Duluth, Minn. — Jim Heffernan works on the editorial page at the Duluth News-Tribune. He deals with the letters to the editor.
"A couple weeks ago," Heffernan says, "I got a letter saying they thought it was appalling that a Marine in uniform had been refused service at a local eatery."
Heffernan says the paper can't print hearsay, so he wrote an email back to the letter-writer asking for details: the name of the Marine, the time he went to the restaurant, and other specifics. Heffernan says he didn't get a reply.
But one of Duluth's TV stations put the story on the evening news. The station retracted the story the next night, but people in Duluth are still passing it around.
Actually, there are several stories.
One version has four Army reservists being refused service at a different restaurant. Another story has someone in a military uniform getting harassed in a parking lot. And there are lots of variations on those themes.
In downtown Duluth, MPR talked with a dozen people. Half of them had heard some version of the story. "I heard a Marine was told to go," said a man hurrying to put coins in a parking meter. He heard the Marine was told, "It's a good thing you're not staying here. We don't like your kind here."
"That's news to me," said a grey-haired woman leaning on a cane at a bus stop.
There are several stories. One version has four Army reservists being refused service at a different restaurant. Another story has someone in a military uniform getting harassed in a parking lot. And there are lots of variations on those themes.
"I've heard of it," said a man in chef's outfit. "I've heard that he was refused service. I've heard that he wasn't refused service, but that he was asked to leave after he ate. That's about all I've heard. I kind of find it hard to believe."
The restaurant that's mentioned in many of these stories is in Duluth's tourist district. The owner says he's gotten angry e-mail from military people as far away as Missouri and Oregon. But he says he's written back to them with his side of the story and they were satisfied.
The restaurant used to have a sign in the window that said, "No war in Iraq." The owner says no one was ever refused service. But he's told some reporters that early one morning a couple weeks ago - when the sign was still up - there might have been a man in uniform who came in, but turned around and left as soon as he saw the sign.
Over at the Duluth News-Tribune, Jim Heffernan's trying to sort it all out.
Heffernan's been back in touch with the woman who wrote the first letter about the restaurant incident. She works at a hotel, and she says she talked with the Marine after he was refused service. She says she's trying to get in touch with him to confirm the story.
Last Sunday Jim Heffernan wrote a column in the News-Tribune. He asked readers to help untangle the story. Heffernan wrote that the story is starting to sound like an urban legend.
"And so anybody that can provide evidence that this happened please contact me," he says. "I gave my numbers, e-mail, and address, and I'll report next Sunday. So far, there's no direct evidence that these incidents happened."
Heffernan says he'll present whatever evidence turns up in his column on Sunday. And if there's no evidence, he'll write about that.