While living in Switzerland I discovered the fascination of Europeans with America’s Old West, often in amusing ways. Hollywood oaters featuring the likes of Hopalong Cassiday or Roy Rogers created European notions of the days of American cowboys and Indians more than any history book.
An early exposure to the European conception of the Old West came while talking with a visa applicant at the American Consulate General in Geneva where I was stationed as a consular officer.
“Do you have any questions?” I asked while signing the visa in her passport.
“Yes, I do,” she replied. “Will it be safe for me to travel by train from Denver to San Francisco?”
Baffled by her inquiry, I could only reply, “Yes, train travel in the United States is quite safe.” And then I added, “Why do you ask?”
“I’m worried about an Indian attack,” she replied with a straight face.
I bit my lip to keep from laughing. This is the summer of 1963, I thought to myself, could she truly believe such a danger still exists?
“Madame, you have no need for concern,” I advised.
Later I saw an ad in a local newspaper for a dude ranch in nearby France. Curiosity drew me to the site on a Sunday afternoon where I discovered young men wearing ten-gallon hats, chaps, and cap pistol six-shooters. They greeted each other with “howdy,” typically pronounced in French as “oh-DEE,”and practiced quick draws in imaginary duels.
A saloon was available with swinging louvered doors, a creaking wooden floor, and a bar with a large mirror behind it. Outside, steer horns were attached to several posts for the local “cowboys” to practice lassoing imaginary cattle, while shouting such things as “get along little dogie.”
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Westerns were commonly available in local movie theaters. I often attended to improve my French by reading subtitles while listening to the dialogue in English. On one such occasion I wondered what the translation might be when a villain sporting a black hat and heavy whiskers strutted into a saloon, slammed a silver dollar on the bar, and scowled, “Bartender, gimme a shot of red eye.”
I laughed out loud when I read the subtitle: “Monsieur, un aperitif, s’il vous plait.” The English equivalent, “Sir, a light beverage, please,” would be more suitable for a tea party than the sneering approach of a western heavy.
When a Geneva department story, the Grand Passage, held an “American Week” promotion, I attended as a representative of the consulate general, taking my three-year-old daughter, Micki, with me.
Europeans think of the United States as the land of gadgetry and flamboyance, so I wasn’t surprised to find a kitchen display with a toaster built into a counter and a bright red refrigerator that made ice cubes, something quite novel at the time. The supposed typical American toilet had a colorful floral design in the porcelain and a push button paper dispenser.
Neither of those exhibits drew nearly as much attention as an apparent American Indian standing on a short pedestal. A lengthy line of people waited to have their picture taken with the muscular young man adorned with colorful markings on his face and dressed in full Indian regalia. Bare-chested, he wore a feathered head dress, chamois pants with fringe on the seams, and silver armlets.
As one after another moved forward and paid to have their picture taken with the sober-faced young man, he greeted each with an “Ugh” or a “How” while a photographer snapped flash after flash.
“Can I have my picture taken with the man, too?” my daughter asked.
I consented to please Micki, but also to satisfy my curiosity about the spectacle. When we neared the front of the line and chatted in English, the young man on the pedestal turned our way and asked, “Hey, are you from the States.”
I nodded my head, and he smiled. Moments later it was Micki’s turn for her photo, giving me an opportunity to chat with the star attraction.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Iowa,” I responded.
“No kidding,” he replied. “I’m a student at Iowa U.”
Thinking perhaps this was all an act, I asked, “Are you really an Indian?”
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“One-hundred percent Fox Indian. At least that’s what you pale faces call us,” he said with a smile. “I was raised on the Tama Reservation.”
“Where’d you get that outfit?” I asked.
“From a theatrical agency. One that supplies this stuff for movies. You don’t find anything like it on the reservation.”
“So what brings you to Geneva?”
“This is how I’m working my way through Iowa U. I tour Europe all summer. These folks eat up the Indian stuff. This is my last gig, then I head for Iowa City. Classes start September 19.”
“Good luck to you,” I offered. “Hope the Hawkeyes have a good season.”
“Yeah, me too. They open at home against Washington State near the end of September.”
With my daughter’s photo completed, we said “good-bye” to our fellow Iowan and left the photo scene. In the background, we again heard “Ugh” and “How.”
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: email@example.com