The phone rang at midnight. It was America’s Safety Scold – Bathtub Safety Officer Rafferty, obviously unable to sleep.
BSOR: Today is Millard Fillmore’s birthday. Do you know what he’s famous for?
Me: For being the only person named Millard that anyone has ever heard of?
BSOR: No. He’s famous for being the first President to install and use a bathtub in the White House.
Me: Along with the many other things he did when he was President.
BSOR: There’s nothing. I checked. The bathtub is it.
Me: That’s sad. All that power and no accomplishments?
BSOR: It gets worse. The bathtub story is a lie. Totally made up by H.L. Mencken to fill a newspaper column one day. It was one of the first recorded instances of somebody inventing a “news” story that other people bought, completely. Even after Mencken announced that the story was false, people continued to believe it. Some folks buy it to this day! It’s incredible. And you know why? Because the story sounds right, and people feel comfortable with it. Just like they feel comfortable in a warm bath on a winter’s night. But you should never feel comfortable in the bathtub, because the bathtub is the most hazardous appliance in the most dangerous room in the entire house.
Me: And why did you call me at midnight to tell me this?
BSOR: Because Millard Fillmore’s birthday always reminds me that we should never lie about bathtubs!
Me: Or lie about IN bathtubs, right?
BSOR: You do not realize how serious this is.
Me: I guess not.
BSOR: The fake article said doctors were against bathtubs as a general principle because they were a threat to the public health. When Mencken admitted the whole thing was a lie, people assumed there was no threat at all. But Mencken was right! The combination of water, soap, and a smooth, hard surface plus the ever-present devil – gravity … make your bathtub is the most dangerous thing you own! More dangerous than a snowmobile. Or a wood chipper! Or any combination thereof!
Me: That sounds like an exaggeration worthy of H.L. Mencken.
BSOR: And yet, each year more people are injured in their own bathtub than are hurt by wood chippers on snowmobiles. Fact!
Me: Then why is this not the focus of a major public policy debate?
BSOR: Because most people use their bathtubs in private while they are naked. The bathtub-interaction moment is so intimate, there’s a huge sentiment that says the government has no business there. But there are good doctors who seriously question whether we should be allowed to operate bathtubs without a license. They remain silent for fear they will be laughed at. No one takes the bathtub menace seriously, thanks to Millard Fillmore and H.L. Mencken!
Me: Then this is truly a dark day.
BSOR: That’s why I can’t sleep.
Our conversation went on a lot longer than I care to admit here. If obsessive worrying was classified as a pervasive threat to the public welfare, Bathtub Safety Officer Rafferty would have to cite himself for multiple safety violations, every day. As it is, the possible long-term effects of the Millard Fillmore Bathtub Hoax keep him engaged and annoyingly alert.
Have you ever helped to spread a lie, believing it was true?