Two American geezers in Munchkinlandia

Having arrived to the U.S. in 1962, at age 14, I missed much of the cultural iconography that guided American kids who grew up during the 1950s.

I missed “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) starring Judy Garland and Bert Lahr; “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed; or even some of the mainstream TV fare like “Leave It to Beaver,” which debuted in 1957, starring Tony Dow, whom Stew reportedly had an early crush on. I even missed the “Mickey Mouse Club,” starring Annette Funicello, which had an initial run between 1955 and 1958.

Since my arrival, and becoming an American citizen five years later, I have put myself through some accelerated cultural acculturation.

I have seen with “All About Eve” (1950) with Bette Davis snarling “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” as only she could; “Gone with the Wind” (1939) with Clark Gable not giving a damn; and even Joan Crawford flinging chicken and waffles in the 1945 “Mildred Pierce.

Still, when a friend from Chicago, with whom we’ll be spending Thanksgiving, included a reference in an email to Dorothy clicking the heels of her “ruby slippers” three times, I was stumped. Stew knew it had to something do with the “Wizard of Oz,” but not much else.

Ah, now I know who you are!

So last week we rented the “Wizard” from Amazon, and we both loved it. The production was amazing, particularly for a film made that long ago; the music instantly recognizable; and Bert Lahr and Judy Garland terrific.

(I was left wondering, though, how the producers managed to recruit so many singing and dancing little people, formerly known as midgets, to play a squad of Munchkins.  Or were they children? Anyone know?)

Even with the Wiz under my belt, I was unprepared to encounter maybe 50 or 75 live Mexican Munchkins in Querétaro on Saturday.

We had gone there looking a small chest of drawers at a furniture store advertising “Buen Fin,” or the Mexican equivalent of the American “Black Friday.”

As we feared, the furniture store—and seemingly the whole city of Querétaro—was a madhouse of traffic, jammed parking lots, and people lugging 60-plus-inch TVs to their cars. The furniture store even had a group of about a dozen car jockeys, aged circa 18 years old, manning the valet parking franchise.

Next time, read the signs. 

So we went looking for a place to eat and pulled into a Dairy Queen, where Stew had hoped to get a hamburger or such, except this store served only ice cream, sundaes and soft drinks.

“Let’s go next door to Chuck E. Cheese,” I suggested. I’d never been to a Chuck E. Cheese and thought it was a mouse-themed hamburger joint.

I should have paid more attention to the sign outside, which clearly warned, in English, “Where A Kid Can Be A Kid.

Talk about a clueless old coot (me).

Inside we found instead a huge indoor game arcade, with a cacophony of games, all tooting, flashing and clanging for attention.

Plus a mob of kids, average age about five, running around screaming, like Munchkins on speed, from one machine to another, with most parents looking on from a distance.

Hungry and undeterred, we went in and ordered a pizza, and sat at booth to take in this unexpected spectacle. Food was so-so and a minor attraction at this place anyway, which looked like a casino designed for kindergarteners.

Batman and vroom, vroom need no translation. 

We were the only unaccompanied men in the place, which made us feel just a tad self-conscious. I generally love kids and approach them to ask their names, and in the case of boys, exchange a fist-bump.

Except here, the thought ran through my head, someone might take us for a couple of old perverts and call the police.

I noticed that everything about this place was in English: The instructions on the games and even the public announcements. The only concession to Spanish I found was the sign with the menu entrees.

It was as if someone had plucked a store deep in Wisconsin, parachuted it on Querétaro, and just turned on the electricity.

Push this here, mi’ijo. 

This place was, in fact, a testimonial to the unstoppable power of American culture and language, which made translations and other adjustments largely redundant.

I bet most of the light-skinned, middle-class Mexican parents at this Chuck E. Cheese’s knew enough English to show the kids how to play the games.

And from watching American television and movies, the kids hardly needed an introduction to Batman, race cars, or cowboys and Indians.

If this place were a German- or French-themed franchise, it probably wouldn’t work.

But it was American-themed and, for all the occasional nationalistic, anti-gringo blather, upwardly mobile Mexicans can’t seem to get enough of American pop cultural exports.

On the way in, an attendant had stamped our arm, which she checked on the way out before releasing the latch on the exit door.

She explained this was a security measure to prevent the little monsters from escaping, or leaving with the wrong adult. Chuck E. had thought of everything.

We left, paused for a second to let our ears adjust, and ran to the Dairy Queen for dessert.

Dessert indeed. We spotted a couple of handsome, bearded guys in their twenties, sitting at a table on a small terrace in front, passionately, and conspicuously, hugging and kissing each other, in broad daylight.

Two guys making out in front of a Dairy Queen: That’s when you know American culture really has moved into Mexico.

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