Groucho's Glasses

 My father had an angular face that was etched by a life lived outdoors and in the weather. He was neither verbose nor articulate nor expressive, except for his eyes. Sometimes his eyes blazed like they were looking at you down the barrel of a rifle. That was time to shape up. Sometimes he looked at my mother and his eyes gleamed. According to my mother there was a whole lot of gleaming going on. I believe her, she had 11 babies in 14 years. And sometimes I saw his eyes twinkle.

Farmers of Scandinavian descent in North Dakota at the time were on the average taciturn and reserved. My father was of that demographic, and even more tight-lipped and laconic than the average. In spite of his outward demeanor, however, he was a bit of a trickster, with a sly sense of humor.

He was also very tight with money. People who knew him said things like "He knows the value of a buck." and "he squeezes a penny hard enough to make Honest Abe holler for mercy." and "for him, disposable income is indisposed."

Yet there was a day when he must have been on a spending spree. Our Dad had been to the sprawling metropolis of Bismarck, which in that day had about thirty thousand inhabitants and probably dozens of stores. He came back with some glasses, and they were definitely not the prescription type. They were black and horn-rimmed with attached eyebrows, no lenses, a large plastic nose and a bushy mustache.

They were known as Groucho Glasses or Beaglepusses. This novelty item was meant to caricaturize Groucho Marx, who was an iconic comedian and game-show host of that time period.

One early evening after dinner around 1962, I watched him get into disguise by putting on the false glasses and then climb into his '51 fastback Chevy and mosey down the gravel road to visit some neighbors. At that time, one would never think of making a visit driving a truck or pickup unless you were driving such a vehicle as a part of work.

Today people in urban environments are constantly crossing paths with others. Many times we may not know their names. We are likely to work with many others. We make contact with them on a daily basis. They become our community.

In those days, there was a lot of visiting amongst country people, but in day to day activity, one might go for days seeing and speaking only with those you lived with. Community would be an area in a twenty or twenty-five mile radius around a town of 800. Perhaps 2000 people or less were in that area. For those in the country, one's next-door neighbor may be a mile or more away.

How one approached a visit depended on the folks one was visiting. Many of the older people in the area were immigrants. Most of my father's generation were the children of immigrants. Those origins colored how one responded to social interaction. Most then had links to either Scandinavia, Germany or Russia. Those Russian links were often to those of German ancestry who had a few generations earlier immigrated from Germany at the behest of Catherine the Great of Russia, who was German.

One might drive into a neighbor's yard and get out and knock on the door, or wander around the yard looking for someone. One might also wait in the car, perhaps because a pack of dogs were surrounding the car and acting a bit hostile, or perhaps one would blow the horn. As phones became more common, one might phone ahead to see if anyone was there.

Some country folks were downright jumpy, and needed to be approached with caution. This was not Mayberry - the fictional town of Andy Griffith - or Cicely - the fictional Alaskan town in Northern Exposure. The long shadow of a mass murder forty years earlier lay over the area.[1]

My father returned an hour or so later. He had the funniest look on his face. He related that he had driven to the neighbors. He had honked his horn. The neighbors had come out on the porch. He entered their home wearing the Beaglepusses. His hosts brought out cool-aid and cookies. They sat around for a few minutes chatting about weather and crops. My father said that he got the impression that they didn't know who he was and were too polite to ask.

So ends a cute little story about my father's sly sense of humor and the polite hospitality of some slightly eccentric, but essentially normal neighbors. But, let's think about it a bit more. Suppose there's more to it than that. Suppose our neighbors were more politic than polite. Suppose they were playing a counter-trick on my dad. Suppose they were going to let him squirm his way into how to resolve this subtle stand-off. On a more serious note, perhaps their reaction was affected by memory of the Wolf Murders 42 years before (the mass murder I referred to earlier). Perhaps they wondered whether he had gone off the deep end. After all, my father was well known as a skilled aerial hunter and his expertise with a 12-gauge was legendary.


We'll never know for sure.


[1] The Wolf family of eight was murdered outside of Turtle Lake North Dakota in April of 1920. Although a suspect was charged and sentenced to life in prison for the crime, many in the area believed that the wrong man was convicted and the real killers went unpunished. This theory is shared by many journalists, authors and researchers.