Sunday, July 08, 2012

Genesis of an Urban Legend - Rare

It is rare to be able to trace an urban legend back to its undisputed origin. This Radiolab story on the origin of the High Five accomplishes that.  As soon as I heard the urban legend version, even before it was revealed as a UL, I was pretty sure that was the case. What gives it away? First, the story just has too many moving parts. Second, the ending is so pat, like the punch-line to a 6th-grade joke. Taken together, it has the feel of an elaborate build-up to a simplistic punchline, intended to obscure the improbable simplicity of the punchline in excessive detail.
Sleets grew up in Campbellsburg, KY and starred on the basketball team at Eminence High School.  When he was young, his father, Lamont Sleets, Sr. would frequently entertain visits from his old army buddies.  Sleets Sr. served in Vietnam, in the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry regiment.  "It was the Bobcat division," Mont said, "but my dad and his friends always called it 'The Five.'"  Sleets Sr. and his army friends started an informal greeting between them while serving in Vietnam.  It consisted of extending their arm straight up in the air with all five fingers parted and saying the name of their division: "Five."  Sleets thinks that when he was around 2 or three years old, it was only natural to want to emulate the old army men that gathered in his house.  Since it was tough for a youngster to keep track of all the different names of the visitors, the saying of "Five" became young Mont Sleets' universal salutation for his fathers friends.  Sleets recalls the story with the weariness of anybody recounting the family stories they heard over and over while growing up, but not without telltale signs of enthusiasm throughout: "They'd walk in the door, and a three year old kid, he doesn't know the difference between all these grown-ups.  But they're all sayin' 'Five' with their hand up like this, so I just start saying to them, 'Hi, Five!' like it was their name."

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