Real truth about myths

by: ERIC BARTELS, At Alameda Elementary School, Alison Dow and her student volunteers serve roughly 300 lunches a day. How they’re made feeds a lot of young imaginations.

I spent a lot of summer days as a kid on the Willamette River. Not the part that slips through downtown Portland, but the broad stretch just south of where the Tualatin empties past a now-abandoned boat ramp in West Linn. When we weren’t playing baseball or riding bikes or walking around in cutoff jeans and bare feet, we’d head down to the river near Willamette Park. There always seemed to be a logjam parked there, so we’d pick our way across and throw ourselves into the murky water, surrounded by the puffy cottonwood seeds that parachuted into the hot summer air and the smell of timber ripening in the water. There wasn’t much evidence of marine life — this was about the time the river was declared an environmental dead zone — but there was a powerful rumor afloat. Somewhere in the depths of that river was a giant sturgeon, we were told. The ancient beast was so large it had survived having people’s initials carved along its length. In fact, it moved about with an ax head embedded in its hide. I don’t remember doubting the story was true. I do remember the image it created in my head. Even now, I can almost see the rough letters gouged into the animal’s sides, which in my mind’s eye were gray and rigid, more bone than flesh. What didn’t occur to me was how someone would have managed to take a knife to the fish, let alone bury an ax in it. And where did the handle go? And yes, this mighty river dweller had a name. Old Ironsides. In recent years, another urban myth came to my attention. Back when my daughter was in first grade, she came home one day with a report she presented as chilling fact: The macaroni and cheese served in the cafeteria at Alameda Elementary School was cooked in hot dog water. Now, to tell the truth, Iwasn’t sure cooking pasta in hot dog water was such a bad idea. When I cook pasta at home, I always throw in a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt before bringing the water to a boil. Wouldn’t hot dog water serve roughly the same purpose? Child psychologists say such myths and rumors are a normal part of a kid’s landscape. As they transition from a world in which they don’t clearly see the line between fantasy and reality, it’s common for them to allow for wiggle room. ‘Kids just like telling stories’ Remember, it’s adults who raise them on tales of wondrous worlds and fantastic beasts hoping to stimulate creativity and impart base-line life lessons. So forgive the kids if the imagination should occasionally work overtime. Still, I thought I’d do a little amateur myth-busting. I dropped in on Teri Geist, the principal at Alameda Elementary. (Her name means “spirit” or “ghost” in German, which is kind of spooky.) A tall, dignified woman, Geist laughed heartily when told of the rumor involving hot dog water. “They say stuff like that all the time,” she says. “I think kids just like telling stories. They also like to be authorities. They like to say that they know.” Going further, I checked with Alison Dow, who runs the Alameda cafeteria under the title lead assistant, although she certainly appears to be in complete charge of the place. “That is not true,” she says, a bit indignant. “We never use hot dog water. The macaroni and cheese isn’t even cooked in water.” The inconvenient truth With more than 700 students at the Northeast Portland school, Dow serves approximately 300 hot lunches a day, routinely employing student volunteers who dole out chicken strips, sandwiches and milk as she cooks, supervises and swipes magnetic lunch cards through a scanner. Completely by happenstance, my daughter is helping out in the kitchen the day I drop in, so I keep digging for answers. “When did you first hear the rumor about the hot dog water?” I ask her. Without missing a beat, she looks me in the eye and says, “I made it up.” Come again? Yes, she made it up. And who did she tell? Three of her friends. Just like that, something I took to be a well-traveled bit of mythology, something I figured had swept the school like a grease fire, was in fact the province of four girls. I asked my daughter’s friend Kristen, who also was assisting in the kitchen that day, about the rumor. Though the two have played on the same soccer team for years, she hadn’t heard a thing about it. (She had, however, heard that the mashed potatoes were cooked in the microwave. “I don’t have a microwave big enough,” Dow would respond. “They are instant, but they’re cooked in the oven.”) My daughter is a vegetarian now. She doesn’t blame the hot dog water, but she still maintains that her mac and cheese had a funny taste that day three years ago. Then again, maybe she was just out to start a rumor, as kids will do. Suddenly, I wondered if the story of Old Ironsides ever really had gained any widespread purchase, or if my buddies had tried it out on me just to see if I’d, well, take the bait. I do know this: I didn’t make it up.