Shep’s Army, my new book regarding the life and art of Jean Shepherd, consists of about three dozen of my edited transcripts of Shepherd’s many army stories he told on the air from the 1950s to April, 1977. My edit is of the most unobtrusive kind. What you will read is basically what he said. Below is part of the preliminary draft of the introduction to the book, PART ONE:
Jean Shepherd, humorist, master of talk radio, for decades spoke extemporaneously on his nightly programs, commenting on the passing scene and describing humankind’s foibles as well as its sins. He talked with humor and occasional trenchant wit about every subject he could think of, usually based on his own observations and experiences. The best remembered parts of his broadcasts are his stories. He told hundreds of them about being a kid and hundreds of others about what it was like to be in state-side military service during a war. His army stories were not only humorous but rife with lurking moral judgment.
These two most important types of his stories, about kids and about the army, engage his audience with universals. Everyone was once a kid, and the existence of a country’s military affects us all, directly or indirectly, through the loss of a loved one or through economic hardships imposed by military spending.
It’s said that at the beginning of World War II, army inductees who were ham radio operators such as Shepherd were automatically put into the Signal Corps branch to take advantage of their experience. We know that he was a capable Morse code operator from early adolescence, and through his army stories, he claims to have learned everything from climbing telephone poles to operating the new-fangled radar equipment. (At times he claims that he had been in a mess kit repair company, handle platoon, the insignia of which was mess kits with crossed forks on a background of SOS. Anyone needing a definition of SOS should ask someone who ever endured a military repast of creamed chipped beef on toast.) As the army unit responsible for communication, the Signal Corps is appropriate for Shepherd’s subsequent career in radio, writing, television, film, and performance.
During one of his army stories told on the radio, Shepherd says that, regarding important parts of his life, “My gigantic milestone was the army.” For Shepherd, life in the army must have made as deep an impression on him as had his life as a kid. “You know,” he says, “one of the reasons army stories have a certain universality is because there are very few things in life—there’s gravity—maybe—there’s the moon, there’s the ocean, there are maybe lions—these are unchanging. These things stay the way they are—always. And one you must add to this list is the army.” Almost everything mentioned in these army stories is relevant to past, present, and undoubtedly to future military service, with only some details that would identify them as having happened during World War II while Shepherd was in the army, a decade before he began telling army tales on the air.