DEAR PROFESSOR: I heard this story from a fratman at the University of New Hampshire in about 1955 as an explanation for a threatened administration crackdown on fraternity hazing. I don't know whether to believe it or not.
Supposedly a pledge boasted about his skill as a seducer, and the fraternity set up a hazing prank to accommodate his reputation. First they put him into a familiar predicament for such pranks - alone, blindfolded and stranded 10 miles from anywhere on an old logging road.As the young man started to walk back to town, an attractive blonde driving a convertible stopped to offer him a ride. Much to his delight, the young man soon discovered that he could get more than just a lift back to civilization.
But after they parked in the woods and started necking, another car screeched to a stop. A man jumped out and ran towards them, waving a gun. The blonde shrieked, "That's my husband!"
Several shots were fired - all blanks - but the pledge fainted before his fraternity brothers could identify themselves as the players in this little drama. I never met any of the actors in this episode, though I heard about it from several people. - OTTO H. WALLENFELS, FULTON, N.Y.
DEAR OTTO: I, too, was an undergraduate in the mid 1950s, so accounts of fraternity hazing - and terms like "fratman" and "necking" - strike a nostalgic chord. As for the story, it's a version of "Going to See the Widow," a prank discussed in several folklorists' articles published during the same era.
For example, in 1951 the Journal of American Folklore carried a description of the hoax, calling it "a source of amusement of a rather crude and active type often motivated by a desire on the part of the group to punish an enemy or deflate a braggart."
According to the article, the practice in South Carolina for at least 30 years was to lead the bragger to believe that a lonely widow was anxious to make his acquaintance. When he arrived for the rendezvous at her isolated farmhouse, shotgun blasts were fired by a supposed rival suitor, and the victim fled in panic.
This published item triggered (so to speak) a series of other items in folklore journals that reported similar pranks from other regions. Some reports specifically mentioned a fraternity pledge as the butt of the joke.
One item quoted a March 1951 newspaper report of a Louisiana college student who fell to his death from a cliff into a river while fleeing from pranksters who had tricked him into making a "hot date" with an attractive young married woman.
The angry man with the gun in the stories was variously represented as the woman's husband, lover, brother or father. Sometimes the victim of the prank was forced to "marry" the woman in a mock ceremony before the actors in the prank revealed their true identity and exposed the entire charade.
A Wisconsin version of the prank that someone remembered from life in logging camps at the turn of the century was set up as if it were a trip to town for the purpose of "Going to Callahan's Dance."
A similar report from the Ozarks called "Blind Date on Bull Creek" was published from a folklore collection made in 1938 in a Missouri mountain settlement.
Further items that appeared in the journal Western Folklore in 1955 and 1958 related a Nevada version of the prank ("Going to See the O'Reilly Sisters") and two occupational variations from California ("The Trucker's Wife" and "The Brakeman's Wife").
To make the bibliographic record as complete as I can, I must add that H. Allen Smith described the same prank in his book "The Compleat Practical Joker" in 1953, and that John O'Hara mentioned it in an article in Collier's magazine in 1954.
None of these parallels proves that the scam wasn't really pulled at several different places and times. But like you, Otto, I never met any firsthand participants. Nor have I heard of anyone being tricked into "going to see the widow" for the past 35 years or so.
So, at this point the prank is probably nothing more than a practical-joke legend.