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Steelhammer: A tale of a fateful trip

If you're looking for the perfect tropical island on which to get away from it all, you can do no better than Sandy Island in the Coral Sea, about midway between Australia and the French-administered island of New Caledonia.

Though listed on Google Earth, along with a number of nautical charts and weather maps, as a 16-mile long, 3-mile wide island, Sandy Island does not in fact exist, and never has.

The crew of the Australian research vessel Southern Explorer proved Sandy Island's non-existence last week, while on a research expedition studying plate tectonics in the area. Puzzled by the presence of an island in a 4,600-foot-deep expanse of sea, the Southern Explorer's crew decided to approach its charted location and investigate.

While the ship's nautical map did not indicate the presence of an island at the location, Google Earth did, as did one of the Southern Explorer's weather maps, along with several scientific charts.

"So, who do we trust, Google Earth or the navigation charts?" recalled crewmember Steven Micklethwaite in an interview following the island's un-discovery. "We decided to sail through the island. We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through. It was one of those happy circumstances in science. You come across something no one has noticed before."

Sandy Island is not the first fictional location to adorn a map during the past few decades. In 1978, Michigan's official state highway included two make-believe towns on the Ohio side of the border south of Ann Arbor. The towns of "Goblu" and "Beatosu" were ordered to be depicted in the suburbs of Toledo by University of Michigan alumnus and then-state highway commissioner Peter Fletcher, to memorialize his desire for his alma mater's football team to defeat Ohio State.

In the case of Sandy Island, one theory holds that its fictional presence was created long ago by one map-making company as a "copyright trap," an attempt to prove that another cartographic concern was stealing its data.

Early in my newspaper career, I played a role in a bush league journalism version of the copyright trap.

In 1976, Welch Daily News publisher Rollo Taylor was convinced that a newspaper in an adjacent county was routinely lifting stories from his paper and reprinting them without attribution or permission.  To trap the offender, he concocted a colorful yarn about a McDowell County woman who shot at a whitetail buck she had seen attempting to mate with a plywood reindeer Christmas decoration in her yard, accidentally wounding a neighbor woman in a nearby outhouse, where she was stuck to the seat due to the recent application of fast-drying paint.

Sure, in Southern West Virginia, nearly anything's possible, but it seemed a bit farfetched, even to a relative rookie like me, who knew that while the rest of the story may have been true, deer were very rare in McDowell County in that era.

I called up the deputy allegedly quoted in his story, who led me to believe the story was fiction. Then I called up Taylor, who filled me in on the hoax and the reason behind it.

While the Gazette chose not to pursue the story, others did, including a reporter with the state Associated Press bureau in Charleston, who rewrote and boiled down the tale and distributed it statewide. Among the many newspapers picking up the story was the rival paper Taylor sought to trap.

The AP scribe who ran with the phantasmagoric story after failing to check its veracity with anyone went on to a long and storied career at a series of large metropolitan bureaus. My career is stuck, like the fast-drying paint in the McDowell County outhouse, in pretty much the same place it's been since 1976.

And it looks like a retirement community awaits me on Sandy Island.

In a return to the shameless self-promotion department, allow me to extend this invitation to join me in taking in the triple-harmony folk-rock sounds of The BrotherSisters (whose members include Gazette colleague Doug Imbrogno) in a $5 per person benefit concert for the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality, whose board of directors includes the likes of me. The show starts at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, in Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1600 Kanawha Blvd. E.


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