I recently heard a Shep-tape from late October 1971 in which I found a detail of special interest to me. He said he’d owned an MG-TD sports car. I’d owned one myself—it was pretty much the last of the older breed of rugged-looking and rakish little cars. It had a squarish hood and a rectangular grill with vertical louvers, sweepingly curved front fenders, freestanding chrome headlamps, and cut-down door panels on which to jauntily rest your arm. I can feel how he felt driving it. I felt a kinship with young Shep, especially when I calculated my age when I first got my MG in 1961 as 23, and, as his official Army discharge papers puts his story in late 1944, his age would also have been 23.
He said he owned it just after he left the Army and a few months before he was to return to school the next February after the fall fishing trip he was to make in the car, driving to northern Michigan. He described how cold it was driving north from Indiana and I knew this would be true, having experienced my MG’s weak heater and drafty roof and side curtains.
Later, as I contemplated that nice little connection to Shep, I realized a discrepancy. Discharged in 1944, but a quick internet search confirmed my understanding that the MG-TD had only been produced between 1949 and 1953, meaning that he could not have had one right after his discharge. If he really took a car trip to Upper Michigan then, it would seem that he drove some other car or maybe he drove his MG to Upper Michigan after 1949. Not likely he’d have forgotten the year he was discharged, and as a great car enthusiast, he must have known when the MG-TD was produced. (It, and the even gutsier prior model, the TC, had established the sports car craze in this country.) Consciously or unconsciously he conflated his discharge, trip, and car ownership. Maybe he just liked the idea of a story that combined the driving of a sporty little car on the open road and a wilderness expedition up in Michigan after his Army days.
MG TD, MG TC
–note among other more subtle differences,
the more up-tight front fenders on the TC
The story of this trip is a slight one—a mere anecdote—but maybe there’s something more and deeper to it—maybe he had in mind some reference to Hemingway’s short story of the discharged World War I soldier’s withdrawal from civilization to the woods up in Michigan in “Big Two-Hearted River.” Shepherd never appeared traumatized as did Hemingway’s Nick Adams. Hemingway and his Nick Adams were in the thick of World War I battlefields and indeed were quite shaken by the experience, whereas Shepherd spent his military service at a stateside radar training installation. But both Hemingway’s protagonist and the Shepherd persona choose isolation in nature and in fishing as a transition between war and regular civilian life. Before arriving at nature’s balm after the war, Nick must first pass through the warlike devastation of a burned out town and countryside—a conflagration, though not caused by war, that must have been horrific. Moreover, the smoke would have darkened the sky.
Shep’s tale ends with him fleeing, not traumatized but spooked, peremptorily quitting the wilderness after just one night because of a strange darkness the next morning—instead of daylight. Later he found out that it had been caused by the thick black smoke of a far-off fire. Had there ever been for Shepherd such a trip, such a darkness, such an uneasy MG race back to civilization?
The discrepancy in chronology regarding discharge and the make of car have little import, but what kind of reality was Shep giving himself and us? As has been suggested, when Shepherd told a story, it was real to him, he honestly believed it, and total accuracy was not essential. The Hemingway story is all inference as to the cause of Nick Adams’s responses to his circumstances, so we can draw conclusions because we know of the other more direct stories of Nick’s combat experiences in World War I. But Shepherd, having spent his World War II service far from enemy fire, has not given even the most subtle hint of a cause for his strong reaction. Maybe he was trying to suggest the harsh reality of that war way across the seas, which remained for him as well as for the rest of this country, too distant to sink sufficiently into our psyches. The scary, dark cloud of a far-off fire might well have been his metaphor for World War II, but as real as this story may have been for him, it needed a bit more connection to the horrors to make his circumstances and his reactions real enough for us to comprehend. Yet, maybe inspired by the subtle reality of the Hemingway story, our Shepherd had climbed into the ring with the best of them.
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My next post will be Part 2 of the Leigh Brown Story