Beyond the specifics of Shepherd’s broadcast of the March on Washington, I find it interesting to note how he inserts himself into this major American historic event. It is in his nature to do so in order to experience the event as clearly and rightly as he can, and also to then be able to express to his listeners, his personal take on the event. Shepherd is an American patriot of the best sort.
Yes, Jean Shepherd, in his broadcast, was not only a reporter of the event, he was a reporter who inserted himself into the event and made the story of the event as much a story of his attitude toward the event of August 1963. But he did not attempt to alter the event.
In October 1967, Norman Mailer, who, for Shepherd seemed to be a negative force, a rival, whom he envied for his celebrity, inserted himself into the anti-war rally known as the March on the Pentagon. The difference is that Mailer was there not only for his own interest but to write a report for publication, deciding that he would write very consciously about his own immersion as a third-person, anti-hero protagonist, affecting the event as well as he could. Many detractors of Mailer think he was a mere publicity-hound, an ego-maniac. That was part of it, but Mailer felt that, as all reporting must inevitably be a reflection of the reporter, the fact should be made manifest, and, if it would help the situation, be dramatized.
Alfred Kazin’s 5/5/68 New York Times review of Mailer’s book version of the event comments, “…a significant reason for Mailer’s impatience has also been his acute sense of the national crisis, his particular gift for detecting political deterioration–and his professional feeling that the American scene at this time may be too thorny a subject to be left to journalists. It is the coalescence of American disorder (always an obsession of Mailer’s) with all the self-confidence he feels as a novelist during reportage that has produced Armies of the Night, his extraordinary personal tract on the unprecedented demonstration of Oct. 21-23, 1967,…”
Further into his review, Kazin continues, “For all his self-dramatization, Mailer is the right chronicler of the March on the Pentagon. For there is no other writer of his ability who, feeling so deeply about this “obscene war . . . the worst war the nation has ever been in,” can yet be so aware of everything else around him–not the least the intellectual staleness of his own side….Mailer likes to be terrible, to clean all timidity, subservience and false respect out of his system. “
So, both Shepherd and Mailer are patriots, lovers of their country, and both hope their country will improve and live up to its own ideals. Both insert themselves into the event out of curiosity, patriotism, and a need to be a part of, and understand, a major historical event. They do it in ways very different from each other. Mailer’s book on the subject immediately won him high literary praise, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award; Shepherd’s masterpiece garnered him, forty years after the event (and three-and-a-half years after his death), from his original forty-five minute broadcast, a ten-minute audio clip during the anniversary show for the event on NPR.
Shep, as well as a brass figlagee with bronze oakleaf palm,
you also deserve a Pulitzer Prize.
Continued excerpts of Shepherd’s broadcast description of being there:
And all this time, the real people were seated on the Mall, the great crowd, eating fried chicken and really digging each other for the first time, probably, in a couple of hundred years in America. Nothing to do with chauvinism, but it just happened that it was one of those days—for one of the rare times in the world.
And up there, is business as usual with the celebs. If I had seen a couple of those guys marching, I would feel better about it. I didn’t see many of them do it. But one guy I saw—a famous American author—sitting in a bush. Not autographing or getting cheered on the Lincoln Memorial with the other guys. I was going through a bush and there he was sitting. He said, “Hey, Shep,” and he made a couple of comments: “Boy, what a rotten beard!”
I said, “Yeah. What are you doing here?” In a bush drinking a Coke! He was just sitting there digging it. And I’m sure that in the end, this guy will know a lot more about what went on than those clowns up there on that great big platform.
The whole thing was tremendous, to me personally a genuine education. Among other things I remember one little incident—the food incident. About John Wingate the reporter. You know reporters have got the best of everything, they go down and stay at a hotel. It’s the way a reporter has to work. He’s got a tight schedule. He’s not like other people. Well, Wingate was down there and he’d been working all day long. Newsmen have a devil of a time, sweating and everything else. A large lady came up to him and gave him half of her lunch. She said, “You know, you probably had a lot more work than I did. Here was this large colored lady with flowered dress giving John the fried chicken and John was absolutely— John said, “This is incredible. Just incredible.” I saw Lester Smith in the crowd—he’s one of the calmest, best reporters I’ve ever known and this was one of the few times I’ve seen him absolutely thrown off base.
The feeling again, is a feeling that I can’t describe to you. I’m so glad I went down. And even the hard-bitten guys from Life Magazine, Time Magazine—you could see a great feeling that it was not a news story. You know what I mean by “news story”? It was an experience, an actual experience.
The foregoing posts regarding the
March on Washington
are part of a longer description of mine including
much more transcription of Shepherd’s
radio commentary on the
day after the March. –eb
“Shepherd himself died in 1999,
but a new collection of his Army stories
has just come out. It’s called
Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters and Boondoggles,
and editor Eugene Bergmann tells NPR’s Scott Simon
that he can talk about Shepherd ‘by the hour and the day and the week.’ “
–NPR description regarding interview.
Jean Shepherd and NPR had a varied relationship. Obviously they loved him–they were fans of his. After he left WOR in 1977, NPR broadcast short Shepherd specials and interviews as well as dozens of his short commentaries in the 1980s on their “All Things Considered.” When he died in October 1999, they created a two-hour tribute to him, “A Voice in the Night,” narrated by Harry Shearer, containing numerous clips from Shep’s broadcasts and audio comments from many voices in the media who had listened and who were his friends. (The first clip they played, about the far future when one alive today might be a specimen in a museum, was from my own tapes of early Shepherd,) The two-CD set of that program is still available.
When my Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd was published, Leonard Lopate interviewed me about it for WNYC, broadcast through NPR, and WNYC offered the book as a premium for membership.
On Saturday, August 24, 2013, hosted by Scott Simon on their Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR broadcast their interview of me regarding the new Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles. We discussed Shepherd and his nearly three-dozen army stories I’d transcribed and edited. The program aired between 8 and 10 A.M. without the opening introduction, and they repeated the interview later the same morning with the opening intro. The audio of the more complete broadcast is available on their website. (The original, unedited interview, lasted well over 20 minutes and was edited down by NPR.) Below is my transcription of the broadcast interview.
SHEP’S ARMY: BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDOGGLES
Scott Simon: At a time when recollections could be reduced to just a few words, Jean Shepherd delivered monologs, soliloquies, and musings. He was a raconteur.
Jean Shepherd (audio clips from his radio broadcasts): Okay, you guys, you’re in the army. Alright, you’re in the army. We have just sworn in. You know that wonderful swearing-in ceremony where Van Johnson talks, and the guys cry. The thing where they play “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s all over! We’ve just done it. ‘You’re in the army.’ We didn’t hear anything!
S. S.: That’s Jean Shepherd recollecting the moment he became a soldier in the U. S. Army. Stormed the beaches of Normandy and raised the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima in World War II. Although Jean Shepherd and his unit would never see the front lines, they were the home-front army. Stocking, restocking, sending, schlepping and training for a war they helped win—but from a distance.
Over his career as a humorist, as an entertainer, and late-night voice on the radio, Jean Shepherd would occasionally cast back to the time he was a soldier. When he was more like Beetle Bailey than John Wayne.
J. S.: We stood around. He said, “Get out, get out. There’s another bunch comin’ in. And they pushed us out the door and another bunch of guys came in. And so one or two of us said, “Hey, they’re going to give you the oath.” And a couple of guys, you could see their eyes brighten a little bit, and then that mumbling started again up in the front.
Gradually we drift down, out on the street, and it’s raining. And it’s all over. All over. I am now in the army. I’m one with Errol Flynn and Don Ameche, the Rangers, the guys that took Dief [? An action I failed to locate upon several Internet searches. Here, in my transcription in the book, to make this understandable for the reader, I worded it: …all those guys who broke through the Western Front in the movies.].
S. S.: It was that voice on the radio and famous essays that had enthralled millions of times before “bits,” “sound bites,” “tweets.”
A collection of Jean Shepherd’s army stories has just been published. Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles. It’s edited by Eugene Bergmann, who joins us from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.
Eugene B. Bergmann: Well, it’s always great to talk about Jean Shepherd. I could do it by the hour and the day and the week.
S. S.: Take a few minutes, okay? [laughs]
E. B. B.: Okay. [laughs]
S. S.: First let’s try and differentiate fact from fiction. These essays aren’t meant to be a literal memoir, are they?
E. B. B.: No. In fact, whenever Jean Shepherd told stories, whether they were kid stories or army stories, I believe they were just about totally fiction. What is true, I believe, is that he was so sensitive to his surroundings and to what was going on and what life was like, that he knew what it was like to be a kid, he knew what it was like to be in the army, and from knowing what it was like, he then created his fictional stories out of that.
S. S.: Taking him at his word for just a moment, was he the only Druid in the U. S. Army?
E. B. B.: So he claimed. And he got the little D on his dog tag for Druid.
S. S.: We want to play another section where Jean Shepherd said he consulted a chaplain. Let’s pick up that story midway:
J. S.: And he [an army chaplain] sat there and looked at me for a long while and I am telling him my story. And I’m playing it all the way. You know I’m an old “Method” sufferer. I suffer from inside. And a good sufferer like a good Stanislavski actor, can reach hidden depths. He can dredge it out of his soul. And I was sitting there, “Waaaaa, mess hall, and I’m ahooooo, ohooo waaaa.” I’m talking away there, I’m just wringing it out, just feel the scene. Any good actor can feel the scene. He knows when he’s milking it. He can just feel it. The tears pouring down my suntanned cheeks, and my corporal stripes there are damp with the tears of humanity. I’m crying away. He’s looking at me, and after a long pause, I go, “I waaaa….an….oh….yahoooooo!” I finish my story.
He looks at me, he says, “Hum! Well, humph, well.” (I don’t know whether I can say what he says then. Remember, he is not only a chaplain, he was in the army. And there are certain army phrases. And this army phrase consists of two letters, the first one of which is a T.) He shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, blahahahaaa.” He looks past me and calls out, “Send the next one in, Charlie.”
I stand up. I say, “Is that all?” He says, “Heh, humph. Yep.”
S. S.: As you know, Jean Shepherd went to Code School. With the advantage of hindsight, do you think it had anything to do with lighting his literary imagination?”
E. B. B.: Well, he loved to talk whether it was talking on the air on the radio, talking after hours on his ham radio set. Or just talking to people in general and he would give them a forty-five minute story—he’d just keep going. He never stopped.
S. S.: It’s hard for us to sit here in a couple of studios and not recollect the fact that if somebody came to a program director these days and said, “Just open the mike at nine o’clock each night and I’ll talk for three hours,” they would say, “Oh, I can’t wait! What a brilliant idea.” They would say, “Ridiculous. This has to go through focus groups, this has to go through planning sessions. Who the hell are you anyway?” What do we make of that?
E. B. B.: Well, later in life, when Jean Shepherd was asked if he thought he would ever like to go back on the radio, he commented that times have indeed changed. And he really did not think that anyone would give him that kind of freedom. I think that’s probably fairly true. There may be some shock jocks who have a different kind of freedom than he had. But they could not really give him the kind of time to just come out with his attitudes, his musings about life and about his gentle humor in the way he did for several decades.
S. S.: Eugene Bergmann. He’s edited a collection of Jean Shepherd stories, Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles. Thanks so much for being here.
E. B. B.: Well, you know, I’m just thinking, is it over already? I really enjoyed this so much, and as I’ve always said, I could talk about Jean Shepherd for hours. And thank you for having me on.
Continued excerpts of Shepherd’s broadcast description of being there:
We came into the city. One of the moments I will never in my life forget—I just won’t, I know it. Coming into the outskirts of Washington in this bus. Tired, boy, have you ever ridden six hours on a cross-town bus! Wow! And that seat was like a rock. And we were sweating and the sun was beating down and we arrived and there was a cop waiting for us in a white helmet. The police were to take groups of six busses, with a police escort, to the proper place where they were to go—each group of six was assigned a place. It was fantastic. All the busses were lined up for blocks. And what was intriguing was to find, slowly, everybody in the bus was beginning to thaw. Up to that point they expected officialdom and all that—and they found that officialdom was as much on their side as anybody.
We took off and rode along one of the main streets through the slums and there were hundreds of people on the steps. Little old ladies, grandmas, skinny kids, tough-looking guys, nuns, everywhere we went they were sitting on the porches waving. Not the kind of waving that says, “Go give ‘em hell,” just with a strange, happy, “We’re glad you’re here, how are you.” Just unbelievable feeling all the way through, all out there on the steps and streets waving and everybody in the bus was waving.
We finally arrived at the place where we parked on a side street, and this was a strange moment. We’d stopped a couple of times at gas stations on the way down but when we got out, everybody was bent over stiff-legged and bent over sideways. The back of your neck was hurting and immediately about forty-five people had to go to the john. We walked around and somebody said, “Let’s go to that building over there.” It was a big, gray, official-looking building, and people started to go down the driveway that had big trucks and guys working there who were not connected with the demonstration.
The instant the people started to go down the drive the workers there escorted everybody in where they could get water: “You want any coffee?” They’re cheering you on. “Yeah, come on!” We went in and everybody got water. It was a very odd experience to have people really concerned about you! They really were worried: “Gee, do you want to sit down? How about some coffee.” They were just guys working at that building. “Hey, have some coffee.”
We walked out onto the street and went toward the area where we were going to assemble and march. But it was not at all the way I would have imagined a demonstration or any other kind of event would be run. You’re walking on the street and it was like you were suddenly with a million old friends. It was like a family reunion! A strange feeling, and there wasn’t one moment that was phony about it. I had peoples step on my foot and say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, excuse me.” A man standing in front of me when there was a big thing going on said, “Can you see now?”
And one of the great moments was when we walked through a grove of trees and started walking along the street where I met a lot of old friends. And what really intrigued me was the number of people who didn’t come. I will not mention names. But I sure was amazed by the absence of many people who I’d heard do a lot of talking prior to this moment. They just weren’t there. And a lot of people who never said a word were there.
More to come
In remembrance of the 50th anniversary of
the March on Washington, this and my next posts
give my introduction and then
a part of Jean Shepherd’s radio commentary
made the following day.
August 28, 1963 was the day of the historic March on Washington, in which over two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people gathered in and around the D. C. Mall, focused on the Lincoln Memorial, to demonstrate for civil rights and economic betterment. Among those who performed on stage were Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Mahalia Jackson. Many other well-known performers were also present. The best-known part of the day is that often referred to as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, which concluded with “…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
The event was extensively covered by the press and television. Jean Shepherd, consistent with his usual disposition, immersed himself in the activity not as a reporter, but as a participant—who could really experience it. The result of his manner of participating is captured in his broadcast the evening after. It is not like other descriptions. Although Shepherd always tells his improvised tales enthusiastically, immersing himself as well as listeners and readers, one might note a certain out-of-breath quality as he describes facts and little incidents while very much caught up in his reliving of the moment. In mid-thought he frequently remembers some tangential idea which must be inserted right then, and he tends to repeat himself a bit—an emotional reaction, I believe. Some editorial adjustment brings these together as he would have meant them to be. He sometimes gets especially excited when describing true events such as this March in which he participated. NPR, during its fortieth anniversary celebration of the March, played a ten-minute segment of his broadcast. This is Jean Shepherd’s unique historical document about what over two-hundred thousand participants experienced, and as such, it contains much objective truth. As for Shepherd, he was overwhelmed.
Below are some excerpts of Shep’s broadcast, Part 1 of 4.
* * * * *
I was one of the marchers in the big demonstration yesterday, and this experience was probably one of the two or three—words such as “interesting” don’t really mean much in this case. And to use the word “significant” doesn’t mean much either, because “significant” of what? Let’s just say it was one of the two or three most difficult to assay/weigh/put-into-perspective days that I have ever experienced in my life. One of the two or three days. The closest day that I can think of in my experience was VE Day, or maybe even VJ Day. To the tenor, the tone, the quality of what went on and the way the people were.
I went down on this thing very specifically as just a marcher. Just one of the people in a delegation, because I have learned through long experience—and hard experience—that the only real way that you ever get to have even a vague understanding about events is, if you can, possibly, be part of or in the group, or be in with people to whom the event is occurring.
I wonder just how much a newsman ever learns about anything—standing up on the platform. I’m curious. I listened to a lot of jazz yesterday from the newsmen and almost all of them were up on the platform, they were in the news section, which was very, very, very much roped off from the great herd of people who walked along the streets. The great multitude who gathered under the trees, who pushed up through past the Coke stands and finally stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I didn’t see many newsmen in that crowd. In fact, I don’t recall seeing one newsman in that crowd.
More to come
I’ve gotten a number of responses regarding Shep’s use of and references to “foul language.” Here, after a few notes on what he said on a non-broadcast at Princeton on May31, 1996, is just a bit of it:
Yearly Princeton appearance, 1996: (Recorded by someone attending the show, not recorded over the air or even broadcast. Many “Goddamns” “Asses” “Sons of bitches” and at least one “Balls.” None of this the more extreme words one has ever heard (or read in a couple of his printed stories as soldier usage.)
Laurie Squire: “In regular conversation (off air/offstage) , regardless of the tone of conversation, he never swore (neither did Leigh, temper and all!)” “Hi all, Digging into both my memory and Herb’s, we’re both really definite about never hearing Jean use a “bad” word. Really, never :)”
Jim Clavin: “I think that because Shep grew up in radio, from WJOB to WOR, and because the culture of radio during that time was such that it did not condone such language, he conditioned himself to never use the really bad stuff. If you say F or S in your everyday speech, you are bound to slip and he respected radio too much to chance that. Writing those words in a story is totally different matter. You write it once, with a creative thought in mind, and then move on. Writing the words do not create a habit like using it everyday while talking. Shep was a master of speech and had a vocabulary much too extensive too have to require ‘plugging up holes’ with those words. Comedians use those words for shock value, Shep was a humorist.”
EBB: I remember the good old days when I was known for not using foul language. But–on the rare occasion that I did let go with one–boy did people take notice! “Wow, Gene must be really upset!”
For a few words I encountered on the internet regarding soldiers’ words, see SHEP’S ARMY page 225, “Glossary.”
This is a short description of those instances in my transcribed Shep stories in SHEP’S ARMY, in which he refers to and doesn’t quite use foul language.
FOURTH OF JULY IN THE ARMY on page 79 he alludes to the word he wanted to use, but doesn’t: bull****.
ARMY PHRASEOLOGY in which he refers to and does not use the many off-color words commonly used by army personnel–for food, body parts, etc. My glossary at the end of the book is specifically in reference to this chapter, based on the few words I was able to find on the internet–google, etc.: “GI obscenity is extremely rich and varied. And all the expressions have a basic underlying humor….I can think of a number of great expressions that the civilian has never heard in his life.”
SERVICE CLUB VIRTUOSO page 70-72, in which, in the beginning of the story he refers to the “universal word” that he, too picks up and consistently uses in the army: “They say that language forms people, and you can’t separate it. Well, if you’ve only got one word in your entire vocabulary, you are formed, boy. I turn around to those guys waiting for the sink and I holler my favorite word, Flawaawaawaa! And they holler their favorite word back.”
CASUAL COMPANY EDUCATION starting on page 149 in which he refers to being able now, in the army to express many things by the way he says the familiar two-word phrase common in the army: “f*** Y**”: I had enriched my vocabulary tremendously. I had heard words used in ways that I did not imagine, before my entry into the army, could conceivably be used this way.”
I recommend that people check out these instances to appreciate how Shepherd can play around with circumlocutions, make his meaning perfectly clear, and get away with it! This is fun!!!
For those who would like to conveniently follow
Shepherd’s audios while reading the stories in
Max Schmid of WBAI FM is compiling those audios along with other related
material,on a 2-CD set
offered as premiums for membership.
(Note that my transcriptions into print
involve some minor-but-necessary adjustments,
but mostly, one can easily follow along.)
“Zynsmeister, will you fu** the hell off!”
“Jean Shepherd knew all the four-letter words. If he could have used them on the radio,
maybe he would have. But since he couldn’t, he rendered them unnecessary.
His nightly suggestion that laughter is the only real defense against the
shrapnel of life was memorable largely because he shared it in language
and tone quiet enough that his voice could be heard.”
–David Hinckley, New York Daily News
“I wish I could use the real word. There’s a much better word. ” –Jean Shepherd
in his radio story titled “Fourth of July in the Army”regarding
foul language used in the army.
“JEAN SHEPHERD COLORS HIS HUMOR BLUE”
by Howard Thompson, The New York Times, 1/1/1969
“The Jean Shepherd on radio, with his cozy reminisces and somehow charming digressions,
is intimate and beguiling. The fellow strutting back and forth on the Town Hall stage
was a showman and the color scheme was basically blue.”
Jean Shepherd, as noted above, could not use foul language on the air in the 1950s-1970s, although sometimes he wished he could have used an appropriate word. And, live on stage, apparently he did sometimes color his language “blue.”
Shep’s own transcriptions into published print however, are also sometimes at odds with his radio utterances. Research into his few army stories previously in print reveal more than just a general expansion of the story details from how he told them on the radio. What follows are the example plucked from his book A Fistful off Fig Newtons and one from a couple published stories in Playboy. As I don’t want my blog responsible for the dissemination of “blue” language, I expurgate with asterisks–but believe me–the printed words are in those publications to read in all their foul glory. It should be noted that all examples I found were in the quoted dialog of army characters (Who, as Shep has noted, have the very colorful and inventive vocabulary he couldn’t use on the radio.)
From Fig Newton‘s “The Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie, The Arkansas Traveler”
(aka “Troop Train Ernie.”)
“Zynsmeister, will you fu** the hell off.”
“…blow it out your God**** manure chute.”
“…was not bullsh*****.”
“…the poor fu****’ Radar slobs.”
“Blow it out your a**.”
From Playboy, ” Zinsmeister and the Treacherous Eighter From Decatur”
“…them fu****’ radar companies.”
“You puttin’ me on, fu**head?”
“And if you give me horse-sh** names, I’ll really have you snappin’ sh**.”
“FU** YOU, MACK.”
(Note the two spellings of Zinsmeister used in print–I prefer this one)
Although I try not to be judgmental, I admit that, as predominately a radio-listener of Shepherd, I find that this printed language makes me cringe. Yet, admittedly, that’s the way soldiers express themselves and Shepherd, where he could, wanted to be truthful to real life. But that’s not the way I want my Shep.
I’d conceived this essay a while back, but I’ve posted it here and now because someone noted my little tribute to Shep’s propensity to using foul language in printed transcriptions in connection with army talk. In my Shep’s Army, in the story “Fourth of July in the Army,” my original hand-written transcription of Shep’s words at one point (page 79 in the book) reads, “I wish I could use the real word. There’s a much better word.” As I keyboarded my manuscript, I thought, “Shepherd used the “real words” when he transcribed into print (In Fig Newtons and in Playboy)–why don’t I, as a tribute, using the word I’m sure he’d wanted to use, this one time, do as he did in print?” In the context of what he said on the air at this point in the story, for me the obvious word, which one can read unexpurgated in Shep’s Army, is “Bullsh**.” (No, Dave Abramson, no other “cuss words,” and no “updating” of Shep’s eternal words appear in Shep’s Army.) I hope I haven’t offended too many readers with my temerity in giving Shep what he always wanted when he could get it in print–not expurgated-into-a- nicety, but REALITY!
The similarities and differences between what Shepherd spoke on the radio and what he submitted for print publication is a subject that arises from time to time. I’ve written about it and others have alluded to it in one way or another. I’ve written that Shepherd commented on a Long John Nebel show about someone saying that all he had to do was transcribe his radio stories: “Have you ever seen a tape transcribed? Well come on now.” He says it took him about ten or twelve years to get the feel of someone talking into his writing, and that as for just transcribing, “That is the last thing you can do.”
The New York Times reviewer comments that In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash “is billed as a novel, but listeners to Jean Shepherd’s late nighttime radio show will not be fooled. They will recognize this as a switch of the oral memoir the author has been ad-libbing beautifully for around 10 years.”
The Village Voice reviewer of In God We Trust wrote “Relax, gang, this isn’t a novel after all. Or at least not a Novel novel, … It’s just old Shep telling a series of loosely related stories, each close to 45 minutes long, about childhood back in northern Indiana.” With that “45 minutes long” he may be suggesting that the stories are taken directly from the radio versions—not so!
(Book published in October,
review missed holiday shopping orgy.)
In the foreword to my Shep’s Army, Keith Olbermann, from what he remembers of an encounter over thirty years before, quotes Shepherd: “It’s just that I love the radio shows. But the books! I slave over the books! They have to be exactly right. Exactly!…” There is a possible implication here that the radio stories and the printed stories are different creations entirely, yet we know that almost all of the printed stories are transcribed, edited, and expanded versions of the same stories Shepherd told on the radio. (In Shep’s Army I’ve transcribed and edited, but not expanded, Shepherd radio stories.) By comparing what he said and what he published in print it’s easily seen that there are both great similarities and some differences in the basic story and in some details between Shep’s radio stories and the printed versions.
I’m not going to analyze a story in detail, but just give indications of some differences there can be between Shepherd’s spoken and written stories. Maybe the best-known previously published one is commonly called “Troop Train Ernie” and, among the times Shep told it, is in a Limelight broadcast of July 10, 1965. Then that or another spoken version of it was subsequently published in Shepherd’s 1981 A Fistful of Fig Newtons as ”The Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie, the Arkansas Traveler.” I’ve chosen a part near the beginning of each and a part of each that forms the basic conclusion of each version, plus a studio version’s ending.
Brass Signal Corps Insignia
LIMELIGHT NEAR THE BEGINNING: Company K has been put on the alert. And we’re in this Midwestern camp. Fantastic camp. There must have been ten-hundred-thousand-million people in it. Barracks as far as the eyes could see. And they had a siding, came right into the middle of it with trains.
And every night we’re scared out of our skull. We could hear those trains leaving. You could hear companies marching past, you could hear the equipment rattling—they’re goin’! And now it is our turn. Company K is called to attention.
FIG NEWTONS NEAR THE BEGINNING: Without warning, Company K, our little band of nearsighted, solder-burned Radar “experts,” had been rousted out of the sack at three o’clock in the morning, two full hours before revile, given a quick short-arm, issued new carbines and combat field equipment, and had been told to fall out into the company street when Sergeant Kowalski blew his goddamn whistle. Stunned, we milled about under the yellow light bulbs of our icy barracks. Some laughed hysterically; others wept silently. A few hunched over their footlockers, using stubby pencils to make last-minute finishing touches to their wills.
LIMELIGHT NEAR THE ENDING: And suddenly it hit me. I can see right at this very minute, now, July 1965, there is a gaunt figure wearing a pair of archaic army shoes, World War II, battered, torn, his dog tags are worn to a mere nubbin, he’s got three cans of beer and he is hiding out in the woods, he’s afraid of the MPs. Have you ever heard about those Japanese who are out there on those islands? They don’t know the war is over. Do you know anything about Arkansas? I suspect that out there, in the darkness right now, my friend Ernie doesn’t know it’s over.
Ernie, wherever you are, are you aware, Ernie, that you were posthumously made a T/5? Ernie, you got back pay comin’.
A STUDIO RENDITION ENDING (February 14, 1963) And as far as I know, Ernie is still out there in Arkansas wearing those old brown shorts carrying his dog tags, hiding in the woods. He’s scared to come out. You don’t goof-off a troop train. You don’t get away with it like that. I don’t know what he did–you can’t go down to the police station and say, “I’m Ernie.” You’re walking around in your shorts, your dog tags, your GI shoes. I don’t know where Ernie is now. But it was all for the country. Ernie did it for all of us. I want you to know that. The stars and stripes forever. Hey, Ernie! Hey Ernie, I’m sorry, Ernie. You did your best, Ernie. I’ll tell you, Ernie, it’s our fault. We shoulda hollered. We felt it goin,’ Ernie. We just didn’t have the guts to do it. We didn’t have any guts! I’m sorry, Ernie. [Instead of Gasser as fellow KP grunt, this version costars Zinsmeister.]
FIG NEWTONS NEAR THE ENDING: There are times when I awake at 3 A.M. from a fitful sleep hearing the clink-clink-clink of poor Ernie’s dog tags. Ernie, lost forever in Arkansas, wearing only his GI underwear, forever AWOL, a fugitive from a sealed troop train. Is he out there yet, a haggard wraith living on berries and dead frogs? A fearful outcast? Does he know the war is over? That all wars are past?
The clink-clink-clink of Ernie’s dog tags says nothing.
Dog Tags drawn by Jean Shepherd
near the beginning of
“Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie,
the Arkansas Traveler”
I can think of a way to clarify the issue, at least for some particular story that has appeared in both formats—first told on the air, then published in Playboy, then published in a Shepherd book. But here’s the difficulty. For one thing, Shepherd may have told the story several times, such as the “Troop Train Ernie” story which he told in both the studio and at Limelight live broadcasts. Each live version, being extemporized, would be a bit different (and who knows how many times he might have told it on programs of which no recordings have yet surfaced). And then the printed version would again be different.
Years ago, as a Norman Mailer enthusiast, I not only read his novel An American Dream, but thought it would be interesting to read the first published version as he wrote it for Esquire magazine, chapter by chapter under a monthly time restraint, as Dickens did for some of his books. How Mailer might have changed the text for book publication would be of literary interest to me in terms of style and content. I bought the dozen used issues on ebay.com and from other sources. But I finally decided that although this would be a great project for someone working toward a Masters in American Literature, the word-by-word studying and comparing the two versions would be more tedious work than I cared to expend. As one can imagine, despite my eagerness to know what the differences are and why the two versions are different in the Mailer work and in the Shepherd work, I can’t imagine myself doing the grinding, painstaking job necessary to find out. I figure at least a year or more, doing and thinking about nothing else.
The only things I know for sure are that Shepherd made the published versions longer and, in at least a couple of them, he added obscene dialog for soldiers’ comments.
More about the obscenities to come.
August 9, 2013, official publication day--SHEP’S ARMY
To begin my quest for putting together a book of Shepherd’s army tales, I first listed the army stories I could remember. Although I’ve heard virtually all the available broadcasts, I didn’t trust my faulty memory. I got out my small loose-leaf binders containing my printed-out flicklives.com posts documenting Max Schmid’s “Mass Backwards” weekly shows of Shepherd’s broadcasts, and went through the hundreds of descriptions, writing down the army story titles, original broadcast dates, and dates re-broadcast, knowing full well that, as the shows usually comprised multiple subjects, I’d miss some army tales because they had been a relatively minor item that week and hadn’t been noted down.
for “Code School Story”
Then I went through the many hundreds of itunes.com titles (based on Jeff Beauchamp’s enormous collection of Shepherd shows he had accumulated onto CDs and distributed free). I listed all the army shows that seemed to be possibilities for the book (knowing that the person who originally titled the show might not have listed the army tale). I did the same for Max’s audio catalog of Shep shows.
I looked at them with the idea of finding some content-groupings, just in order to have some better picture of the massive list, and I discovered that indeed, simply for organizational purposes, there were a number logical groupings.
1) There were stories about Shep’s induction and first days in the army. They made up the first group.
2) A show that mentioned a train trip from those earliest days at Fort Sheridan, the Illinois recruitment center, to Camp Crowder, Missouri, where the inductees were to remain for a while—the subject of this first sad story in Part 2 is “Shermy the Wormy.” (By the way, when I listened to this one, I decided that it was too much of a downer and rejected it. Later I realized that it was too good to toss and I reinstated it as one of Shepherd’s best.) Other stories, full of humor and delightful commentary about Signal Corps training at Camp Crowder and its nearby town of Neosho, Missouri, fell into this early group.
A sweet little Camp Crowder souvenir cushion.
3) Quite a few army stories described the semi-tropical environs where Shepherd spent a considerable time in a radar unit. Where was that center? I encountered a show in which Shep mentioned that GIs would go to a nearby city, West Palm Beach, Florida. I immediately employed google.com and discovered the now defunct radar training facility of Camp Murphy, just a short bus ride from West Palm Beach. Unquestionably the correct facility.
Where Camp Murphy (and Shep) used to be.
4) A number of Shepherd’s army stories did not involve any particular location or period, yet they were good stories, covering common GI experiences, so I knew there had to be a special section devoted to them. Among others, these include train rides, life in casual companies, payday, and an unforgettable story of Shep and another yardbird on KP plucking four-hundred dead chickens.
5) Finally, there was a group concerning his final days in the army and his discharge. Naturally, at that point I was listening to a lot of all those army shows and making some decisions.
With these groupings, a light bulb went on over my head…
and I realized that there was my organization and that Shepherd over the years, whether consciously or not , had scattered the makings of a “coming-of-age-in-the-army” epic. I had the basis for my book. I then had to work out the details and describe the parts and explain why they constitute a sort of “Jean Shepherd Army Novel.” (Remember, it’s“sort of,” not necessarily “exactly.”)
Meanwhile, doing more thinking and research, I organized and wrote the book’s introduction. Also, just wondering one day about whether there was a significance to Shepherd always referring to his unit as “Company K,” I googled and encountered Company K, William March’s semi-autobiographical novel of World War I Marines, published in 1933. Yes! I’d bet that Shepherd’s company name was a tribute to the brutal and powerful March book. Of course I had to buy a copy, as close to a first edition as I could afford. Having read it and having read several astute essays on March and his book (his best-known work, also made into play and film, is The Bad Seed), the volume now nestles among my collection of Shep books and related material.
Title page of Company K by William March,
my first edition copy, third printing.
Transcribing the army stories demanded yellow lined pads and my blue and red Bic pens. As I listened, paused the machine (tape or CD or itunes player) and reset the counter to capture any words I’d missed, I also began to make some decisions regarding what to keep and what kind of verbiage simply needed redoing or at least adjusting for print. For example, changing tense several times within a sentence works for Shepherd’s free- flowing voice, extemporizing on the wing—one doesn’t even notice— but can be disruptive on the printed page. It should be understood that my transcriptions are very faithful to Shep, with little changed and nothing added. One can basically read along from the book while listening to an audio of Shep telling his tale.
Further discussion to come