Many locales and situations other than the army are subjects for
Shepherd allegories and metaphors.
“Excelsior” as a metaphor for unwarranted idealism.
“Seltzer bottle” as the proper response to “excelsior,” as I commented in Excelsior, You Fathead!” the “self-deluding pomposity of ‘Excelsior’ should deservedly elicit a slapstick clown’s squirt of seltzer in the face!”
“Keep your knees loose” as a metaphor for being flexible in life, with its obverse, in the Army’s directive to avoid falling off a pole: “Keep your knees tight,” representing the need to act counter-instinctively in the military.
Og and Charlie, the symbolic cavemen, as not only our former but current selves: not yet civilized. As the old joke has it, the missing link between savages and civilized man is us.
Ludlow Kissel’s giant Fourth of July bomb that goes awry—as Shepherd once commented, represents the desire we all have to blow up the world.
The great ice cream war, with two stores in competition, each lowering its price to the level of self-destruction. What should be a simple pleasure becomes the subject of conflict and riot. Also a symbol of total war with its mutual destruction.
Shep, Schwartz, and Flick, as youngsters, begin popping pills which they encounter in a medicine cabinet of an empty house. They become very ill. Shepherd, telling this story, says that he is sometimes asked to tell of his first experience with drugs. Obviously the question is asked in order to tell a tale of the kind of drug-taking that became so dangerously common in the 1960s and 1970s. He turns this around, telling a kid story in order to give an anti-drug allegory.
Shepherd’s fly hook. We know that fishing is a pursuit often steeped in deferred, if not doomed, expectations. Consistent with his general philosophy, at various times Shepherd commented on how life often deals an unexpectedly disastrous blow. On a show he says, “You can do everything perfectly and have it blow up in your face.” He mentions that he loves fishing. He comments that fishing tells something about life. He describes how he was fly-casting and a fish grabbed the bait perfectly—but it broke loose and the fly hook whipped back and caught him in his left ear. It had to be removed in a nearby emergency room. Another illustration from Shepherd about how faultless acts can, nevertheless, end in disaster. Did this really happen? We’ll never know what the reality was, but I believe that he made it all up in order to give us unsuspecting listeners what might have been his last, surreptitious parable. He told this story on March 29, 1977. He had forewarned his listeners, who were already emotionally dressed in mourning, that three days later, after twenty-one years on New York radio, not by his own fault or choice but through a corporate bloodbath against long-standing segments of its talk-format, Shepherd, after twenty-one years at WOR doing “everything perfectly,” April Fool’s Day of 1977 would be his last broadcast.
Seated near the back of the school room because his name started with S in a world of not-always-fair alphabetical arrangements, causing potential difficulty in hearing the teacher as well as not being able to read the blackboard, suggesting that totally arbitrary circumstances in life can cause important problems.
Morse Code and Mark Twain’s River episode described in EYF! pages 357-360 about being a “sorehead.” He uses expertise at Morse code as a metaphor for there always being someone better than you are. He uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for life always having some hidden dangers that can kill you.
Considering the above interpretations, Jean Shepherd seemed to be enamored of allegories and metaphors. And, as these are only those that have been easily remembered from the over a thousand available programs heard, and these shows are only part of his radio broadcasts that have surfaced and are available for listening, many more recognizable ones undoubtedly exist out there somewhere, waiting to be found and interpreted—or misinterpreted. As one email correspondent put it: “…to paraphrase Freud, ‘Sometimes a leg lamp is just a leg lamp’” (Frank in Jersey). Ah, yes, some might be wrong interpretations, but Shep also produced many direct, unequivocal doozies:
“New York is a summer fistfight,” and walking up Sixth Avenue “knee-deep in cigar butts,” frequent disparaging comments on the thoughtless slovenliness of Americans.
Warren G. Harding school as being made of balsa wood and silly putty.
A simile from In God We Trust: “[Hohman] clings precariously to the underbody of Chicago like a barnacle clings to the rotting hulk of a tramp steamer.”
His mother’s knee: “She had this huge, giant, wonderful old granite knee. Had these handholds,” as symbolic of a child’s image of the mother as a chiseled-in-stone subject of truth, wisdom, and security.
Kidhood as a jungle is the direct ,extended, many-faceted, hyperbolic metaphor in Shepherd’s own narration at the end of his television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” taken from the published script: “The male human animal, skulking through the impenetrable fetid jungle of Kidhood, learns early in the game just what sort of animal he is. The jungle he stalks is a howling, tangled wilderness, infested with crawling, flying, leaping, nameless dangers.
Ralph, after the prom and its aftermath
are all over, trudging up to bed.
“He daily does battle with horrors and emotions that he will spend the rest of his life trying to forget or suppress. Or recapture. His jungle is the wilderness he will never fully escape, but those first early years, when the bloom is on the peach and the milk teeth have just barely departed, are the crucial days in the Great Education of Life.”
Pretty strong, that one. But others can hold their own, too. Whether Shepherd used metaphors and allegories consciously or not in every sited instance is impossible to say, but that he used them sometimes is undeniable. In fact, I suggest that Shepherd’s penchant for the vigorous, descriptive language he is so admired for, especially in his writing, owes much to his sometimes strong and surprising metaphors.
And, to end our incomplete little lecture,
here is our fearless leader with arms and legs
akimbo (3 out of 4 of which are edging out of the picture)
in front of a Howard Johnson’s,
a pose that may well be a metaphor fer sumpin’.