“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.