Most people, upon seeing or hearing a Shepherd kid-story, get nostalgic
and even teary-eyed, especially when viewing the movie
A Christmas Story.
Shepherd often seemed to them to be dealing in nostalgia,
but he strenuously insisted that it wasn’t so.
Feeling nostalgic, in spite of the fact that it might not be at all appropriate, is endemic among the many thousands of Shepherd’s enthusiasts throughout the land. Consider A Christmas Story, a movie he not only created but narrated, the story of the kid who wants a BB gun and, when he gets it, nearly shoots his eye out. The legions of people who know little if anything about Shepherd don’t need to be reminded of their nostalgic reaction to “the good old days”in the movie:
[Sign, in the movie turned sideways, upon which Ralphie
had placed his BB gun target. One only sees it for less than
a second= “GOLDEN AGE”
–what an ironic comment on nostalgia!
The sign’s words, which rebound the BB and almost shoot his eye out!]
but even those who do know a great deal about Shepherd and his wary attitude toward nostalgia get teary-eyed at the memory of the film. In it, Shepherd plays on the nostalgia embedded in the very fiber of our being (the days we gamboled in the snow and, secure in the bosom of our family life, waited for the presents that were sure to shower down upon us) even as he besmirches this rosy image with the mundane turmoil and conflict he depicts. Friend Flick gets his tongue stuck to a frozen metal pole; the longed-for secret decoder merely decodes “a crummy commercial”; Santa shoves our hero down the slide with his big, black boot; the father’s “major award,” a sexy piece of “slob art” in the form of a curvaceous female leg lamp, is “accidentally” broken; dogs make off with the family’s Christmas dinner; and the kid, after all, almost does shoot his own eye out. The simple truth is that Shepherd, in his work, sometimes used nostalgia only to undercut its sentimentality with sardonic humor. Indeed, he viewed nostalgia with considerable ambivalence.
Shepherd objected to the label of nostalgia, saying that his hundreds of extemporaneous stories about childhood told on the radio, published in Playboy, in books, and many of them later transformed into television stories and movies, were not about the good old days, but about how we humans have always been, and always will be, flawed. Nevertheless, Shepherd fans as well as the millions of others who simply enjoy his work, while maybe understanding his argument, still find something in many of his creations that indeed does strike a nostalgic chord that tugs at our hearts. Whatever Shepherd’s intention, he seems unable to avoid sounding a note of yearning when he talks about the days that are no more. We have a sneaking suspicion that, in fact, he wants to sound that note. At the end of A Christmas Story, the kid does get the gun, he doesn’t really shoot his eye out, and his parents, who had been at odds throughout, sitting before the Christmas tree at the end, contemplate the beautiful tree, the night, and the gently falling snow outside as, now at peace with each other, they snuggle up contentedly. They are happy in their world—and we respond accordingly to a fondly imagined past.
In most of his work, in fact, Shepherd treated his past with the same mocking tone that barely concealed his fond memories of it. His radio work, which thousands of diehard fans such as myself, still consider his finest achievement, began in Indiana where he grew up, an Indiana which, for good or ill, he often derided but could never get out of his system. By 1956, often describing the act as an escape from the Midwest, he had moved to his intellectual and emotional home, New York City. There, in the twenty-two years of his New York programs, we find his stories, commentaries, anecdotes, his expertly rendered snatches of tunes played on kazoo, jews harp, or nose flute, and his infectious laugh and joy in life. Though his talents burgeoned in the Big Apple, the background, inspiration, and joy for all of this grew out of his Midwest past, and he both knew it and appreciated it in a way that was, but that he would not have wanted described as, “n*******c.”
In his New York City years, mixing great pleasure and enthusiasm with his irony and his put-downs, his spoken and written tales, as well as the television stories and films based on them, emphasize that even through all the travail, we’d not only muddle through and live to tell it, but even laugh at it too with more than a bit of warmth in our hearts. At the end of one of those TV tales, after all the minor tragedies have ended on happy notes, Shepherd, as narrator, ties it all up in a comfy bow with the story’s final words:
“Those thanksgivings at home were what Thanksgiving is all about.
Mothers, fathers, brothers, the family dog, and Time,
like a gray shadow pursuing us all.
But those Thanksgiving drumsticks were the sweetest of all.
Even Time can’t rob you of those memories.
They are forever.”
We don’t know whether he said those words under some TV-production arm-twisting or spoke them freely with an acceptance of their comforting truth, but we certainly know that despite his complaints, he found joy not only in his life as he was then living it but also in his life as he’d experienced it from childhood on—and he had an appealing way of describing not only his own life but of also capturing the customs and lives of all of us.
* * *
His stories and articles, many of them anthologized or collected in books, the videos, the films, and several thousand of his radio programs of extemporaneous outpourings that were recorded and preserved by adoring fans, are all readily available and are appreciated by a growing multitude who had no experience of his work when it was originally presented to the world. And therein lies a difference. Although the words and images are the same for us older folk and for newbies alike, there will always remain for me and those others who heard him on the radio as he originally spoke to us from out there in studioland, when we were young, impressionable, and eager for intellectual companionship–the realization that we were hearing, off the top of his head, a jazzman’s improvisations in words—magic being made nightly—live—right before our ears.
“HE WAS IN STUDIOLAND,
AND I WAS LISTENING TO HIM OUT THERE IN RADIOLAND
ON MY MAROON PLASTIC ZENITH AM/FM RADIO
WITH THE BIG SIMULATED GOLD DIAL.”
In this we have an advantage over his newer fans—we were there when it happened, and through our recognition of that gift from ol’ Shep, we now enjoy special feelings that can only be described as gratitude and nostalgia.