Some of you may recall “my” story about the frozen chickens. The Brits had borrowed a cannon the Federal Aviation Administration uses to shoot chickens at airplanes. They wanted to test a new train windshield to see if it could withstand the impact. Their first test-fire caused so much damage, they called the FAA to see if they had conducted the test properly. “Use a thawed chicken,” suggested the FAA.
Well. There is considerable thawed chicken expertise among readers of this column, to say the least. I’ve been saving it up for months now, and today’s your lucky day.
Thomas Nazarek wrote: “I heard the same story about 5 years ago, although it was the FAA checking the ability of an aircraft engine to withstand the force of a bird strike. Either the FAA has learned from its past mistakes and failed to pass along the information, the Brits have not heard the joke, or this is one of those ‘shaggy dog’ stories which will never die, only go into hibernation and re-emerge every couple of years with slightly different details.”
Bill Merkel wrote: “As someone who used to fire (thawed) pheasants into Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines, I’ve heard this story a thousand times, in many mutations. Pretty unbelievable. In recent years, they’ve switched from actual carcasses to jelly birds that can be made to simulate the size, weight, density and temperature of a live bird without having to euthanize any real birds. Just thought you’d like some more details.”
A month or so after the thawed chicken story made its (tired old) debut in this space, I followed up with the story of the aircraft carrier warning an approaching vessel to make way — “We are an aircraft carrier,” they radioed disbelievingly to the idiots who were refusing to budge; “We are a lighthouse,” came the reply — and got more mail. In a way, the two are related.
Mike Brady wrote: “I got a kick out of your story (OK, it was really Brooks Hilliard’s story) about the game of ‘chicken’ between the aircraft carrier and the lighthouse. It’s definitely a fun one to tell. Unfortunately, it’s not very plausible. You see, there are several ways for a ship to tell what’s around it. The two main ways are visual (at night there are navigational lights) and by radar. From the way the story is told, it sounds as if it was at night and the Enterprise got a visual on the lighthouse’s light. But a lighthouse’s light is different from that of any ship. It is white, and it flashes at a certain interval — usually a few seconds. A ship, on the other hand, has a green light on one side, a red light on the other side, and a steady white light only visible from the rear. So, even if the Enterprise mistook the flashing white light for a steady white light, they would have thought they were overtaking another vessel — a situation in which the other vessel clearly has the right of way. Of course, all of this presumes that they had lost track on their charts of where they were and where the land was. Two different groups are responsible for charting the track, and they each update the chart at least every five minutes. The Officer of the Deck is always apprised of where the nearest land is (and a good one will always check for himself). It’s not likely that everyone involved would lose their place AND agree on where they thought they were. Before, during, and since my years as an officer aboard a Navy destroyer I have heard many unlikely sea stories that turn out to be true. This could be one of them, but in this particular case I would have to say it is most unlikely, but quite entertaining.”
A reader then chimed in from France: “I missed the frozen chicken story the first time around and just caught it on the rebound from the lighthouse story. My sense of humor is as good as anyone’s, I suppose, but all this story reveals is that the locomotive’s windshield was badly designed, not to mention the engineer’s chair (there is no comment on the design of the engineer). Obviously frozen objects (ice falling from overpasses) or their equivalent (rocks thrown by smiling children) are more likely to strike the windshield of a train than that of a plane. This merely confirms what we already know to be true about British trains. Except for that, I enjoy your column. Yours sincerely, Lee Leserman, Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy, Marseille, France”
I figured it was time I display some frozen chicken expertise (even though I have none), so I replied, privately, that, to take the other side of the argument, “I should imagine that the number of flying birds per square mile at any time is a lot higher than the number of airborne solid objects.” Right? How often are their bricks or icicles flying through the air? Then again, solid airborne objects don’t have much instinct for self-preservation, nor maneuverability, so it may be a wash.
Fortunately, Kevin Mukhar had the final word: “The chicken cannon story and the lighthouse story are, in my opinion, good stories, but fiction nonetheless. They are stories that come from a genre called Urban Legends. More on that later.
“If you have the time, go to http://www.urbanlegends.com/search/search.html#afu and do a search on “Lighthouse” and display the result as threads. That search will give you a long Dejanews list of e-mail regarding the lighthouse story from the newsgroup alt.folklore.urban. In case you don’t have time here is a short excerpt:
[QUOTED MATERIAL] Subject: Re: Ship vs. lighthouse From: LJ Shoots Date: 1996/05/03
In Steven R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, published in 1989, p. 33, this story is presented, but told in the first person. To wit: “…as told by Frank Koch in Proceedings, the magazine of the Naval Institute. [END QUOTE]
“I checked my copy of the book, and indeed the story is on page 33. In another post someone makes the claim that the story may have appeared in Reader’s Digest as long as 20 years ago.
“Doing a search on ‘chicken cannon’ results in a similar list. In this case, not as conclusive, but I think the general consensus of alt.folklore.urban is that while there really is a chicken cannon used to test the effect of birdstrikes on aircraft, no one has ever borrowed it and used a frozen chicken in their test.
“So what is an urban legend? It’s a story that passes from person to person, as in ‘I heard this from a friend, or a friend of a friend.’ It’s a story that appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously; it often contains elements of humor or horror. Finally, while often false, they are stories that may have a basis in truth. For example, do you remember Craig Shergold? He’s the British boy who was dying of cancer and wanted to get into the record books as receiving the most postcards. True story. Except Craig has been cured, yet the legend of the dying boy who wants to make the record for most postcards/business cards refuses to die.
“Have you heard about the new airport x-ray laptop scam (hordes of thieves stealing laptop computers from airport x-ray machines)? While it’s true that thieves steal laptops, the story that there’s an epidemic of thefts from airport x-ray machines is probably false.
“Another grand-daddy: the $250 cookie recipe. It used to be Mrs. Fields some years ago, now it’s Nieman-Marcus. Person tastes cookie at Nieman-Marcus, asks for recipe, is told there will be a two-fifty charge for recipe, turns out that it’s $250 not $2.50, gets revenge by spreading recipe over Internet. Another false story that’s been in circulation for (probably) decades.
“Some other recent stories circulating the Internet: South African Floor Polisher Massacre — A spate of mysterious deaths caused by South African cleaning lady. The Biscuit Bullet — Woman in car is hit by bursting biscuit tube; the woman thinks she has been shot in head and brains are leaking out. Dead Diver Found In A Tree — A plane dropping water on a forest fire in CA (or France) accidentally scoops up scuba diver and drops diver to death.
“As you can tell, I have some interest in these stories, as do many others. They all congregate on a newsgroup called alt.folklore.urban. Their web site is http://www.urbanlegends.com. One of the founding fathers of this field of study is a man named Jan Harold Brunvand who has written a number of books about urban legends, such as: The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Choking Doberman, The Mexican Pet Curses! and Broiled Again! [A quick check of www.amazon.com shows that several of these are readily available.]
“If you enjoy these kind of stories, and you might, since you’ve now passed on two of them, you might enjoy Brunvand’s books.”
You mean that poor Scuba diver wasn’t scooped up and dumped with a thousands of gallons of water to put out the Malibu brush fires?
Thank you one and all. As usual, your comments are far more interesting than mine.
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Every debt is ultimately paid, if not by the debtor, then eventually by the creditor.~Jim Grant
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