Home » Army Life and Stories » JEAN SHEPHERD Spoken & Written & Army Stories

JEAN SHEPHERD Spoken & Written & Army Stories


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!

V Voice IGWT reviewVillage Voice review (12/29/66)

(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.

signal corps insignia

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

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 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.



1 Comment

  1. mygingerpig says:

    If you recall Jerry Seinfeld’s commentary about slaving over a joke to get it right, you will see the point Shep is making about writing. Reading the excerpts from his written stories compared with the spoken versions, it is clear how much better the written ones are for reading. Lacking his voice, inflection and timing, they rely on the reader to provide a voice and style, which is variable. So he gets it just right for hearing and then for reading. The difference is huge. That’s why he is a pro.


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