Excerpt from Kathryn Nocerino, "Americanism" (1999)
The incidents referred to in this autobiographical short story take place in the 1950s during the
McCarthy era when thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist
sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before
government panels. The congressional hearings conducted by Senator McCarthy were shown on TV.
"What's a Communist?" I said.
My mother didn't even look up; what was going on was much too interesting. She said, still fixated on the shouting man, "Did you find the oatmeal cookies? They're in the bread box."
"Communist." That word was all over the place. Related terms, equally mysterious to me, also came up a
lot in conversation. Instead of "communist," someone could be, say, a "Russia Firster", a "pinko
," a "fellow traveller," a "Red Pepper." The man who was currently the Vice President had originally run against a woman who, he claimed, was "pink right down to her underwear." You'd open up a newspaper or a magazine, and they'd be in there too:
"Your Child Could Become A Communist" by Herbert Hoover. Hoover ran the FBI, which was always on TV
in a baggy suit, firing off revolvers.
The man on the TV screen in our living room went on, seeming to get more and more excited: “Fifth Amendment Communists … pinkos everywhere you look …”
If the weather was bad, I’d just go into my room and do the homework. On good days, I’d go outside and look for adventures. (…)
[One] night, both of my parents insisted on watching their favorite incomprehensible program, The Table Show
. “How dare you talk to me like that, you pinko?” the man in the center was howling; “I’m a war hero.”
“War hero my ass,” my father said.
“Teddy …,” went my mother.
“Some war hero. ‘Tail Gunner Joe
.’ The way he drinks, I bet he couldn’t hit a palm tree if he used a cannon!”
My father knew what he was talking about. During World War II he was in ROTC
and they trained him to be a marksman
. He could shoot as well as Buffalo Bill
. Or even Geronimo
The man on the set was continuing: “Do you know what a ‘pixie’ is, sir?”
The man on the other side of the table answered, “Yes, I believe I do.”
Mr. Eyebrows said, “Is this statement true or false: is a ‘pixie’ closely related to a ‘fairy’?”
I didn’t know why they watched this nonsense. I was especially disappointed that night since I was counting on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
or at the very least, Walt Disney, to help me forget the rotten afternoon I had. Naturally, I was still ticked the following day when I showed up for Assembly. Nothing much
to look forward to, here. Assembly, which used to be more fun than a barrel of monkeys, had become as routine as the Andy Devine Show
. We’d sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by “America the Beautiful”; then, if Miss Stanforth was feeling particularly energetic, “The Street I Live On.” Then we’d all stand up, clap our right arm over our chest diagonally, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
I enjoyed doing all this the first few times, but eventually, I could sing the songs and do the Pledge in my
sleep. I started thinking, involuntarily, about the Elbow Grease incident. Now, assuming—just for the sake of conjecture, you understand—that there was a monster in the swamp, what color would it be? Would it be a murky pea-green like the dinosaurs which were starting to appear, in absolutely hair-raising artist’s renditions, in the pages of Life magazine, or would it be a dusty gray like the elephants in the Central Park Zoo? Would it make noises? Could you teach it to say things like the kitten on the Andy Devine Show who I
was actually sure was a ventriloquist who
taught Andy to do his unvarying assortment of dim-bulb routines?
Next thing I knew, a very loud voice was calling my name: “Miss
Nocerino, you shall come up on stage. Immediately. And you too, Allen!”
I looked around me. Everyone else was in his or her seat. And they were all looking straight at me. I was still upright, my hand diagonally over my chest.
Miss Stanforth took each of us by the collar. “Look at these students, children!” she said. “They, by their reprehensible behavior, have shown deliberate disrespect for the flag of our country!”
“But Miss Stanforth” I squeaked, “I was only thinking!”
“I know what you were thinking,” she said. “You were thinking this is all a big joke. Well, it’s not a joke. Senator McCarthy, one of our greatest war heroes, is putting himself on the line to fight for our basic
“He’s no war hero,” I piped up. “My father said he couldn’t hit a palm tree if he used a cannon!”
Miss Stanforth changed colors under her makeup: “Your father is a Communist!
Wow, I thought, so that’s what a Communist is; no wonder he won’t let me have a Captain Video Club Ring…
Miss Stanforth continued, gasping for breath, “You are going home right now and you will not come back until your parents, both of them, have spoken to the Principal. You will learn what it means to be an American!”
Allen, she merely gave a light cuff upside his head. He’d been shooting pellets again out of a straw. Allen would just go out the front door and maybe visit the Five-and-Dime to shoplift something. His mother, one
of the two divorced women in our community, was away in Manhattan, Land of Mystery and Danger, at work.
Allen and I walked out the front door of PS 214. “Hey, Allen,” I said, “you want my lunch? I’m not hungry.” I took it out of its Minnie Mouse lunch box, a cream cheese and jelly sangwidge on Wonder Bread.
“Sure,” he said, and immediately began wolfing it down.
“Hey, wanna throw rocks?” he asked, between bites.
I waved goodbye to him and trudged home. Oh, boy, I’m in for it now, I thought, anticipating the look that would be on my mother’s face as I showed up from school five hours too early.
The apartment was very quiet for a while. When my father came home, the two of them went into a back room and talked. Then my father patted me on the head. “You’re my daughter,” he said. “No child of ours is
I smiled. My father was the smartest person in the world. He’d prove I was an American: he’d walk into PS 214 the next day with my birth certificate. I’d seen it once. It said, right there in black and white, that I was born in St. Raymond’s Hospital in the South Bronx …
“Let’s put the damn TV on,” he said.
After he adjusted the rabbit ears and whacked the set once or twice for good measure, the image flickered into place. Oh, no, I thought, it’s all those people at the table again. The man with the eyebrows that met in the center of his forehead was jogging up and down in his seat and
bellowing, “There are 6,791 Communists in your toilet bowl
. America, wake up!”
My father said something under his breath and, for the first time in months, changed the channel.
Quelle: Kathryn Nocerino, “Americanism” in: Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan (eds.), Growing up Ethnic in America
(New York: Penguin, 1999), pp. 77-81.
 pinko: here: an insulting term for a communist or a socialist
 The Table Show: the girl’s term for the televised hearings
 Tail Gunner Joe: nickname for Senator Joe McCarthy
 ROTC: army training program for college students
 marksman: a person who is skilled in accurate shooting
 Buffalo Bill: famous American scout, bison hunter, showman
 Geronimo: famous native American chief