By Cary Clark
The most famous line from the classic Western, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It's also a line that may explain why lies, misinformation and exaggerations sprout like kudzu over the Internet.
Every now and then a villager must attempt to drive a stake through the heart of a Dracula of a legend about San Antonio. No visit by an actor to this city has generated as much discussion and rumor as when Denzel Washington came here in 2004.
The time he spent at Brooke Army Medical Center and what he did or didn't do may now rival the ghost tracks at Villamain and Shane as the most popular urban legend to come out of San Antonio. It has certainly generated more chain e-mails. And because the Express-News is implicitly indicted in them, people often feel the need to forward them to staffers, often in an accusatory manner.
In the breathless tone that characterizes chain e-mails, the anonymous correspondent has something he/she must share that happened “the other day.” Often, “the other day” was years ago.
The Denzel Washington e-mail says that, while at BAMC, Washington visited one of the Fisher Houses, the facilities built for the families of our wounded warriors so they can be close to loved ones as they heal.
The story says Washington was so moved that he took out his checkbook and, on the spot, wrote a check covering the construction cost of a Fisher House, more than $1 million. The e-mail says one of his sons is a Marine serving in Iraq, then castigates the media for putting antiwar views of celebrities such as Sean Penn on the front page when Washington's generosity doesn't even make Page 3 in the Metro section.
Washington's Dec. 17, 2004, visit to BAMC, where he helped award Purple Hearts, was reported on Page 1 of the Metro section of the Dec. 18, 2004, edition of the Express-News by reporter Scott Huddleston. One line reads, “With his wife and four of his children nearby, he drew a roar of applause when he pledged support of America's military.”
Weeks later, Washington — who doesn't have a son in the Marines or Iraq — sent a six-figure check to Fisher House. It wasn't enough to build one facility, but went a long way toward helping to build one.
But why take this very generous fact and embroider it with legend when the fact itself is a wonderful story about a superstar entertainer who plays heroic figures on screen helping real-life heroes who have given of themselves on the battlefield?
Over the years, several Express-News writers, including Editor Robert Rivard, have attempted to correct the misinformation. Yet the e-mails continue coming this way.
So let's give the final word to Huddleston, the talented reporter who, depending upon what you believe, covered or didn't cover Washington's visit.
“At first, it was an annoyance,” he said when asked about the always circulating e-mail. “But I now accept it as both a reality and even a novelty, like the myth of the donkey lady (another San Antonio urban legend). The persistence of the legend suggests that some people want to believe it's true, so they can blame the news media and movie industry for short-changing ‘the soldiers overseas.' I can certainly appreciate their concern for the troops and their morale. But instead of inciting anger, the myth and the true story behind it could be used to support the troops by promoting the Fisher House Foundation, which is highly rated by charity watchdog groups and is always raising funds for new facilities.
“A new Fisher House is planned near Audie Murphy VA Hospital, where a new world-class poly-trauma center for the wounded is being built in San Antonio. The message at the end of these re-circulating e-mails could be, ‘Do as Denzel did, and give to the Fisher Houses!'”
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