“Cow and Chicken” Lied to Me and I Believed It For Years

Submarines do not have parachutes.

This fact was a revelation because I had believed otherwise for over 20 years. I do not know why I accepted this idea for so long, but I remember how this misinformation came to me. As a child, I watched my favorite cartoon, “Cow and Chicken,” and religiously relayed the details of every episode to my parents.

In one episode of “Cow and Chicken,” the titular Chicken builds a submarine out of spare parts and explores the nearby river. Cow spots the submarine about to go over a waterfall and bravely sprints to Chicken’s rescue. It’s a harrowing thirty seconds. Will Cow make it in time? Will Chicken be dashed against the rocks? However, Cow’s efforts prove unnecessary, as Chicken’s submarine deploys a parachute. Cow is shocked that Chicken is safe because surely he was in peril! Chicken then angrily informs Cow, “ALL SUBMARINES HAVE PARACHUTES.”

I enthusiastically explained this fascinating tidbit to my parents. “Did you know that all submarines have parachutes?”

“No, I didn’t,” my mom replied. She was reading a magazine and did not look up at me.

My world shifted: I knew something that my brilliant mother did not! Here marked the first-ever fact I learned on my own that I could share with someone else. The moment was impactful enough to remember for the rest of my life. I remembered that submarines had parachutes, but I also remembered that knowing this information, and my mother’s relative ignorance, made me feel smart and powerful.

I learned an incorrect fact because of a compelling story. There is no logical reason for a submarine to have a parachute. It never occurred to me that the TV could be wrong. Or that the TV possessed the capability of lying to me. Only as an adult did I think to challenge this idea.

Photograph of a submarine with the question "do submarines have parachutes." 1/3 says yes, and the other 2/3 says no"
The results are skewed because my friends, while kind and beautiful, are also trolls

Years later, I ran a poll on Instagram to see if anyone knew the answer to this question. As the poll itself was taken by people who enjoy messing with me, the results were inconclusive (if you want to avoid response bias, don’t run polls on Instagram). I had to look this question up myself and was not surprised to discover that no, submarines are not built with parachutes.

Or at least I think they don’t? I tried to look up submarine blueprints, but then I remembered that I am an idiot and don’t know how to interpret those prints. I am now 99% sure that a submarine is not in danger of falling over a waterfall and would therefore not need a parachute.

It is understandable that I never challenged this idea. I’ve never been in a submarine, and I did not study submarine mechanics in undergrad. But the information has always been available to me.

I am not the first person to trust something I heard on TV. Nor am I the first to feel unearned superiority for knowing something that someone else did not. However, not everything that someone may erroneously believe will be as innocuous as “Submarines have parachutes.”

The ability to absorb and think critically about media remains an underutilized skill that only gains exponential importance with the passage of time, advancement of technology, and the mounting influence of social media. Media influences how we think, behave, and treat other people. I have only just begun to understand this. I want to devote my career to understanding how to communicate information to people, stop the spread of misinformation, and use storytelling to build a bridge between people.

As some of you know, I used to as an auditor for a public accounting company, and in auditing, we have a phrase: “Trust, but verify.” We want our clients to be good people who tell the truth, but it’s our job to ensure that truth is being told. Therefore, we must employ professional skepticism with any client-derived report and gather evidence to verify that report. I believe that this mentality can and should also apply to our media.

I highly doubt that David Feiss, the creator of “Cow and Chicken,” set out to misinform gullible kids. However, I can’t deny that is exactly what happened, and this stupid fact has haunted me into adulthood. This is the kind of thing that Fred Rogers’ tried to prevent with his socially responsible programming. To learn more about the Fred Rogers approach, I highly recommend reading this article by Longreads or reading the Fred Rogers biography.

For those on a time crunch, I’ll enlighten you: Fred Rogers was furious when he read a story about a young child who tried to imitate Superman by tying a towel around his neck and jumping off a building. Rogers thought it was completely immoral to misinform impressionable children. In response, Rogers put aside time on “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” to teaching his young viewers about the key differences between real life and make-believe.

Fred Rogers used his position to fight misinformation and advocate for children.

The last thing I want to do is tell creators to censor their work. Like I said, I don’t think David Feiss, or anyone at Cartoon Network intended me any physical harm. I doubt Cartoon Network cared at all what lessons kids took away from their programming. Luckily, I didn’t do anything stupid besides believing this obviously-wrong fact. I did not try to build my own submarine from plywood or jump over a waterfall. My parents were engaged enough that they would have prevented me from doing anything life-threatening. However, it is unfair to expect parents to double-check everything their child is watching to ensure they don’t accidentally absorb the wrong lesson.

Frankly, I’m not sure how to stop misinformation in children’s media without putting restrictions on an artist’s work. What I do know is that we need to strike a balance somewhere, because unfortunately, kids are dumb sometimes. And those kids can easily grow up into dumb adults who cling to the wrong lessons from childhood. I’ve written about core memories and how the strangest stories can hold on to you. Sometimes those stories are strangely beautiful, like the first science fiction story I ever heard. Other times, those stories are less beautiful. And trust me, it’s not a fun feeling to arrive into adulthood believing something as ridiculous as “all submarines have parachutes.”

Enjoy this episode yourself and witness the birth of my stupidity.

One thought on ““Cow and Chicken” Lied to Me and I Believed It For Years

  1. My dad likes to tell me this story a lot… when I was a toddler, my dad took me to the zoo, and I kept asking to go into the lion cage (“I WANT TO GO IN THERE!!!!” – this is what I yelled according to my dad) because apparently I thought the Lion King was an accurate portrayal of wildlife… so… yeah I wasn’t the brightest LOL

    Like

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