STORY AS THE TAPE RUNS OUT
Jean Shepherd has done a lot for me, especially in the last decade. True, he’s distracted me from writing unpublished poems and creating unpublished artists books, but he’s filled the intellectual, creative parts of me with all the picaresque pleasures of explore-and-discover, understand-and-explain, plus he’s peopled my life with all those I’ve interviewed and with whom I’ve discussed Shep. He’s made my life richer.
Beyond all that, through what seemed at the time a minor event, he enriched not only me, but my memory of my mother and father.
On this special day for me, it’s time to reaffirm the relationship
between my parents, myself, and Jean Shepherd.
The dedications in my first Shep book include: “With thanks to my parents, Marjorie Crosby Bergmann and Benno Bergmann, who loved me enough to tolerate Shep and record him for me way back in the Legendary Time.” Tolerate is too inaccurate a description. They found it odd that I, in my late teens and early twenties, would sit by myself in the kitchen listening and laughing to a guy talking, when just two rooms away I could have been watching television with them. My remembrance is that my mother found Shep strange and intellectually amusing and my father found him strange and probably subversive.
I’d been recording Shepherd since 1956, saving some of the tapes for posterity, and then a couple of years later my parents recorded Shep for me at an important time in my life. Soon after college graduation I had to go to an alien place— to an Army installation in a Southeastern State, and have inflicted upon me a new lieutenant’s ten weeks of “basic training” along with scores of mostly antipathetic others who had somehow also been given college diplomas and gold bars. In early 1960, I drove down from New York in my used VW Beetle, my most important cargo one of our family’s two reel-to-reel tape players. I set it up on my bureau in the room I shared with another reserve lieutenant and explained to him that the tapes of Shepherd broadcasts my parents would record and send me would be my “intellectual survival kit.” They sent me tapes, and in the evenings, when my roommate was out drinking beer with the rest of the pack, I was alone in my room drinking in the words of Shep.
Thus I survived ten weeks of hot dumb hell. (This memory reminds me of Shepherd’s army stories and my Shep’s Army book coming soon. I’ll be posting a lot about it.) But, as did so many other Shepherd fans in those days when tapes were relatively expensive and we were not thinking clearly enough of the future, I’d send back the tapes for my parents to tape over with the next Shep installments. We assumed he would be there forever.
7″ Reel of Tape
One of the last of these tapes (preserved because it was not re-recorded but carried back north) contains my parents’ voices. One night near the end of the first act of my Army experience of to hell and back, as the end of the reel approached, I heard what was obviously a well-scripted-by-my-mother little joke on their son:
Mom: Say, dad, this is the end of today’s Shepherd recording. There’s about three minutes to run on the end of this tape and I’m wondering if we should use up this bit tomorrow night and take a chance on having to reverse the reel and breaking off in the middle of a juicy tidbit of good old Shep’s, or should we just forget about this tail-end and turn the tape over now.
Dad: I don’t know. Maybe best to switch it over now then be fumbling and maybe get a heart attack in the excitement tomorrow. Let’s do it the calm, cool way. Gene should enjoy this bit about Thomas Wolfe—sounds real intellectual.
Mom: Funny, I can’t figure this fellow today. He says he’ll be on his way at Idlewild [now JFK] tonight and yet will be back on the air tomorrow. Guess he’s got a double—the other part of him being a tape, huh?
Dad: Did you get where he says he’ll be on from 12:15 to 2:00 on Saturday now?
Mom: Yeah. Guess he has late dates Friday and can’t get up in time. Well, we can sleep till noon on Saturdays now too.
Dad: Well, what are you going to do about the tail-end of this reel? Turn it or tape it?
Mom: I don’t know. Guess we’ll—whoops! You know there isn’t any tape left!
Dad: Oh yes there is. There’s plenty of tape left. You see, here’s the end right now….
Thus the tape ran out, tethered to the take-up reel and flopping away like a ribbony slapstick. Those couple of recorded moments delighted me then and delight me now. It’s a final little grail I’d had in hand all these years but hadn’t recognized as such. It shows loving parents—conservative, older generation parents who maybe did a bit more than tolerate Jean Shepherd. Unusual for their standard MO, at that moment, engaging with Shep’s work for their son’s benefit, they’d created a bit of wit, a bit of whimsy—they were a bit inspired by him too.
Mom and Dad
Thanks, Mom and Dad,
from your son, the loose-kneed picaro
in the land of Shep