood." Rogers never served in the military, having gone straight into broadcasting from college. And no, he didn't always wear long-sleeve shirts to cover his wartime tattoos. Maybe he simply wanted to stay warm on those chilly sound stages!

Along the same lines, you might have learned that actor, Lee Marvin, fought with the Marines in the bloody battle for the Pacific atoll, Iwo Jima, during WWII and that he was awarded a Navy Cross for his heroism. What's more, a Sgt. Bob Keeshan came to Marvin's rescue, saving his life. This is noteworthy because Keeshan gained a different sort of fame as "Captain Kangeroo." That urban legend may yet arrive in your email box complete with a "transcript" of an episode of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show that has Marvin calling Keeshan, "the bravest man I ever knew."

Not quite. Yes, Marvin did serve in the Marines in the Pacific Theater; yes he was wounded in the buttocks, severing his sciatic nerve; yes he did receive a Purple Heart; and yes he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with "Lee Marvin PFC" on the headstone. On the other hand, Marvin did not win a Navy Cross, that branch's highest honor. Nor did Keeshan ever serve as a sergeant in the Pacific theater. He did enlist in the Marines, but too late in the war to ever see combat. So, the alleged Marvin story could not have happened. And let's be clear, the whole Tonight Show bit was entirely fiction. Marvin was a frequent guest on that long-running show, but he never met Keeshan in the Marines in WWII.

So, how to defend yourself against these attacks on your gullibility? First of all, pay attention when your first thought is, "You're kidding?" There's a better than average chance you are asking the right question. Then turn the table by using the Internet against your friendly purveyor of urban legends. No, not with "spam attacks!" Simply do a little typing and reading anytime you think something sounds fishy. A quick keyword search on any search engine will lead you to multiple, reliable sites that debunk the legends with verifiable facts. You'll also find, literally, thousands of other rumors you've never heard of until now. Armed with this knowledge, you can finally return and answer all that urban legend email to those who have duped you. Revenge can be sweet!

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