shepquest

MY BOOKS ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD

SHEP'S ARMY: BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDOGGLES, Opus Books. Nearly three dozen of Shepherd's army stories never before in print introduced and transcribed. Foreword by Keith Olbermann. (published August 2013)

EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD, Applause Books (published March, 2005)

Archives by Subject

JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Story–Drugs & (130) ARTSY Variations, Ashanti Dolls

I was upstairs looking for stuff.  I went into the bathroom and there was the medicine cabinet.  I opened it up and there were these fantastic bottles.  There must have been twenty-five bottles of stuff in there.  All kinds.  I was always fascinated by capsules—they looked like celluloid jelly beans or little Mexican jumping beans.  Bottles—yellow, green, purple labels.  They said “Take two a day,” or “Take one after every meal,” with all these prescriptions typed out.  So Schwartz and I were looking at the bottles.

The elicit urge!  I can understand why kids try all kinds of drugs and stuff.  Because the first thing I did, I opened up a bottle of yellow ones.  They were beautiful yellow ones, and I took one.  Went down easy.  Schwartz said, “Gimme one of them red ones,” and he took a red one.  Then there was a bunch of little capsules with all kinds of colored little bee bees in them.  Red, green, and blue bee bees! So I took three of those.  Schwartz tried one of the purple ones that was for the “Fit.”  I saw, way on the top shelf, they had one of those flat, round, cardboard boxes and it had prescription numbers and I opened it up and there were flat, sort of pastel things in it.  “In case of hives.”  So I took a half a dozen of them.  Both of us were sitting there on the floor eating those things like candy!  We must have eaten a few dozen things of various colors. There’s no explanation I can give why it didn’t kill us.

But all of a sudden, way down deep in my gut I felt a feeling which to this day I have not forgotten.  It felt like there was an exploding grapefruit down in my gut.  I don’t know why a grapefruit, but there was a certain very sour taste that came up at the same time, that kept growing bigger and bigger and exploding larger.  Some bizarre chemical reaction, and bubbles started to come up out of my mouth.  I saw Schwartz, and I don’t want to describe him, but both of us were lying on the floor screaming and yelling for about half an hour.

And then it passed.  And what do you think we did?  Opened up the medicine cabinet and started again.  People never learn!

End of Shepherd’s morality tale.

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Fertility dolls of the Ashanti people of Ghana, Africa, are said to be placed in the waist band of women to promote pregnancy and  a healthy baby. (The flat head apparently provides a more comfortable and secure position.) They come in many varieties, most with a fairly simple cylindrical base, and a small percentage with carved lower body and feet. Many examples (that seem to be “authentic”) I find to be badly carved and ugly. Like so many ethnic arts, they also come in the rather common form of cheap stuff made for sale to tourists and other un-initiates—and to many who mistakenly think they have something authentic.

Opening Page Images From Google.

Most Seem Authentic to Me.

Three with Carved Bodies. And one not “Pretty,”

but Probably Authentic.

At right, two on Permanent Exhibit at New York’s

Museum of Natural History.

Three Examples on the Right Have the

More Frequently Occurring Cylindrical Base.

I own one such doll, which I bought in a Parisian antiquarian shop on the Left Bank in 1966. I’ve believed it was an authentic piece, made for local use, then acquired by someone who sold it to the shop, and thus it came into my possession—but I’ve always wondered a bit if I’d been deluded. So, when the American Museum of Natural History began installing a temporary display of African Art loaned by the British Museum, I entered the exhibit in progress and encountered a doll that looked much like mine. The next day I brought mine in and showed it to an authority on African art, the British Museum curator overseeing the installation. He said that the doll in the exhibit was his personal property, and that mine seemed to have been made by the same carver as his—thus authenticating mine.

My Ashanti Doll.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Story–Drugs & (129) ARTSY Variations: Canopas

Pharmaceutical Adventure

Another example of Shepherd telling a story as a metaphor—especially in an era when youngsters were experimenting with drugs to a larger extent than before. He once commented on the air that life was full enough with exciting possibilities without having to resort to drugs.

I think one of the most exciting parts of anyone’s house is the medicine cabinet.  It tells so many sordid stories.  Subtle secrets.  You go into this guy’s house.  You’re visiting the head of the English Department.  You’ve been invited to the faculty tea and you’re upstairs and you’re supposed to be washing your hands.  You open the medicine cabinet and look.  There’s a bottle that says, “IN CASE OF FIT, take three times quickly and say SHAZAM!”  Signed Dr. Gumpock.  And you wonder who’s having a fit!  What kind of fit?

Well, there was this old house—there’s always a house that people have moved out of in your neighborhood.  Kids are always drawn to them, and this one time Schwartz and me got into this place.  We’re running around in this empty house.  There were papers on the floor, an old apple core in the corner and a busted chair, a Sears Roebuck catalog and a pile of old newspapers, a broken comb, that sort of thing.

You know that secret sense of being in a house that isn’t yours?  There must be a certain excitement, a satisfaction, of being a burglar.  Break into somebody’s house, walk around in it.  You open the refrigerator.  They’ve found that almost all burglars open the refrigerator.  That doesn’t mean that they eat anything out of it, but they open the refrigerator.  It’s one of the basic things—it represents food—life, there it is.

More Pharmaceuticals to Come

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VARIATIONS

CANOPA/CONOPA

“Small stone figurines, or conopas, of llamas and alpacas were the most common ritual effigies used in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia. [Usually thought of as having been made during the Inca period—before Pizarro—but some may be much more recent.] These devotional objects were often buried in the animals’ corrals to bring protection and prosperity to their owners and fertility to the herds. The cylindrical cavities in their backs were filled with offerings to the gods in the form of a mixture including animal fat, coca leaves, maize kernels, and seashells.” (Brooklyn Museum)

Canopas depict camelids—not the Eastern Hemisphere camels that vary depending on the number of humps, but the South American kind—alpacas, llamas, and also vicuna and guanacos–two forms which seem not to have been depicted in canopas).

One encounters some of the long-necked llamas, but seeming, more frequently carved, are alpacas, carved with stringy hair usually indicated from their throats and down their chest. (The “suri” variation of the actual animal, at least today, have this hair all over the body.) Many carvings are about four inches long, but can be somewhat bigger or smaller. The few reaching 5” long seem to have increased majesty about them. In the Peoples of South America Hall of New York’s museum of natural history, the Inca section has a well-done larger example.

Suri Type of Alpaca and What is Probably a Suri Canopa

I’ve been interested in canopas for decades, so I’ve encountered and printed out scores of photos of them from ebay and by googling. (With two spelling variations, one has to search both.) I have three examples– a small black alpaca, an even smaller one with stringy hair covering its body, and a rather rare, multi-colored carving that had been decapitated in what is thought to have been a ritual “killing.”

My Canopas (and, on Right, a Coiled Netsuke Rat).

Most frequently seen are alpacas in black stone. Rarities occur in ceramic or wood. Some specimens still retain pieces of the offerings in the cavity, and some have not had the 500-year-old dirt removed from crevices in the stone carving. Many variations appear in shape, details, and color. As sculpted objects, I prefer solid black with a body that is a rounded but somewhat flattened rectangular shape, and a distinctly shaped mane down the front which is nearly flat–only slightly rounded–and with well-sculpted facial features. Variations in body shape and in the treatment of the mane make a considerable difference in overall effect, as does the angle of the neck and head—more upraised gives a more stately effect. Some are two-headed!

On the subject of llamas, note the poem

by whimsical American poet Ogden Nash:

The one-l lama,

He’s a priest.

The two-l llama

He’s a beast.

And I will bet

A silk pajama

There isn’t any

Three-l lllama.*

* The author’s attention has been called to a type of conflagration

known as a three-alarmer. Pooh 

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Story–Picnic finale

On occasion, Shepherd implies some psychological commentary

regarding the American soul.

It’s pure coincidence that this story happened to end this way today.

•   •   •

Some of them had wild colors like red, and some of them were purple.  They must have been big shots!  And there were little kids.  Whole crowds of them.  Getting quite full of potato salad.  It’s a little scary to think of a ghost eating potato salad.

We just sat on our bikes for about five minutes looking at the scene.  Finally, Schwartz said, “Let’s get outa here!”

Flick says, “Ah, come on, come on.  They don’t care.”

Schwartz said, “Come on, let’s go, we’re gonna get in trouble.  I don’t like this.”

Bruner was already whimpering.  He wasn’t saying nothin’.

One of these guys with a long, high cape started to look around with a flashlight.  We started moving, peddling like Billy-be-damned over the gravel roads, through the long, winding forest under the great orange moon surrounded by hoards of gray, moving, misty mosquitoes, until finally we were out on the superhighway.  Out on the superhighway.

What can I tell ya?  What can I tell ya?  Not very much.  Except to say that was one picnic that I did not soon forget.  I remembered those curious white shrouds that looked gray in the dark light of the moon.  It seemed like a fantastic conclave of evil spirits.  Which is, I guess, what they wanted to look like.  And the light.  How they lit the scene.  They had a huge cross that was burning.  A burning cross.  Ever seen a burning cross?  You haven’t?  You’ve heard of it.  Hearin’ of it ain’t the same as seein’ it.  That’s like just hearing about King Kong—it ain’t the same.  So, we rode back on our bikes in absolute silence.  Somehow, that whole picnic scene had changed.

I had no idea what the Ku Klux Klan was.  I’d heard the name, that’s all, just like most of you.  Just heard it.  And I came home about ten o’clock, and I felt very strange about this—it was a really scary experience.

I went up the steps into the kitchen and there’s my mother.  She was hanging over the sink in her Chinese red chenille bathrobe, rump-sprung, with the petrified egg on the lapel, her hair up in curlers.  I was in the kitchen and I’d had nothing to eat.  I opened up the refrigerator and there was half a meatloaf there.  It was a holiday meatloaf—my kid brother’s birthday.  On any holiday occasion my mother put tomato paste on top of the meatloaf, with little sliced olives.  That was a gala meatloaf, so I took it out and made a sandwich.

My mother was hanging over the sink, my kid brother was under the daybed whining, the old man was sitting in the front room in his underwear drinking some beer, which was what he always did when he was sitting around in his underwear in the middle of August.

I don’t know how adults always know these things, but all of a sudden my mother turned and said to me, “What’s the matter?”

I said, “Nothin’.  Nothin’.“

She said, “What’s the matter?  I won’t tell your father.”

I said, “Ma, what’s a Ku Klux Klan?”

Clank!  She dropped the fork she was drying.  “What was that?”

“What’s a Ku Klux Klan, ma?”

She said, “Where did you hear that?”

I said, “You know…I…I just heard it.”

She said, “You stay away from them.  Don’t you ever have anything to do with those people.”

“Why?”

“Just don’t.”

And I never had reason to doubt her.  We’ve never mentioned it since.  I don’t think I have ever told that story to anyone.  In fact, I don’t even tell it to myself.  There are some rocks down in that fetid garden of human souls that we do not wish to turn over.  For fear of the evil grubs that we will find underneath.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Story–more Picnic & (128) ARTSY Variations on a Theme

I said, “A picnic!  What do you mean a picnic?  At night?”

“Yep, they say there’s a picnic down at the forest preserve.  Let’s go.”

So I got my bike out of the garage and got out on the road behind Schwartz and Flick and Bruner, peddling off into that fantastic maw—through this enormous, swirling cloud of mosquitoes, dripping sweat behind us as we went, heading to the forest preserve.  The first time I ever went to a picnic that began at night.

We arrived at the preserve and there was just a great big banner across the front, and it had a symbol on it.  No letters at all.  We drifted down the gravel road.  And there was a kind of excitement—Oh, a picnic at night!  It was a quiet picnic.  There was no band playing.  In every picnic we went to there was some kind of a cockamamie band.  Either it was the Greek-American accordion players or a Dixie band—they always had Dixie bands.  Once in a while some of them would show up with a bunch of guys playing little round things—that was the Croatian-Americans.  They had these black suspenders and puffy sleeves.  But this picnic had no band at all.  Nothing.

Through the woods we could see some lights ahead of us.  Orange lights bobbing up and down.  And then we saw.  Are you ready, friends?  Are you really ready?  I couldn’t believe it.  There in front of us was a whole strange, shifting mass of people like some mirage.  There were big ones and little ones maybe a foot high or three feet high.  There were some big, tall, skinny ones.  But they all looked alike.  Great crowd of them moving past a long table that had food on it.  They had potato salad and it looked like boiled hot dogs.  We would not stay long enough to find out.

I said to Schwartz, “What the heck is that, Schwartz?”

Schwartz said, “It’s a picnic.”

Flick said, “Yeah, come on, let’s get some.  Flick was the dildock of the crowd.  He was always ready to go.  If tarantulas were having a picnic, he’d be there.  He didn’t care.”

And Bruner said, “Aaaaa, I’m scared!”

I said, “What is it?”

Schwartz said, “It’s the Ku Klux Klan!”

We were at the yearly picnic of the Ku Klux Klan.  The KKK.  Have you ever seen a crowd of Ku Klux Klanners moving around in the woods with their capes and robes and those long pointed hoods with the two little black eyes?  With the big cross on the chest?

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VARIATIONS ON A THEME

In music, variations can be thought of as repetitions of a theme

with one or more musical aspects changed, either slightly or drastically.

Over the years I’ve found that I especially respond to variations on a theme in art, humor, and other areas. My understanding is that it was rather popular in music of the 17th century. Beethoven and Brahms were enamored of the idea. In the 20th century, Maurice Ravel “had long toyed with the idea of building a composition from a single theme which would grow simply through harmonic and instrumental ingenuity.” First performed in 1928, his “Bolero” is widely known for its obsessive repetition.  (However, the extraordinary ice dancing in the 1984 Olympics by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, using five-and-a-half minutes of “Bolero,” doesn’t do skating variations at all, but performs continuously different and elegant moves.)

Hokusai, my favorite Japanese woodblock-print artist, was obsessed by Mount Fuji as a religious focus, and, in 1831, portrayed it in his color print series, “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” (contains 46, not 36 images), and in 1834 produced the three-volume monochromatic book set in black, white, and grays, “A Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.”

Best-known color prints from “36 Views” and

two double-page and two single-page images from “100 Views.”

In Japanese netsuke, I discovered that the portrayal of the shi shi dog has been done in a wide variety of forms, and has become one of my favorite examples of variations on a theme.

My shi shi netsuke, displayed in sand,

including ivory from 18th, 19th, and 20th century.

Also some loose-leaf pages with photos of a few variations.

Picasso, among his obsessions, created many images of the Artist and his Model and Artist with Created Work, especially in color, and in his 1930s series of  etchings for Vollard.

An oil, and a crayon image. In the oil on the left,

I like the way he simultaneously depict the model posing,

and as the painted image on the canvas.

Two etchings in the Vollard series.

Some humorists and cartoonists I enjoy also delight in variations on a theme. I especially remember the cartoons of Sam Cobean, who was very popular in the 1940s and early 1950s. Best known are his variations showing the thought balloon above the head of someone who is imagining the person he is viewing (usually imagined naked).

Addendum

The New York Times of August 11, 2017, in its arts section, has a short piece on Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. They provide a short, additional “variation.” (Note that the first and last renditions shown are very similar, and the second, third, and fourth are very similar to each other.) For me, his sunflowers are metaphors for a larger obsession Van Gogh had with the sun itself–its intense brightness, color, heat, fire (the flowers’ petals are flamelike), and life-giving power itself. I show part of the article, plus my favorite Van Gogh depicting the sun.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–more picnic

It sounds like I am exaggerating.  I am not.  It’s strange, shimmering, and it lasts for a few seconds or maybe a minute or two.  When the moon gets in a certain place and all the light is bent right, the atmosphere itself acts as a fantastic, unimaginably huge telescope.  And the moon is suddenly a great orange, curious kind of disk.  Very strangely misshapen—and it’s not very beautiful, it’s a little scary.  It’s dark orange.  It’s called a blood moon.  Have you ever heard the term “blood moon”?  It’s red.  There are gray, smoky drifting wisps that just hang there.  And it’s hot.  Oh my god, is it hot.  It is so hot that you just sit and no matter what you do the water just pours off you.  It drips.  The humidity stands maybe at a hundred-and-forty to a hundred-fifty-percent.  You can just reach out and grab a chunk of air and wring it out.  You just sit there.

The mosquitoes start to move out of the swamps and the shores of the Lake.  They start moving out of the reeds roughly the end of July, and they become epidemic around the middle of August.  You see these great black swarms.  It looks like drifting puffs of dust and smoke.  You can see them outlined against the moon.  Great, drifting clouds of mosquitoes.  You can hear them.  You hear a long, low, distant hum all the time.  Mosquitoes.

And bats.  The bats come out.  You can see these bats around eight or nine o’clock fluttering around the street lights.  See a little bat—pluplupluplu—off he goes.  He is eating right off the top of the hog, because they love when the mosquitoes are out.  By the way, it’s one of man’s very few total defenses against the mosquito—the bats.  In many states they’re protected because a bat will just fly through a swarm of mosquitoes with his mouth wide open sucking.  He’ll just suck ‘em in and he’ll eat millions of them in a day.

So you see the bats and you see the drifting mosquitoes, you see the moon hanging low.  It’s hot.  Once in a while a car goes by.  You can smell the heat from the car itself.  The paint and the bad upholstery.  It just lies there.

It was on a Saturday just like that.  The temperature maybe ninety-five, the humidity the same.  The mosquitoes moving out.  The big moon just about to come up.  Schwartz came by on his bike, said, “Me and Flick and Bruner are going to a picnic.”

More picnic to come.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories-more Picnic

We knew we were onto something good.  We’d accepted the first picnic as a fluke.  From that minute on, every week we would look forward to whatever company picnic came along.  There were wild company picnics.  At some of these picnics, twenty-five thousand people would show up.  The Riesling Chemical Company and the Sinclair Oil Company because of all the steel mills around. I became an aficionado of picnics.  I could tell the cheapy companies and the companies that were in trouble and the companies that were having labor troubles when the big, heavy, tough guys from trucking would show up wearing hard hats.  Every picnic had its own character.

Every one.  And then came the ultimate.  One of the strangest things that ever happened to me in my life, and it came about in this summer of picnic crashing.  We had gone to nearly every picnic.  With Schwartz, Flick, and Bruner, I’d gone to what must have been fifteen picnics when this happened way at the end of summer.

It was still hot out in the Midwest—any place out in the Great Plains—and you are very very aware and conscious and attuned to the environment.  Late in August, when the sun is sitting there about four-million miles across and there’s a kind of brassy quality to the air, and the steel mills off in the distance have been belching blast furnace dust into that atmosphere day and night, day and night, and it hangs low, the air has a curious kind of orange/red/gray/greenish cast and the sun hangs at a peculiar angle in August.  Late in August and early September.

And at night, when the moon comes up, man, that’s something to see.  Because the moon gets unbelievably enormous.  It’s because of the curious invection currents and how the light is bent because of the heavy atmosphere that’s hung low in the heat.  In hot, late August and early September in Indiana, I’ve seen the moon stretch almost from one end of the horizon to the other.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories 2–Picnics & (127) ARTSY Lolita, etc.

It’s very hard to tell your mother where you’ve been when you’ve been a gate-crasher at a Greek-American picnic.  I get home, where I’m living in a family of strictly meatloaf and red cabbage.  Our idea of a real foreign dish was to buy a can of sauerkraut.  That was foreign food.  A really racy desert would be when my mother would put canned peaches in strawberry Jello.

A week goes by and I’m riding my bike and looking for action.  Flick shows up on his bike and says, “Have you seen the signs down at the forest preserve?”

“No kidding!”

We ride like mad Friday morning to see what this week’s attraction is.  Great big sign: AMERICAN LEGION PICNIC SATURDAY MORNING.  THE EDWARD W. GUMPOCK POST 422.

Crack of dawn we’re in line with all the cars going in.  By ten they’ve got this Dixie band blowing and people yelling and hollering like you’ve never seen unless you’ve been at an Indiana American Legion yearly picnic.  It’s a sickening sight.  Running around, they’ve got bags of water, squirting them at each other.  They’ve got shock-sticks and they’re shocking people.  They’re wearing hats that look like banana splits with badges all over.

In gigantic tubs they have millions of hotdogs—and giant steins of beer.  Four thousand gallons of mustard.  They’re handing out all kinds of stuff and we’re on line, me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner.  Free hotdogs, four bottles of pop and fifteen Eskimo pie bars. We get on the back end of the line and start through again.

The band is playing and yelling and hollering, and four trips into the food line later, I remember seeing Schwartz get off his bike and go under the table.  I could hear him heaving for an hour.  We get in line again.  You don’t want to waste all this good stuff.  This is some picnic.  We go all the way to seven o’clock before we start to wind down.  The band has marched away.  They’d tapped all the kegs.

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LOLITA, NABOKOV, & BUTTERFLIES

Lolita (1955), that farcical, crazy romance, never happened in that novel’s “real” life. Not to Humbert and not to Lolita. It all occurred in Humbert’s psychotic mind. I realized this the second time I read Nabokov’s book–after I’d read his Pale Fire, published in 1962. At that point I understood that Nabokov’s view of art and the artist is that the artist, because he/she creates an unreal world, is somewhat akin to an insane person. Charles Kinbote, the creator of Pale Fire’s bizarre, main story, is an obvious example. It’s clear that the bulk of the book is a phantasmagoric unreality in the mind of its “author.”

With Pale Fire’s mad protagonist in mind, I reread Lolita more carefully, curious as to whether this theme also propelled that book’s meaning. It does. The major part of the book is the Lolita and Humbert story in the form of Humbert’s “diary.” Lolita begins with a Foreword by a John Ray, Ph D., who describes Humbert Humbert as “demented,” having been in need of a “psychopathologist.” He writes that Lolita “will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles.”

Nabokov has perpetrated an artsy legerdemain. Regarding my references to very detailed dates in the book and in what way they prove my hypothesis: Nabokov was clever and meticulous as to details, and an enthusiastic trickster regarding literature’s highways and byways. And he did not state facts loosely or make mistakes.

In Lolita’s foreword, John Ray writes that Humbert Humbert died “in legal captivity” on November 16, 1952. Some 200 pages later, in the main story, Humbert, in his “diary,” claims to have begun his writing (the basic Lolita story) 56 days before, in a psychiatric ward. (I, and most people, seeing the various dates in the text, would simply skim over them as inconsequential details. But I, with simple mathematical addition and subtraction, being especially curious regarding Nabokov’s possible strategy in providing a basis for hidden significance, pursued the dates as clues.  I found that, as Humbert had died on November 16, that would have put him beginning his diary on September 21,  yet he describes his activities of killing Quilty, his nemesis, as happening several days after that—when he was already incarcerated.

In my letter, I described my interpretation to Nabokov (in care of his secretary, including my copy of Pale Fire for autographing), that as Humbert was already incarcerated before he claims to have begun his story about Lolita, his writing of this diary was a total fabrication of his demented mind. I received my copy of Pale Fire back un-autographed (she wrote me that Mr. Nabokov did not autograph his books), and with no response to my discovery regarding Lolita.

•   •   •   •   •   •   •

 Vladimir Nabokov’s uncle, Konstantin Nabokov, appears in a mural in the main entrance of the American Museum of Natural History. Vladimir, in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, describes him and his goatee in that mural at the Portsmouth Treaty with Teddy Roosevelt. Vladimir, as a renowned butterfly collector and authority of the butterfly type now known as “Nabokov’s Blues,” sometimes visited the Museum.

At the Museum, in an entomologist’s office on some sort of design business, I happened to glance at some high cabinets–on top of one was an old cardboard box with a hand-lettered title, NABOKOV’S BUTTERFLIES.

Recreation of Title,

Altered by eb.

(Once in a while I enjoy

a bit of recreation.)

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–Picnics & (126) ARTSY To the Editor

CRASHING PICNICS

I’m a kid.  Nice hot summer day.  About two miles away from us is this forest preserve.  You know what is it a forest preserve, right?  Like a big park.

One day, me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner see this great big sign, tremendous sign near the park.  Had arrows all over it.  It says, THIS WAY GREEK AMERICAN PICNIC.  So Schwartz says, “Let’s go to the picnic!”  We ride our bikes down there and we hear yelling and hollering in this huge forest preserve.  We follow some more arrows and there is a guy handing out buttons and pins.  He yells out, “The kiddies are already here!  Come on in!”

You can hear the band knocking it out, people running around and hollering and yelling and eating.  Dancing and yelling.  Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and I fit right in.  Guys are crawling in and out of the weeds drinking ouzo, the Greek wine that tastes like turpentine.  They’re handing out the free moussakis.  We’re eating ourselves silly.  Dancing with the Greek girls, the whole bit.  We become more Greek than any Greek at the picnic.  All you have to do is snap your fingers once in a while, holler “Opa, opa! Oh! Oh! Opa! Opa!”  It’s exciting.

We went down there about two o’clock in the afternoon and we don’t get out of there until about nine at night. Those picnics go on and on and on.  Boy, what a fantastic time!

That was the first time I ever tasted Greek food.  They had rolled up things in grape leaves, very good stuff.  I must have eaten seven pounds of these.  I had about six pounds of feta, hundreds of things wrapped in grape leaves, a lot of moussaka, and all kinds of stuff to drink it all down.  A great afternoon!

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TO THE EDITOR

Like so many, I’ve written my opinion to The New York Times—and twice, my thoughts have been printed. As might be expected, both times the subject has been artsy: a defense of nature’s carefully evolved, stylized playground; and a defense of a depiction of a film protagonist as an incipient artist-in-the-making.

ASTRO TURF

It’s my understanding that plastic grass is commerce’s answer to domed-over baseball stadiums—the domes are to prevent rained-out games, and, because real grass won’t grow without nature’s help, Astro Turf was the answer. The New York Mets had just surrendered to the artificial, so on April 28, 1984, The Times ran an op-ed article:

Pseudo Turf at Shea?

No Hit and a Big Error

By Michael Takiff

 “…baseball’s herbicidal charge into the future, which began in the Houston Astrodome nearly 20 years ago.”

“The advantages of artificial turf to baseball are minimal, the detriment profound….and it doesn’t have to be mowed—just reglued once in a while.

“But the evil non-weed upsets the game’s fundamental historic proportions, which have served so well till now. Its weapon in this attack is its surface: Slick and hard, it dramatically distorts the movement of the batted ball….

“Baseball is prized for the sum of its parts, and to exaggerate one is to shrink the whole.”

Toward the end of his well-argued defense of real grass, he comments, “Remember baseball, our delightfully anachronistic national treasure.”

On May 6, two letters to the editor appeared commenting on Takiff’s essay. The first, longer one, by me. And I remain amused by the choice and sequence of the letters—my heartfelt defense of nature’s symbolic and stylized reality, followed by a militant advocacy of an un-natural, hard-surfaced, dystopian futurism:

MURIEL

In 1963 I attended a preview showing of the Alain Resnais film Muriel (a follow-up to his Last Year at Marienbad). The film’s translated subtitle is “The Time of a Return.” It depicts a woman and her son’s obsessions with the past. The woman sells antique furniture from her modern apartment (surrounding herself in her home with these reminders of times past, and maybe reminding her of an old love affair), and her son, who is obsessed with the torture in Algiers, by himself and his fellow-soldiers, of a young woman named Muriel. The young man spends his time taking moving pictures—somehow trying to capture and maybe, in some way, understand his world and his past. Considering that the film’s title refers to the son’s obsession, it seems logical that he and she are the major focus. He is a coming-of-age artist. After seeing the film, I immediately wrote a review of it for my own amusement, beating all the regular critics before the public opening reviews. In part:

The story is mainly his. His way of coming to terms with the past and present is to record the present (which, of course, immediately becomes the past). He makes movies, he records on tape. Even during a fight in the apartment, he does not attempt to stop it—he films it and sends for the tape recorder. The artist reacts to his environment by recording it and transposing it into art….

Films such as Muriel, Truffaut’s 400 Blows, and Fellini’s 8 ½ are a good sign. They are statements that the film artist (auteur) insists on being placed on a level with the novelist and other artists: that film art in its highest is not to be made by committee but by a single creative artist.

Muriel’s protagonist at work.

The Times main film critic, Bosley Crowther, wrote damning comments about Muriel in the 11/3/1963 Sunday Times, including:

“…I’m sorry I have to say that this one is, for my money, New Wave at its sorriest….a deliberate attempt to enclose a romantic mystery story in utter obscurity….the whole thing is anti-cohesion, anti-emotion and anti-sense….After this cinematic folly, Mr. Resnais had better back up and start all over again.”

I mailed my comments to Crowther, and in disagreement, other irate readers also responded  to him–the following Sunday he answered with a put-down column defending his opinions, titled,

EXPOSING THE OBSCURE

Readers Explain (Or Do They?)

Some Difficulties in New Films.

He quotes some of the responses, including part of my letter (which he edited to make me seem even more pretentious than I thought I was. Plus, he spelled Bergmann wrong and mistakenly placing my Richmond Hill home in Staten Island instead of Queens, NY.):

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories– Baseball 5 & (125) ARTSY–The Amber Room

There are a lot of strangers yelling from the stands, and then, the worst thing, we are now in the middle of our season and they are printing our box scores in the paper.  I come home and my old man says, “Hey, what do ya mean, O for four?  O for four, and it’s in the paper!  And you guys lost twelve to two!”

“Well, dad…”

“O for four!  I’m coming out next time.  And by the way, we’re going out the back and I’m gonna show you how to hold the bat.”

Aw, gees, O for four.  Every time I get the bat I’d see that reporter from the Hammond Times sitting there.  Shepherd is taking his cuts.  I’m gonna bunt, I’ve got to get on base somehow.  First time in my life I ever lay down a bunt just trying to get on base.  O for four!

Organization has really begun.  There was a group of kids who loved that organization, and another group of kids slowly began to infiltrate Troup 41, and they had nothing to do with the rest of us.

By the end of August, one by one, guys start to drift away from that organized ball team.  One by one they start to show up in Mrs. Striker’s empty lot.  “Hey, Schwartz, here you go, Schwartz, catch this one in your ear!  Here it comes!”  Schwartz yells, “Aw, come on, don’t bounce ‘em on the plate, will ya, fer cryin’ out loud!” And from five A. M. in the morning till ten at night, me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and Emdee and all the other disorganized stragglers play our games.

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The Amber Room

Amber is a sort of fossilized tree sap that has solidified to the state

of a soft stone-like substance that sometimes contains

trapped bugs and other stuff. It is studied by scientists

and made into decorative pieces by craftsmen.

In 1995, I and another museum designer, along with his wife and a museum preparator, traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia to study amber artifacts and amber paneling for a temporary exhibit in New York. In Tsarskoye Selo, the royal summer palace outside of St. Petersburg, elaborate panels covering the walls of a room in the palace had been given to Russia.

But during World War II the panels had been removed for safe keeping, and somehow lost, stolen, or destroyed. (Recent, unconfirmed reports claim the original, lost panels have been located.) For decades, Russian craftsmen, using photos of the original room (see above), had been reconstructing the panels. Our museum scheduled an exhibit about amber, featuring artifacts and a couple of the reconstructed panels, along with some of the craftsmen, working on amber artifacts for public viewing within the exhibit.

We stayed in a luxury hotel in St. Petersburg and were conveyed to the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo by limo, met with the craftsmen, and were given a tour of the almost completed replica of the amber room.

Catherine Palace, Tsarskoye Selo

We walked the streets of St. Petersburg, went to a Russian ballet performance, and twice visited the Hermitage, the great Russian art museum. We bought souvenirs.

Amber necklace and owl.

We brought back proof that we’d really been in Russia.

Our Tipper-Gore-in-Russia Experience

As we’d walked toward the Catherine Palace for our Amber Room tour, we heard through the bushes, a small Russian band playing for us, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The director of the palace met us and apologized that he could not give us the tour because Tipper Gore, Vice-President Al Gore’s wife, was there, and he had to show her around—we got the tour from a lower functionary. Back in St. Petersburg, in a nice restaurant for a meal, we noted several men in black suits wearing ear pieces at another table. Must be guarding someone important! From a table in the back, dressed in slacks, blouse, and scarf, out past us walked Tipper Gore. Later, as we strolled along Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main thoroughfare, police on foot blocked our way and herded us onto the sidewalk—we watched as a black limo drove by. Looking out a window, waving at us, was Tipper Gore.

Tipper Gore

in Congress a decade before,

confronting nasty music by the likes of

Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, John Denver.

(Denver complained that a radio station blocked his song

because of the final word in “Rocky Mountain High.”

 This was the era when The Rolling Stones were told not to sing

on TV, the line “let’s spend the night together.”)

Our country was still in a rather restrictive mode, but Russia was

in the midst of a birth of political freedom, so we felt safe there.

*

Small Part of Our Exhibit.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories– Baseball 4

Practice starting at eight A. M. Monday morning!  We have been playing ball since five A. M. every day since I was three-and-a-half years old.  Now we are going have practice! What do you mean, “practice”?  Play ball, we go out and play ball.  Practice?

So, sure enough, at eight A. M. on that Monday morning there is practice, and where do you think it is held?  It is held at the local public park.  We have booked the ball field.  Who books a ball field?—what is this jazz!

I am engaging now in my first game of infield practice.  Mr. Gordon is there with his baseball cap on.  He says, “Alright, fellows, here comes one,” and he misses it.  He’s hitting ground balls to us, and then he says, “Alright, now we’re going to shag flies.”  First time I ever saw a fungo bat.  So he’s hitting fly balls.  Then he says, “Alright, now, all you fellows in left field, I want seven turns jogging around the track.”  This went on for three days!  We did not play one game of baseball!

Then he says, “Now we are going to have squad elimination.”  Squad elimination?  He says, “Alright, Schwartz, you’re out, you don’t play. Flick, you’re left field, Shepherd, you’re playing third base, Emdee, you’re out, you don’t play.”  And then for the team he brings in a lot of guys we never saw before.  And worst of all, he issued us caps we had to sign for!

Twenty minutes into the first game, Shepherd slides into second, rips the behind out of his pants, comes trotting in and Mr. Gordon says, “That’ll be four dollars.”  Four dollars?  What is this?  In the stands there are old guys from the Legion post hollering, “Hey, kid, when you gonna hit the ball? Gordon, take that kid out!”

It begins to disintegrate into an organized scene of: this kid plays, that guy doesn’t, this kid has wrecked his uniform, that guy shows up wearing a red T-shirt and he’s fined a quarter, this kid has to take two hours of extra infield practice because he made three errors in one game, that kid is yanked in the middle of the second inning because he walked two guys.

Walked two guys—let me tell you, in Mrs. Striker’s vacant lot, nobody walked anybody!  We didn’t have balls and strikes.  You either hit it or you didn’t!  It was as simple as that.  And you never saw such fielding as you saw in Mrs. Striker’s lot.  We used to field ground balls off the fire hydrant.  I’d play the carom off of Flick’s hide.  But I found that after I had been fielding taped balls that were the size of cantaloupes and had lumps all over them, I couldn’t field the real round ball— coming at me, the real white one would blind me.  I could not field a real ball.

More baseball to come

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