Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias My grandmother, bless her soul, was a crazy Texan, with a spirit that was ultra-conservative and fearless.

All my brothers had to do was stop and listen to her for a few minutes to learn that she was full of tall tales � stories that she no doubt heard while growing up in the Show Me State.

Story-telling was an art form to her. She had a vast collection of bedtime stories tucked away in her mind. When we were young lads, my brothers and I would be fascinated by the plots she would weave. To this day, I've never seen any of her stories in written form. She either just made them up, or they were passed down from an earlier generation.

There was just one problem. Sometimes, my grandmother had this tendency of grasping onto a little bit of a fable or story � it could be something as simple as an anecdote that she heard or read somewhere � and molding it around mentally until, to her, it was part of reality.

So, I wasn't surprised one winter day, as my brothers and I were wrestling with each other on newly fallen snow, when she stuck her head out the kitchen door and told us not to eat any of it.

"It could be radioactive," she said sternly. "Communists, you know."

I remember my brothers sitting motionless in a snowdrift, watching her calmly turn around and enter the house. All we could do is give each other that "Now what should we do?" look.

I thought of my grandmother approximately a week after the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York City. A co-worker brought a startling image to work.

Someone had e-mailed him a photo of what appeared to be a guy standing on the observation deck of one of towers of the World Trade Center. Heading straight for the tower in the background appeared a jet airliner.

A note that accompanied the e-mail stated that a tourist snapped the startling image just before the plane hit the tower. Somehow, the camera survived the ordeal that followed and the film was developed, resulting in a historic photo of one of the worst terrorist attacks experienced by the United States.

Or was it?

I looked at the photo, and looked at it again. And to be honest, there's just something about it that doesn't look right.

I recognize that it's easy for me, a natural born skeptic, to come to the conclusion that the photo is a fake. Only problem was, there's was no way I could prove it was phony.

Thank goodness for Barbara Mikkelson, a housewife from Los Angeles, and her husband, David, a Web programmer. They run a popular Web site called Urban Legends Reference Pages, better known by its address: Snopes.com.

The site currently reports the status of more than 60 rumors that have popped up since Sept. 11 under the heading Rumors of War.

The photo of the unlucky New York tourist can easily be determined to be a fake, according to the Mikkelsons. Sept. 11 was warm and sunny. The tourist in the photo is wearing a winter coat and hat.

The airliner in this picture is approaching from the north and would therefore have been the one which hit the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC1), but WTC1 did not have an outdoor observation deck. WTC2 (the south tower) included an indoor observation deck on the 107th floor and an outdoor deck above the 110th floor, but WTC1 housed only Windows on the World, an indoor restaurant but no outdoor deck.

The operating hours in September for the WTC2 observatories were 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., meaning they opened too late for a tourist to have been present on one before the first plane hit.

There's also a problem with the plane. The aircraft shown in the photo is an American Airline Boeing 757. Flight 11, the only American flight to crash into the World Trade Center, was a 767.

We're living in stressful, uncertain times right now. That alone makes separating fact from fiction difficult.

But we have a new challenge as we battle terrorists abroad and on the home front � the Internet is chock full of misinformation.

Barbara Mikkelson said one way to get to the truth is simply by doing a bit of research. She surfs online databases, visits companies' Web sites, and even calls companies directly.

"Then sometimes I'll go to the library to try to find something in writing. When I find the time, I like to go through old copies of Reader's Digest; many of today's rumors began years ago as "Life in These United States" or (other) items in the Reader's Digest," she said in an interview with Newsweek magazine.

Which brings me back to that wild Texan. When Cindy was pregnant with our first daughter, Sarah, we visited my grandmother at her home in Rapid City.

For lunch, she prepared tuna casserole. I poured glasses of milk for Cindy and myself, and my grandmother promptly took them off the table.

"You can't drink milk when you eat tuna," she said sternly. "It's poisonous."

I wasn't about to start a fight I knew I couldn't win. We drank water.

On the drive home, we asked ourselves how my grandmother ever got it in her head that combining milk and tuna is lethal.

"I think she reads the Reader's Digest," I recall telling Cindy, "but doesn't keep her facts straight. She probably read that tuna has too much mercury in it or something, and now thinks it will cause a lethal chemical reaction if you mix it with different foods."

I miss my grandmother a great deal, but I'm glad she wasn't around to witness the terrorist attack and see us at war. You see, there's no way I could convince her that photo is a fake.

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