Home » A Christmas Story » JEAN SHEPHERD–Allegories/metaphors Part 2

JEAN SHEPHERD–Allegories/metaphors Part 2


 Many locales and situations other than the army are subjects for

Shepherd allegories and metaphors.

More examples:

“Excelsior” as a metaphor for unwarranted idealism.

shep signature

“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!”KYKL bottle cover

“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.

Equally, the murderous Mariah and its near duplicate, Wolf, the two battling tops that disappear, lost down a sewer, are our seemingly invincible armaments that simply destroy each other. ToyTop3x

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.

The old man’s Chinese nail puzzle and the three against-the-rules ways he has of solving it by destroying it, as a metaphor for solving problems by cheating.bent-nails-97

“Cowboy X” is Jean Shepherd himself, who makes his mark everywhere for what he accomplishes, yet who is unrecognized by the “not very smart” townspeople—the ignorant American masses.250px-CowboyX

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.

Eating escargot for the first time as symbolic of all the wonderful things out there beyond the narrow minds in one’s immediate environment. escargot


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.

phantom of o.h.end

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’.







  1. mygingerpig says:

    His wonderful story about the first day at school when he discovered that there were no desks, but sandboxes, and the kids drank milk from little cartons and took NAPS! is a metaphor for the disillusion we often face when our fantasy of something and its reality don’t match. He was an advanced reader by the time he went to school, and the class was infantile and infuriating. He told of refusing to go back the next day and having to be dragged by his mother.

    I love the part where he “failed” his name–the teacher insisted it was Eugene and he kept saying it was Jean–a metaphor for how people in authority beat down lesser beings even when they are wrong.

    He also referred to kids as “tadpoles” swimming in the stream of life, out of the sheltered world of home and into the larger pool of the world, marked by going to school. School is the first time we are in the control of other adults than parents and so is a powerful event in our tadpole development.

    I recall he went on to talk about how billboards and ads pictured kids at desks in school and so when he got there and saw no desks, he was shocked. The theme of being misled by ads is a theme he refers to often, and his metaphors often relate to that (the “crummy commercial).


    • ebbergmann says:

      Yes, Joel, it’s a great story full of Shep-indicators of problems in life. A while back I transcribed that very story. One of my favorite kid stories.

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