You probably got the memo about the Flying Chevy Impala. It concerns the Air Force sergeant who, some years back, got his hands on one of the self-contained rockets that military aircraft use to give them some extra oomph on take-off. Trying to set a land-speed record, he set up shop in the Nevada desert, welded the rocket to his '67 Chevy Impala, put on a crash helmet and stepped on the gas.
Once he had got the car up to speed, he ignited the rocket, which, regrettably, had no "off" switch. Realizing he had underestimated its power, all he could do was step on the brakes, which immediately melted, just as his tires blew. Investigators found a mile of tire tracks through the dirt, followed by 25 feet of burnt rubber and engine parts, and then -- nothing. It was as if something had taken off. It was a mystery until they discovered blackened wreckage 175 feet up the next mountain, dead ahead, where something had impacted the cliff face at a speed they pegged at about 420 miles an hour.
Now, compare this to the tale of Lawn Chair Larry. You might remember him as the Los Angeles man who, in 1982, fixed 45 helium weather balloons to a lawn chair, put on a parachute, packed a pellet gun and some water, and cut the tether.
Larry was hoping to float about 60 metres above his house, but he didn't calculate that 45 weather balloons would send him up like a rocket, past 600 metres, past 3,000 metres, finally levelling out at just under 5,000 metres -- right in the landing corridor of Los Angeles International. He showed up on the radar. Passing airliners contacted radio control to let them know that there was a guy floating in a lawn chair outside their window.
Finally, growing numb from the cold, thin air, Larry popped some balloons with his pellet gun and slowly floated down, eventually getting tangled in transmission wires. He was rescued, but not before blacking out Long Beach.
Both of these stories are cherished legends of the Internet; the difference is that one of them is actually true. Readers who have been rotting their brains on soft news since the early 1980s might remember that Lawn Chair Larry really did slip his surly bonds and come back in one piece.
The website of record for these things is Snopes.com, which should be your first recourse if you find something interesting on-line and are feel the urge to believe it. Snopes, for instance, will discredit the story of the Impala even though it fooled the judges of the Darwin Awards (darwinawards.com), which honour "those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it." (Not coincidentally, the Darwin Awards -- and counterfeits using its name -- are a prime source of hooey that circulates via e-mail forward.)
Like a lot of the Internet's inexplicable affinities, you can trace this stuff back to its original inhabitants. It's engineering humour, which is noted for stories in which the combination of enthusiasm and ignorance leads to disastrous results. When you spend your life wrangling with highly precise values, wild exaggeration becomes funny.
Stories like these took hold ages ago, and even as the Internet's founders fade -- much like the British monarchy, in these parts -- its institutions remain.
As a case in point, I leave you with the Exploding Whale of the Internet. Reporter Paul Linnman set up the story best in his infamous TV news report, which, preserved at http://www.perp.com/whale, will be entertaining freshmen until the end of time: "The Oregon State highway division didn't just have a whale of a problem on its hands; it had a stinking whale of a problem. What to do with one 14-metre 7-tonne whale, dead on arrival, on a beach near Florence?
"It couldn't be buried because it might soon be uncovered. It couldn't be cut up and buried because nobody wanted to cut it up, and it couldn't be burned. So dynamite it was."