A Vietnamese student in a basic writing course at California State University, Los Angeles, turned in a chilling story that I've decided to call "Shades of War." I wouldn't be surprised to hear something similar coming out of the Middle East, reflecting the current turmoil there.
I've made a few deletions and some slight editorial changes from the original paper, which was sent to me by the course instructor, folklorist Norine Dresser. She believed it might qualify as a Saigon urban legend.The student wrote: "I heard this story last summer. It takes place in Vietnam, just before war erupted.
"Late one evening a taxi driver picked up a customer. To his surprise, she was a beautiful girl who was wearing a pure white silk dress that reflected the moon's rays. The driver thought she looked like a lovely goddess or even the Virgin Mary.
"As the cab sped through the busy streets of Saigon, the driver noticed that the girl had on a pair of jet black sunglasses. Not a word was spoken between them during the half-hour ride to her home.
"When they stopped in front of the girl's home, she said in a soft, gentle voice, `I don't have any money for the taxi fare.' But she offered the driver her sunglasses as payment. Sunglasses were very popular and expensive then, so the driver accepted them as his fare.
"The girl stepped out of the cab and disappeared into the night, and the taxi driver went home and showed the sunglasses to his wife. She tried them on, and to her dismay, through them she saw the bloodshed of war!
"She saw dead soldiers and skeletons through one side of the glasses, and she saw other images of death and suffering through the other side. The same scenes appeared when her husband looked through the sunglasses.
"Little did the couple realize that the sunglasses were showing them the future. Within a few years the Vietnam War began, and all those images became real. Then the couple realized that they had seen a prophecy through the black sunglasses."
I'd classify "Shades of War" as "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" with an Asian twist. The variation of the legend that many Americans are familiar with also involves a beautiful young woman. She hitches a ride back home but disappears before arriving there.
Later she's identified as an accident victim's ghost, which is endlessly trying to return home. Sometimes the woman (or man, in other versions) makes some kind of prophecy either about an impending disaster or about better times to come.
A wartime legend called "The Corpse in the Car" swept through Europe and the United States during the years of Hitler's rise and fall. I wrote a column about it in July 1989 after finding a version of it published in the Nov. 20, 1939, issue of Time magazine.
In the World War II version, the hitchhiker usually predicted the death of Hitler or the end of the war, and the prophecy became credible after a second forecast soon came true - that the driver would have a corpse in his car later that same day.
Asian versions of "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" frequently involve the mysterious rider being picked up by a cab driver, whereas in other parts of the world it is usually just an ordinary driver. I've found this detail, so far, in legends from Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Guam.
I have not previously encountered the motif of a vision of the future appearing in the same story as a mysterious hitchhiker, although it's a common theme in other legends and myths. Besides the well-known crystal ball used by fortune tellers, there are stories about magical clairvoyant mirrors, windows and telescopes.
The only other magic eyeglasses I've read about occur in a folktale from India in which magic spectacles allow a person to read others' thoughts. But it seems logical for magic sunglasses to show up in a fatalistic legend from pre-war Vietnam. - "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.