Discovering Indians, 1951

Nana and Pop were the first on their block in Queens to get a TV. Sprawled on the single bed within my little room’s sloped walls, I was mesmerized by the fuzzy black and white images of Saturday morning.

“Pa-a-a-a-t!” The call rattled in my open window again, as loud as at its point of origin, two stories down, on the crooked sidewalk between our grandparents’ house and his.

I saw Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but I’m not sure that was Saturday. Saturday mornings were serial westerns. Hopalong Cassidy and his white horse. I remember waving fields of grain and the William Tell Overture, so I must have seen The Lone Ranger, only I thought it was “The Long Ranger.” I also recall his white horse. I was seven, much more interested in horses than cowboys. For the next few years, I would collect Hi-Yo Silver comics.

On the tiny screen a stagecoach was being pursued by bandits, its horses galloping full tilt past the same bush they’d galloped past a minute ago. I was confused. Were they running in circles? There it was again!


I heaved myself off the bed with a sigh and leaned out the window. Below me, my cousin Charlie paused, hands on the battered metal toy truck he’d been pushing noisily up and down the sidewalk. I knew that because I’d been hearing him do it, just as I’d been hearing him call me, through the haze of my television trance.

“What?” I asked, annoyed.

“Come play,” he demanded.

“Later,” I replied, and went back to the TV.

Indians attacked a wagon train. Women and children huddled behind barricades of barrels and sandbags. (Sandbags? That couldn’t be. It’s what I remember, though: the frightened face of the heroine peering over a wall of improbable sandbags.) Whooping Indians rode past, bareback, bare-legged, themselves and their horses decorated with paint and feathers, their hair long and dark. I sat up, fascinated, forgot the heroine. Who were those guys?

A sturdy smell of kielbasa, spare ribs, apples and sauerkraut climbed the steep stairs from Nana’s kitchen. Mostly, a smell of sauerkraut. I wrinkled my nose, but wasn’t worried. Nan always boiled hot dogs for the kids when she made her Old Country dish. Mom was working and Daddy’d gone to help Pop at the shoe shop. Sometimes he took me. I liked the smell of the leather and the noise the big green machine made when its bristly wheels turned. I liked the upside down metal feet that were a thin, abstract idea of feet, and the way shoes fit over them to have their new half soles attached.

We’d lived several places in New York, and now we lived with Nana and Pop on 65th Place in Woodside. Their house was narrow, tall and had a huge yard. I didn’t know we were living with them because Daddy didn’t have a job. I didn’t know that when he got a job it would take us to a foreign land called Florida. I didn’t know that TV would not reenter my life until I was in high school and too set in my book-reading ways to take up watching it again. I only knew I liked living with Nana and Pop, because of the TV, because my favorite cousin Charlie lived next door, and because Nana sometimes said, “Come here, Patty-girl. Shh! Don’t tell Mommy,” and gave me a slice of Pop’s special Dutch chocolate. This chocolate didn’t come in a thin, flat bar. When you opened its fancy square box and unwrapped its bright foil, it was a dark apple magically sliced into perfect wedges. Mommy said I couldn’t have any before dinner. That’s why we had to whisper.

In the dim living room where the TV usually stayed, a pair of wooden shoes rested on the mantle. A picture of windmills and a cartoony drawing called “Weesp in a Tub” hung on the walls. I was drawn to their mystery, only knew they belonged to Siebe Keuning, my grandfather. The peach and cherry trees, the grape arbor, the kielbasa and sauerkraut—those were Nana’s. For years, I believed chocolate was a Dutch invention and the smell of sausage and sauerkraut still drops me into Kataryna Dubrava’s Slovak kitchen.

But right then, nothing mattered except the new, marvelous thing called television. A bugle announced men in uniform coming to the rescue. The women and children behind the sandbags cheered. Indians were picked off their horses left and right, seemed to fall before they were shot. I stood up, dismayed. It was a rout. Tears startled me: I didn’t know I was going to cry. I was crying for those exotic creatures I’d never seen before, who were dying the moment I’d found them. I was crying perversely, against the black and white grain of the plot, for the wrong side.


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6 Responses to Discovering Indians, 1951

  1. Phil McDorgan says:


  2. Gregg Painter says:

    I’m sure I discovered Indians on TV, too, because I remember driving through Wisconsin with my family back when I was four, in the 50’s, and when hearing from my dad that we were driving through an Indian reservation, I pictured dangerous Indians with tomahawks. Perhaps I said something to that effect and was reassured by my parents that Real Indians are nothing like TV Indians.

    Now, horses? Never much cared for ’em. Have ridden horses many times, never too happily. Once I almost fell off a horse when it broke into a gallop when it came within sight of the Boy Scout stables. One friend of mine was bitten on the shoulder by a horse. Name any animal bigger than me, and I’m probably a little scared of it. Except for the Yeti, of course. It’s supposed to be vegetarian, isn’t it? But, then, that would be impossible in Tibet. I’m almost inclined to believe that the Yeti is an imaginary creature.

    By the way, if you’re ever in Portland, Maine, be sure to avoid the Worst Museum in the World: The International Museum of Cryptozoology. The guy who runs the place takes your $7 outside of the door to the museum, because he knows that if you glanced inside – at the room of plastic Sasquatches still in their stupid boxes, inept UFO paintings, and yellowing newspaper clippings about some ridiculous New England hoax monster – that you would not give him $7.

    The Best Museum in the World is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California. When I returned home from my daughter’s graduation to the horizontal sleet of Denver on Mother’s Day night, my first thought was not of how happy I was that my daughter had graduated with a degree (Magna Cum Laude) in Science, but that I would never have to go back to Los Angeles again. I was there six times in six years and I do not like it, no I don’t. Although I might go back one day to see The Best Museum in the World…and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of the best museums in the world.

  3. patti bippus says:

    Isn’t it just amazing how voices, smells, sounds, and images from long ago bring the past to the present so quickly and clearly? Clearly, if we “trust” the judgement of our minds in remembering the REAL past we lived. I’ve been experiencing a lot of those triggers lately since working on organizing our upcoming high school class reunion this fall. Fifties music and old friends’ voices and memories make me smile, and even yearn for days of yore. (Just a little bit)

    My favorite “Indian” story happened about 35 years ago when we lived in Alaska in a small fishing village populated by the “Indians” who were/are my friends, my childrens’ godparents, and people of much laughter and great fun. We always went “outside” for the summer to visit relatives and always took an extra kid or two along. We were driving through Montana when we spotted a sign that read, “You are entering the Blackfoot Reservation.” One of our summer kids asked, “Wow, do you think we’ll get to see a real Indian?” His sister, who was old enough to know that they were part of a Tlingit family themselves, gave me one of those eye-roll looks that teenagers use so frequently and laughed as we all began looking for “real Indians” on our journey.

  4. winnie barrett says:

    Patricia, another wonderful read.
    We got TV in 1947 in New Jersey, when I was 5 years old. I grew up on those shows you so vividly recall, and also “Junior Frolics”, a cartoon show, Howdy Doody, of course, and one you may not have heard of, “The Magic Cottage”. The magic was in the drawings of a woman dressed like a fairy, on a large pad of newsprint, the characters of which came to life and played out a story. That showed on the Dumont Television Network, from Dumont NJ.
    And then there was “Captain Video and his Video Rangers” about space travel. very exciting. I was totally into it. About ten years ago I saw a retrospective on early TV and there was Captain Video himself. What I had so long ago completely believed and become a part of back then, I now saw for what it really was. The space travelers wore business suits and ties, with no more than a motorcycle helmet for a costume. They sat at a desk, which had a few “dials” lying around, which looked like knobs off of old ovens. And the take-off from earth turned out to be a camera close-up of a map of Manhattan, pulling back to the five boroughs, then of the northeast, and then—space!
    I had a vivid imagination. And I think, so did the producers of the show,who (correctly) believed that children would lose themselves in the play, as I did.

  5. Bob Jaeger says:

    “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy,” rasped Andy Devine, and out of the top of the grandfather clock, in a cloud of smoke, popped a mischievous frog puppet who pranked poor Andy every show. Early TV seemed so innocent.

  6. Jana says:

    What a trip to the past, Pat! I can remember hurrying home from school to watch the Mickey Mouse Club–Annette was the best! I can relate, Gregg. When my dad died in February, and I was on my way home driving out of Arizona, I looked one last time at the beauty that really is Arizona, determined to NEVER return to that state again. It is so conservative it makes my skin crawl! As we watched TV together, my dad used to remind me, “I never voted for him, Jana” and I used to wonder if anyone did, or if all the elections down there are rigged!

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