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The Heel in the Grate Urban Legends

This is one of the rare “true” urban legends, that is, a story that can be traced—despite its many variations—to a verifiable incident in a specific time and place. Here is a summary of how the story was quoted in Reader’s Digest for January 1958 taken from a Lutheran periodical, which had in turn quoted it from a newspaper in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada:



During the choir’s recessional after a Sunday service in an Ontario church the last singer in the women’s section got her spike heel caught in a heating grate in the aisle. She pulled her foot free, leaving her shoe stuck in the grate, and kept on walking and singing. The man behind her reached down to pick up the shoe, but the whole grate came up with it. “And then in tune and in time to the beat, the next man stepped into the open register.” Essentially the same story has been told and printed many times, sometimes describing the scene as a church wedding with the bride falling into the grate, other times saying the minister was the one who took the fall. In other versions, the minister begins the benediction saying, “And now onto Him who will keep us from falling . . . ,” and the entire congregation collapses in laughter. The story took yet another twist when introduced into the plot of the 1966 film The Glass Bottom Boat, with Doris Day portraying the woman who lost her heel in a space station’s “clean room” grate and Dick Martin in the role of the man who fell into the open duct.

Signed testimonials from participants in the original incident—including from the actual choir member who fell into the opening—have established that it really happened in the spring of 1948 at the Presbyterian Church in Hanover, Indiana. Marj Heyduck, writing in the Dayton Journal Herald, described the incident in a 1957 column from which all subsequent variations seem to derive. Heyduck’s version, expanded in speeches she gave, eventually added the “benediction” motif, which participants denied had been part of the incident.



Heyduck died in 1969; three participants furnished their testimonials in 1987. The case seemed to have been closed, but in 1993, a Denver woman came forward claiming to have been the soprano who got her shoe caught in a grate at the same Hanover Presbyterian Church—in 1943 or 1944! However, in this instance, the “large and heavy” grate was only tipped, and the man who stepped on it fell to his knees but not actually into the heating duct. This account also claims that the minister did deliver the “keep us from falling” benediction.

Although the specific dating and details of the story are still difficult to sort out, it seems clear that all the later generic heel-in-the-grate legends did originate in some kind of incident that took place during the 1940s in a church in Hanover, Indiana.

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