All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Out in front, five massive Indians, resembling sarcophagi from King Tut's Tomb, stood in a row. Each was wrapped in a blanket with his arms folded beneath it, and each blanket was painted differently with bold Indian designs. The Indians were made of concrete too. An old photo shows my mother and me standing next to one of them in winter, when I was only four.
In those days, the Indians were repainted every spring; and admiring their shiny new coats of paint seemed like an important annual event to me. But, as I grew older I began to notice that the repainting had come to an end. Neglected, over the years, their final paint job faded, and the concrete Indians began to crumble. First, small chips and cracks appeared. Then chunks of them, broken feathers and a nose or two dropped to the ground. Eventually, one even lost his head. The giant Teepee, too, with its once bright Indian markings, faded and deteriorated, until what was once a source of wonderment to me, became an object of ridicule and jest.
But the vast interior, which resembled an enormous cave, never changed, nor did the food. The inner walls appeared to be hewn of rock, hung with moss. And the ceilings, beams, and other trim, as well as the tables and chairs were fashioned from rustic logs. The railings, that guided one along the cafeteria line, were slender saplings, polished to a glowing patina by the touch of countless hands. They led, across the rocky floor, past the gleaming showcases of food, which were the only modern elements in this, otherwise, ancient world.
We always ordered the same thing: Fillet of Soul, a teepee-shaped plateau of broiled fish, beside which, a majestic mountain of fluffy white potatoes rose, with a lake of smooth brown gravy floating at its summit. And, in the upper corner of the plate, a single wedge of lemon, like a crescent moon, shone down upon the scene. I knew that this was genuine American Indian Cuisine.
The deserts were next in line; an array of shimmering glimmering jiggling jewel-like Jell-O, cut into geometrically perfect cubes. I have never seen Jell-O cubes so perfectly cut, before, or since. They looked so beautiful in the illuminated showcase. I reached up for them, almost with regret, knowing that, as I removed them from the light, the cubes would cease to sparkle, and turn dark and somber by the time they reached my tray. I usually chose the Green, and when I didn't, I wished I had.
Then, the line veered to the right, and while my father stopped to pay the bill, we stood before an awe inspiring Waterfall that towered from the ceiling to the floor. Emanating from a secret source high up in the dark rafters, water trickled down the layered limestone face and into a semi-circular pond, where shining goldfish swam and a thousand pennies twinkled in the dim twilight. Each penny had been placed there with a wish. I wish…that I could return there, now. Well, I guess, I just did. And, forgive me; I'm not yet ready to leave…
The place was huge, and like those Busby Berkley musicals, in which, what looks like an ordinary stage goes on, and on, beyond the bounds of reason, and this, the world's biggest concrete Teepee, was spectacularly, bigger still, inside. One massive dining room led to another, as an Indian maiden led us to our table. Each tabletop was actually a rustic shadow box, several inches deep. Beneath the glass lay a murky world of dark brown moss and Indian arrowheads with iridescent blue butterflies and ominous multi-colored moths. I wondered, uneasily, how long that stuff had been under there, and if the kitchen was anything like that. The insects were dead, of course, I hoped, scary, but also beautiful.
Do you remember Hedge's Wigwam; a towering Teepee of Concrete that stood, just beyond the borders of Sherwood Forest on the other side of Woodward Avenue? It was one of the Seven Wonders of my young World. Why it was called a "Wigwam", when any child knew it was really a Teepee, was a mystery to me, then and now.
I would eat fast, for as soon as I had finished, I was allowed to get up to look at the fish again, and then venture into the gift shop alone. By the time, my parents joined me; I would have already chosen what I wanted. And sometimes, I actually got it, a "Sebastian Miniature" of Paul Bunion or Ichabod Crane, etc. I have them still. But, most of the time I gladly settled for a "maple sugar man". This was a tiny figure of a man; all made of Maple sugar, wearing a bowler hat, and laid to rest in a tiny box, with a small round window for him to peek out of. In the days and weeks that followed, I slowly, bit by bit, bite by bite, nibbled him into oblivion, beginning with the toes and saving the head till last. I discovered that, when his body was gone, his little face could still be placed, to look out the window, until the very end.
A search on Google, just now, informed me that Hedge's Wigwam burned to the ground in 1970.