[Note the now-politically incorrect term in the following sentence–
it and a couple of others were perfectly fine in their day.]
In fact, a lady said to me—a colored lady was standing next to me and we were talking for an hour about this. She said, “You know, you can’t tell the folks—you just cannot tell them how it was. I don’t know how I’m going to tell them how it was at home, because you can’t tell them how it was unless you were here. And then if you were here you don’t have to be told.” And that’s exactly the truth. She said, “You know, I think even Satan was moved today.”
Well, we were all standing around in this great crowd—it’s going to sound like I invented this. Please listen carefully. This is exactly what happened. There was a man standing back of me who had a big white Panama hat on and like so many of the demonstrators, it was obvious that this was a very big moment for him and he was all dressed up, as were so many. That’s an interesting thing—my delegation was told to wear a jacket and a tie and white shirt, because “this is a thing we’re going to that is very important.” So everybody was all dressed up. As we came into Washington, all the guys were putting their jackets on. And it was hot—oh boy was it hot on the bus. Putting their ties on. Trying to straighten up their clothes and everything, because, as somebody said, it was like going to church with two-hundred-thousand people.
The man behind me, a great guy, a short, stout, negro man with glasses clouded-up because he was sweating like mad, was holding up his little sign that said, “NAACP Boston Branch.” It’s a long way from Boston to Washington on a bus.
You could see nothing except those great white columns of the Lincoln Memorial, and back of you, you saw, all the way in the distance, the Washington Monument standing up there. You saw that photo in the paper today? Well, I want to tell you, that picture does not even come close to what it was really like. How beautiful. That sky was fantastic, the clouds were white and that great, beautiful reflecting of the Washington Monument lying across that water and all those people there all dressed up, ladies with flowered hats and everything else and the kids all shined up. It was just a moment when everybody’s all dressed up and everything’s working fine. The trees were fine, the breeze was blowing, and once in a while a big airplane would come across with its flaps down, going into Washington airport. Somehow everything was there and it was all right.
[This image, it’s said, is from a much earlier appearance of
Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial.]
And Marian Anderson started singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The usual kind of “Star Spangled Banner” where it was through a PA system and we were so far away we could hardly hear. You couldn’t distinguish the words, but it was “The Star Spangled Banner.” Everybody standing there.
Suddenly, a few feet from me, a big colored lady with a big red hat with big white flowers—the official kind of lady who’s always organizing—starts to holler, “Will the Brooklyn Corps representatives please assemble over here. Please get over here. Brooklyn Corps representatives.” She was hollering in the middle of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Well, the guy back of me says, “Madam, madam.”
She looked at him. “What?”
He said, “They are singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ We usually are quiet during the singing of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Please. They are singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”
She had a funny look on her face. Of course the real organizer is never put off by anything so trivial as feelings or emotions. She looked at him for a moment and turned away.
And he stood there sweating, with his hat off, as Marian Anderson sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Don’t anyone say to me, “The Uncle Tom.” Stop it, man. You know not whereof you speak.
The book meant as a hoax that became a reality,
remains, in many of its aspects, a mystery.
I think it would be good to enumerate what’s known, what’s a assumed, and what is unknown–except maybe, to those who know but ain’t tellin’. We know that some heard the broadcasts, and probably at least a couple recorded parts, but nothing so far has turned up. (Why are these people waiting for their ignorant heirs to toss the holy grail tapes in a dumpster?)
Note that many statements herein are preceded by such qualifiers as
“seems to be.”
WHICH COVER SEEMS TO BE THE “REAL” ONE?
WHICH MIGHT SELL MORE COPIES, AND
WHO HAD THE SHAMELESSNESS TO PERPETRATE IT?
BASE STORY OF THE HOAX
Shepherd, during his overnight radio shows from January 1956 to mid-August 1956, began to create a hoax with his listeners regarding lists and best sellers. Said to be in April, he began, describing how he went into a bookstore (said to be Doubleday on Fifth Avenue about 56th Street), and asked for a book he knew existed (said to be transcripts of some “Vic and Sade” radio broadcasts by Paul Rhymer). The clerk, upon checking sources regarding the title, claimed (so it’s said) that the book, as it was not listed, could not exist.
Shepherd described the incident on his show , and, it’s said, he was so upset that he decided to play a joke on the book industry and all those who control what we have available to read, and those who depend on lists. It’s said that at that time, newspaper “best seller lists” were compiled not only by number of book titles sold, but number of book titles reported to have been requested for purchase.
Why not create a non-existent title and author, it’s said that he said, and request it in stores. The fictitious publisher was “Excelsior Books, an imprint of Oxford Press.” If the sales clerk asked who the publisher was, the answer should be, “It’s ‘Excelsior’, you fathead!” It’s said that he made up a fake biography of the author.
Listeners asked for the book, some wrote essays on it for school, someone slipped a book index card into a library’s catalog, people claimed to have read it, airline personnel took the hoax overseas, a columnist claimed to have had a meal with the fictitious author, etc., etc., etc.
Indicative of the book’s widespread distribution is the London hardcover edition (that reached a second printing), available from used book dealers in England, Australia, and New Zealand. Dated 1957, there is no copyright notice. The dust jacket, in putrid purple (the New York hardcover sported putrid pink), depicts an eighteenth-century roué eyeing a very modern-looking young blonde disrobing, a far more lurid illustration than the witty and ironically suggestive one on the American edition.
English hardcover edition
Nor does this edition include the witty photo by Roy Schatt of Shepherd posing as the dissolute author, Ewing. Either innocent of the entire nature of the hoax or simply participating in the joke, the English publisher precedes the author bio with: “We do not vouch for the accuracy of this paragraph which is quoted from American sources.” Maybe this was a knowing British wink—a contribution to the mischievous confusion. At any rate, the British public was probably largely ignorant of the hoax (unless airline personnel told individuals about it). Too bad they missed out on the literary fun! I missed out also because, in the spring of 1956, when I was told that there was this late-night guy on the radio, his 1-5:30 AM broadcast hours were far too late for me.
My searches also turned up a London paperback edition. The full-color cover does the London hardcover artwork one—or two—better. A handsome young eighteenth century fellow in full period formal wear including tricorn hat and puffy shirt, charges through the open iron gate of a stone dungeon. The half-naked male prisoners in despair and chains, can only imagine, along with the viewer, the potential delights of what occupies, in prominent foreground, the left side of the scene— a lovely young woman with hands tied high over her head, dark tresses draped over one breast, her well-endowed body partly covered by a torn green dress, one thigh and knee revealed. She is not yet aware of her imminent rescue—her eyes gently closed, her full lips slightly parted as though already experiencing easily imagined post-rescue pleasures. This provocative scene is found nowhere in the text. (See image above.) One wonders how many dissatisfied English customers followed Frederick R. Ewing’s writing all the way to its less-than-orgasmic consummation, to say nothing of the undoubtedly unsatiated bloke whose copy of the tome found its way to a used bookseller in Australia.
I suggest that knowledge of the American hoax didn’t cross the Pond or the Pacific, but that publication in the land of Shakespeare and in the land of the Crocodile Hunter only happened because the publishers perpetrated a different and very common-place hoax on its customers— a provocative title embellished with salacious covers.
Previous comments by me have included other illustrations and words of great import.
See Part 2, soon to come (not a hoax)
Another holiday season and another
Christmas Story show-fest!
A Christmas Story, the musical, this year is scheduled for NYC’s
Madison Square Garden Theater,
again starring, as Shep the creator and on-stage narrator,
(Who had played the father in the popular sitcom, “The Wonder Years,”
which was the unacknowledged inspiration of
Jean Shepherd’s style.)
I was invited to the musical’s opening on Broadway and the after-theater celebration. Despite some trepidation, I attended, and very much enjoyed it. It was wonderful to see that Shep/narrator was given a prominent part as the on-stage commentator for the action. The sets and musical numbers were good, and I applauded appreciatively.
The Cleveland Street museum dedicated to A CHRISTMAS STORY has various activities and more and more related items for sale. Among the new, ACS items, my son Evan found in a Long Island store, is a calendar (pardon the cropped scan):
Among the other Christmas Celebrations, Twisted Sister, a few years back, did their own version of Christmas songs for an enjoyable album, some of which is on YouTube. What one might imagine being tasteless, I found quite enjoyable. Followers of this blog may remember that Dee Snider,whom I interviewed for 3 hours in my Shep Shrine is a very enthusiastic Shep fan. He feels that some of his own style on his radio program is influenced by Shep’s radio style. (The following Dee-related commentary and images are totally unsolicited–eb)
Interestingly, Dee Snider, front man of the group, is, when out of stage gear, an articulate, delightful guy with some rather conservative attributes, including the decades he’s been married, and his traditional sense of Christmas.
Dee being interviewed in 2014 for his Christmas musical.
I was surprised to see that he’s created his own Christmas musical opening in Chicago this year and, he hopes, headed for NYC’s Broadway next year.
He describes the story line thus:
“A struggling heavy metal band who sells their soul
to the devil and
finds the magic of Christmas instead.”
Yes, Dee Snider has a positive Christmas spirit.
Recently a video game based on A Christmas Story emerged.
Oh me, oh my:
When I was a little kid my parents would wait till I was asleep before setting up our Christmas tree and arraying presents under it. I woke up to encounter Christmas morning just about the same as does Ralphie and Randy in that favorite movie we watch every year.
Christmas Eve morning: I just encountered (after many searches), an image of Dan Lauria’s poster on the theater facade showing him as Jean Shepherd–with the title! Read those immortal words! I first saw this as I stood on line waiting to see the opening performance of the ACS musical–it gave me great hope (soon to be justified) that Shep would get his rightful place in the production:
As a Shep enthusiast, my gratitude for this
recognition knows no bounds!
And, I mean, there wasn’t an available inch in those busses that wasn’t used. Lunches and all kinds of stuff—stuff to sit on and fans for the sweat off your brow—hot!—oh boy!
Well, we started out—all I can say is that it was a fantasy in so many ways. There are a few occasions in your lifetime when you are reminded of the fact of how diverse humanity really is. On the one hand they are capable of the most incredible humanity. I hate to use such as word as “humanity” applied to human beings—but I say that probably a squirrel is capable of humanity towards people. But they are capable of things which you could not believe, after having lived in an urban world in the twentieth-century. And, of course, they’re capable of the other. You keep seeing the other superimposed in your own mind. The “other.” You know what I mean by the other.
To begin with, thinking about this thing for weeks in advance, I had talked with guys who were planning to go and arranging this thing. I had all kinds of ideas about the way it would be. Just like all of us have ideas in our head about how history is. I’m sure you have ideas about how it must have been to be in Germany in the 20s. Well, it wasn’t. Not the way you think it was. I’m sure you have ideas of how it must have been when Washington was crossing the Delaware. Forget it. It wasn’t. I was not there but I know one thing—it wasn’t the way you think it was. I’ve found that very few things are the way you think they are.
One of the great moments was to be riding along in this bus in the semi-darkness, everybody’s feeling tired, and there was a peculiar excitement of the unknown. No one knew quite what to expect. And what was, I thought, quite significant, no one even talked about the event to which we were going. Now that, I think, is interesting. I waited, I listened carefully. Nobody said a word about it. They talked about the bus, they talked about the lunch they were carrying, they talked about their shoes hurting, they talked about everything. It was as though nobody wanted to talk about where we were going and why. And particularly the people who were deeply involved in it, the negroes we had with us—I’m going to say right away, some of the greatest people I’ve ever known in my life. Well, that’s another story. It goes back to Nigeria and other areas of life and existence. We can’t go into that right now.
But driving along through the darkness, we were whistling along the Jersey Turnpike, and the bus had a governor on it as cross-town busses do. (The cross-town bus driver was hollering for transfers and he was ducking imaginary cabs all the way.) We weren’t out on the Turnpike more than five minutes when other busses started to pass us in the darkness. The particular rapport between the busses was insane. It’s obvious that you’re not going to see a cross-town bus out on the Jersey Turnpike heading south unless there’s something going on—this bus was just not a bus headed for Paramus. Well, we’re going along in the darkness, a bus would go past and instantly you’d see all these hands out the window waving at our bus. Our bus is waving at them. Great moment. And after awhile you got so it was just normal. When we got off the Turnpike past Philadelphia and on through Delaware, we were skirting a railroad track and a train went past us with about nine passenger cars loaded to the gunnels with people. And the whole train was waving at our bus! And we’re waving at the train and the crew was waving out of the front of the locomotive! I’m just describing to you what exactly happened.
We arrived on the outskirts of Washington. Now people began to talk about— “Wow, I bet we’re going to be late, boy what a traffic jam.” They never once talked about the event, even when we got there.
(More of Shep’s description to come.)
Yes, there are other movies besides A CHRISTMAS STORY.
Some are even good.
Of course, top of the list for me is
A CHRISTMAS STORY
Here are some (I’ve seen eight + parts of others):
ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE (Tears all around for the last scene).
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (Tears all around for the last scene).
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (The Dickens classic–an old b & w flick)
WHITE CHRISTMAS (Bing Crosby sings “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”)
A MERRY FRIGGIN’ CHRISTMAS (Touted as “black” and “sad,” and one of Robin William’s last flicks, I don’t think I wanna see it.)
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS
ELF (funny moments)
HOME ALONE (in several parts. Part 2: it’s hilarious)
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Okay once, but I find the visual style awkward/ugly)
THE SANTA CLAUSE (?)
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (?)
The above are some of those I’ve heard of or seen. The lst few days, Many more movies have shown up on the telly, each using the word “Christmas”–never heard of ’em. The only one my family and I watch anymore is
A CHRISTMAS STORY.
But one of my and my wife’s favorite movies, with a happy Christmas at the end is the delightful aggregation of love stories, illustrating many forms of love, and a year-around favorite, is
I find this”chick-flick” so funny and, in parts,
that, having watched it dozens of times over the years
(all year round)
my eyes, several times, every viewing, well up with tears.
HAVE A MERRY
Sorry for the delay in posting–we’ve now moved and are surrounded by scores of packed boxes we’re having trouble locating stuff in. The local library has come to our temporary rescue with internet access. eb
MARCH ON WASHINGTON
August 28, 1963 was the day of the historic March on Washington, in which over two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people gathered in and around the D. C. Mall, focused on the Lincoln Memorial, to demonstrate for civil rights and economic betterment. Among those who performed on stage were Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Mahalia Jackson. Many other well-known people were also present. The best-known part of the day is that often referred to as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, which concluded with “…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream….”
The event was extensively covered by the press and television. Jean Shepherd, consistent with his usual disposition, immersed himself in the activity not as a reporter, but as a participant—who could really experience it. The result of his manner of participating is captured in his broadcast the evening after. It is not like other descriptions of the event. Although Shepherd always tells his improvised tales enthusiastically, immersing himself as well as listeners and readers, one might note a certain out-of-breath quality as he describes facts and little incidents while very much caught up in his reliving of the moment. In mid-thought he frequently remembers some tangential idea which must be inserted right then, and he tends to repeat himself a bit—an emotional reaction, I believe. Some editorial adjustment brings these together as he would have meant them to be. He sometimes gets especially excited when describing true events such as this March in which he participated. NPR, during its fortieth anniversary celebration of the March, played a ten-minute segment of his broadcast. This is Jean Shepherd’s unique historical document about what over two-hundred thousand participants experienced, and as such, it contains much objective truth. As for Shepherd, he was overwhelmed.
I was one of the marchers in the big demonstration yesterday, and this experience was probably one of the two or three—words such as “interesting” don’t really mean much in this case. And to use the word “significant” doesn’t mean much either, because “significant” of what? Let’s just say it was one of the two or three most difficult to assay/weigh/put-into-perspective days that I have ever experienced in my life. One of the two or three days. The closest day that I can think of in my experience was VE Day, or maybe even VJ Day. To the tenor, the tone, the quality of what went on and the way the people were.
I went down on this thing very specifically as just a marcher. Just one of the people in a delegation, because I have learned through long experience—and hard experience—that the only real way that you ever get to have even a vague understanding about events is, if you can, possibly, be part of or in the group, or be in with people to whom the event is occurring.
I wonder just how much a newsman ever learns about anything—standing up on the platform. I’m curious. I listened to a lot of jazz yesterday from the newsmen and almost all of them were up on the platform, they were in the news section, which was very, very, very much roped off from the great herd of people who walked along the streets. The great multitude who gathered under the trees, who pushed up through past the Coke stands and finally stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I didn’t see many newsmen in that crowd. In fact, I don’t recall seeing one newsman in that crowd.
Another thing that I found very interesting was going down on the bus—we left 47th Street and I rode on a bus with maybe two-hundred-thousand other people, all riding on busses toward Washington. We had a very old, terrible bus. I’ll tell you, have you ever ridden on a bus—a New York cross-town bus—all the way to Washington? I’m serious—a lot of people did. They just took the cross-town sign out and everybody sat on those plastic seats and went all the way to Washington and back.
Stay tuned for Part (2)
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[December 10, 2014. This post comes a day earlier than my usual schedule because of the complexities of moving our home about 2 miles further east on Long Island. I’m expecting that the next post and those following will be on the usual schedule–following one on 12/14.]
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The above title is the name of a newly surfaced Shepherd Holy Grail we didn’t even know existed. In that regard, the front matter of one of my unpublished Shep book manuscripts states:
The author beseeches all those potentially munificent fatheads who harbor miscellaneous Jean Shepherd holy grails to come forth with them now before their ignorant heirs toss them in a dumpster.
A Shepherd fan, Jonathan Sanger, after many years of holding onto it, passed along to Jim Clavin a 20-minute video made, apparently, in 1966, by Sanger and his friend Al Tedesco, graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania.
As Jim Clavin comments, it seems a bit like the broadcast program, “Three Worlds of Jean Shepherd,” in which a WNYC production crew followed Shep during his perambulations in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in 1967. Jim describes that 30-minute program:
“Not much is known about this. I recorded the audio from the show, but can only describe the video portion. The 3 worlds are ‘Radio’, ‘Limelight Shows’ and ‘Writing’. The show follows Shep through the moments right before he goes on the air, walking down the hall and into the studio just as his theme begins to play. Along the way he speaks about the Limelight performances and his writing as he is interviewed in his WOR office by John Wingate (?). There is even a minute of Leigh Brown describing how it was to work with Shep.”
“Channel Cat” also follows Shep around, in this case, mostly within walking distance of his New York WOR broadcast studio at 1440 Broadway (just south of Times Square). Parts of the audio are recordings of Shep talking. What is so wonderful about this video is that we see Shepherd in motion: walking along Broadway, entering WOR premises, being in his office space showing his desk area, in his studio broadcasting, and some shots of producer Leigh Brown in the engineer’s booth on the other side of the glass. Here are some stills, all in glorious black and white video.
Shep walking the streets of Mid-town with his
small-brimmed, tan hat.
[By pure coincidence, during the mid-60s, for years,
in cool weather, I daily wore the exact same tan hat!]
Shepherd performing at the Limelight.
Shep in the WOR studios, at his desk.
Note the Laurel and Hardy picture, upper left.
There’s also a Buster Keaton portrait there.
Leigh Brown in the engineer’s control booth.
Shep on the air.
On the air, obviously enjoying himself!
Many thanks, for making this video and allowing it to be seen by one and all! Jim Clavin will have more on his http://www.flicklives.com site. Let us hope that any others who have Shep material make it available before it’s too late (the dumpster looms for all of us and for all historical records!).
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My family is moving to a new location this week, so there may be a bit of disruption to my usual every-3-day postings on this blog. New ones may be a day or so off-schedule depending on how/when we get our computer up and running in our new home, and my own available time organized.
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How much of his travel stories are true? Unlike his kid stories and army stories, which are very likely almost all fiction with occasional short excursions into fact, his travel stories appear to be almost all fact, with only occasional excursions into minor bits of creative embellishment and obvious fantasy. Contemplating the truthfulness of his “stories,” one is struck with the realization that Shepherd frequently begins talking about being a kid or being a soldier by saying, “Have I told you the story about….” “Story” itself can be defined as fictional or true, and I believe Shepherd consciously uses the ambiguity as a strategy to confound the listener into believing it is all true while he is inventing a fiction. And I remember no instance in which he begins talking about a trip by referring to it as a “story. “ With all the imprecise and awkward synonyms available, the descriptive word that seems most neutral and that might be used with somewhat less of an automatically “fictional” connotation might be “narrative.”
Are his travel narratives all true when he expects us to believe them so? I believe it’s significant that his travel narratives take place in locations and with people other than those in his ordinary life (thus not interfering with his closely-guarded privacy), so he has no particular cause to bamboozle us. Or has he? Let’s not forget the raconteur fraternity’s commonplace: “The truth never stands in the way of a good story.” Maybe Shepherd, talking of his travels, is up to his usual tricks when creating art out of what one might presume to be the non-fictional nature of his kid and army stories. But, as he works so hard in his broadcasts to be a mentor-like informant, a guiding force for his listeners—and he so strongly promotes travel as an important mode for discovering truths in one’s real life, I feel strongly that in travel tales he is mostly an honest-to-goodness truth-teller. Recognizing that some tampering is almost universally practiced even by professional travel writers, and that intimation and elaboration may be the sincerest form of which a storyteller is capable, I still believe we’re being given truth here that’s as pure as the driven snow, almost.
Note that it’s certain that he went to the places he talks about, and only infrequently, fictitiously, elaborates on an event. The fictional bits tend to be blatantly self-evident, such as his tale of having had shipped to him from a Middle-Eastern bazaar, Fatima, a nubile slave girl. Only in his dreams—he implies that such imaginations tend to be the fantasies of many of us when we think of that part of the world. The fantasy-nature of his purchase, with no attempt to delude us in the process, supports the truthful implications of this not-to-be-literally-believed parable. (At least he never subsequently seems to have referred to her as a member of his New York City household!) It’s only appropriate that he caps off his Middle Eastern travels with some bits of the dream-world fantasy in all of us who have grown up on flickering Hollywood illusions. Rudolph Valentino is still imbedded in our psyches, and it is undoubtedly no coincidence that one of Shepherd’s favorite songs he sings on his broadcasts is “I’m the Sheik of Araby.”
Rudolph Valentino (the Shepherd of Araby).
So, despite the occasional exception, when Jean Shepherd speaks of his travels, I believe him to be nearly always honest, and without fail an eagle-eyed and esthetically blessed reporter of what he actually sees and experiences.
Any book of Jean Shepherd’s travels would have to omit some material. All those who describe a subject, and especially travelers, leave things out. No way that Marco Polo told us the details of how he put on his socks every morning. (As Shepherd himself once deprecatingly described a grammar school geography lesson, he’d learned that “Bolivia exports tin.” But, we know that better than memorizing the fact, if you need it, you could look it up. Nobody cares about or tells everything.) Shepherd is first to admit, with a certain amount of amazement, even part of the time he spends on an aircraft carrier heading into a perilous engagement can be uninteresting. He does tell us that some of these carrier moments are boring, but—for which we thank him—he gives no examples.) Even an enthusiastic editor can find a few moments that, though interesting enough for radio listeners delighted to learn facts about some far-off location Shepherd has visited, one should check out a gazetteer for some list or other, rather than follow Shepherd’s rare, bare-bones description. Far better to focus on what Shepherd is such a master at conveying—adventures of an inquisitive and perceptive mind at work.
Regarding the order of these included tales, neither chronology nor geography dictate the sequence, so I have found a less pure but, what I believe, is a more appropriate organization. His return trips to some sites, though divergent in time, sometimes by many months or years, provide not an alternative viewpoint but a special and constant love, so they are linked here in a single chapter as parts of what Shepherd himself feels as his enthusiasm for place. Although Shepherd’s travel narratives are mostly stand-alone affairs, arranging them to conform to when they were broadcast would only disrupt one’s understanding of Shepherd’s interest in a locale, and an arrangement of narratives following a geographical sequence on the globe seems to be irrelevant as to Shepherd’s chosen destinations. The order chosen for this book is a loose organization based on a couple of factors.
As an American, his travels in this book begin with the March on Washington and the first Maine episode, both American venues, which are important, yet dissimilar from his far-off journeys to other lands.
Internet image described as being part of the 1963 March to D.C.
[A much more luxurious vehicle than the NYC Cross-Town bus Shep was on]
Next, the Middle-Eastern tales give a jolt to the newly initiated foreign-travel-reader of this book, and then Western European settings put him on more familiar, yet foreign soil. “Around the World” seems to cover it all, yet leads to some distant locations, focusing on Australia, the Amazon, and Nigeria. What seems to be his last non-American trip, consisting of the very act of voyaging, is his sailing adventure to the Windward Islands. Concluding with a second take on Maine, which he ironically refers to as “a foreign country,” seems an appropriate end, bringing him back home to his beloved United States.
Remember that Shepherd chooses no perceivable order to his travels. In fact, some such as the Peru trip, Beatle trip, and the flight around the world come about through various fortuitous happenstances. So how the chapters are arranged in this book might take various forms. I’ve tried to put together an entertaining mix, which at the same time has somewhat of a rationale. Others may well concoct their own formula and create their own Shepherdian voyage through his world. Some might prefer a sequence that would lead the reader step by step from familiar–but only superficially civilized Western Europe–deeper and deeper into outlands, discomforting wildernesses, terra incognita, on a path that Shepherd himself probably would not have conceived or wanted. I like my own itinerary, but you’re free to wander off among the chapters–become your own sort of “traveler.”
Among the travel narratives that have so far emerged from Shepherd’s broadcasts, we have many gems to enjoy. The glories of his travel narratives provide us with strikingly varied adventures and the amazingly unconventional and fascinating results of his acute sensibilities and insights—they provide us with pleasures decidedly different from, and second only to, being there oneself. So, get ready for all these voyages, keep an open mind, and as Shepherd more than once advised, you’ll enjoy them more if you leave most of your baggage behind.
The foregoing introduction to Jean Shepherd’s travel world is told in the present tense because his narrative method on the radio embroils us in the immediate moment, and what he has created in many fields (such as the highly popular holiday film, A Christmas Story) remains alive and well in the American conscience. Audios of his radio broadcasts, created between the 1950s and 1977 are avidly listened to by thousands of enthusiasts and his books of humor continue to sell. Here readers can contemplate some of what Jean Shepherd experiences through travel. It would be wonderful if he could know what a gathering of these narratives would be like. As for him, he knows that the essence of these adventures become part of him for his entire lifetime. (As far as I know, there’s no evidence that he ever intended to gather his travel narratives into a book.) But now, only we listeners and readers remain to appreciate them, as Jean Parker Shepherd, “raconteur and wit,” died of natural causes near his home on Sanibel Island, Florida, on October 16, 1999.
(Stay tuned for the first Shepherd trip)
I thought that it would be instructive for my own benefit and maybe for others, to think about the nature of putting together an improv bit as I discussed in my post relating Shepherd to Mike Nichols. What, indeed, might be a sequence of thoughts that would lead, at the end, to an improvisational piece by Nichols & May or any other improv group, or by Shep himself?
The November 23, 2014 obit of Nichols, which I discussed, commented on what seemed to be a crucial aspect of a Nichols and May performance that I found related to, but different from, what Shep did. It’s said that those two honed their improv into set performances. I wrote:
I have a feeling that Shepherd’s radio material also began with improvisation within his own mind–and that he worked on it in his mind, sometimes more, sometimes less, before he presented it script-less, improvising from some sort of mental base, on the air.
What follows is my own idea of what a sequence of thoughts might have been for Shep. I’ve chosen for its ease of applicability and its brevity, the short story/transcription of a broadcast of “GI Glasses” from my book Shep’s Army. Once he would have had the original ideas, he would then have given more thought to further elaboration, and then, on the air, improvised from such signposts (that he may or may not have noted down on paper) that he intended to form the basis of the piece. Shep once commented that his radio MO was similar to that of a jazz musician. In the manuscript for my unpublished follow-up book to my EYF!, I noted:
<Shepherd confirms the strong link his work has to jazz. In response to questions about how he prepares for his own broadcasts, he gives what seem to be straightforward, truthful replies. Truthful at least as far as his thinking about what he was doing on his regular 45-minute shows from 1960 on:
Sometimes when I go in to do a show—of course every time I go in to do a show—I have a complete outline in my mind and quite often on paper about what I’m going to do. But the way it comes out is ad lib. In other words, it’s like a jazz musician who will have—let’s say he’s going to improvise on “Tea For Two.” He knows the tune. But it’s according to the inspiration of the moment as to how it comes out. Do you follow me? And I do have a plan and a pattern for every show that I do.>
Let’s see what one form of a creative process might have been:
(1.) Go from an original idea Getting army glasses);
(2) Structure it Note how he organizes even the first paragraph by repeating the word “glasses,” and how he finally describes his use for the useless glasses at the end;
(3.) Relate it to a familiar Shep-subject Army and humanity’s general incompetence–commentary on some aspect of life, using the glasses as a general circumstance);
(4.) Incorporate by elaborating instances of incompetence and inhumanity As an extreme instance, the army mentality’s failure to act humanly toward a dying soldier);
(5) Conclude with the implied commentary/criticism.
[My transcription from Shep’s radio broadcast follows.]
Somehow or another they’re going to give me an eye examination and to decide if I need glasses. (1.) Glasses. All right, okay. Somehow the idea of getting a pair of glasses that you never had before is exciting. So I’m sitting in the clinic, about to get an eye exam. Incidentally, this is a place that later grew to rival in infamy, Pearl Harbor itself. A place called Camp Crowder. Oh, it’s incredible! And I’m sitting there in the Camp Crowder clinic. I’ll never forget it. There are about forty-five guys around me, and all of these goof-offs are on sick call, but (2) I’m here to get a pair of glasses.
Suddenly they wheel in a G. I. on a stretcher, and we look at him. He’s watching us, and he says, “Hey fellows, will you call Company D and tell ‘em I’m really sick. This is Olsen here.”
I figure I’m going to do something about this guy, so I say, “Hey, doctor, this man is talking.”
The doctor says, “Oh, don’t worry about it, he’s finished.”
I say, “What?”
He says, “Yeah, (4) he’s got some rare disease. He’s done. Don’t worry about him. Next! Who’s next?”
They give me an eye examination with a machine. With the little red crosses and yellow crosses. The technician says, “Tell me when you see the two lines come together. Tell me now when they cross.” The crosses move. It’s very official. A few minutes after I finish the exam a captain comes over to me and he says, “Okay, soldier, here’s your glasses.”
I put them on and they’re really tight and (3) they pinch my nose, and for the first time in my life, I can’t see. I absolutely can’t see! I walk around a bit and I say, (3) “I can’t see!”
“Ah, let’s go, G. I.,“ the doctor says. “Next!”
I walk out into the sunlight and I take these things off and then I can see. As soon as I get back to my company area, the First Sergeant calls me into the orderly room and says, “We’ve got a message from the clinic. You gotta wear your glasses all the time.”
I say, “What do you mean? I can’t see out of these things!”
(3) “Wear the glasses!”
I walk out. The next day we’re on the rifle range. I’m with my glasses. I can’t see anything—there’s three people moving around in front of me all the time. And they keep hollering, “Stand still, Shepherd, you’re at attention!” This goes on for a week. (3) I have a splitting headache! And every time I’m out with the company, the sergeant says, “Shepherd, (3) you got your glasses on?” After that week, I finally go back to the clinic. I go in and see the captain and I say, “Captain, I can’t see out of these glasses!”
He says, “Lemme see ‘em. What’s your name?”
“Shepherd, J. P., 11098946, sir.”
He says, “No, you’re not. (3) You’re Simonson, L. P. 350981642.”
I say, “No, no!”
He looks at me for a bit. “I gave you the wrong glasses, soldier.”
I say, “Oh! Now that solves the problem, sir. Please give me my glasses.”
He gives me my glasses. They are dark green. (3) I put them on and the world is black. For three-and-a-half years I carry these green glasses at the bottom of my army trunk. (3) They cost the U. S. Army seventy-five dollars, I understand, and (2) today I use them as a paper weight.
This is only an idea of how Shep (or anyone) might go about coming up with a few prominent signposts such as the foregoing four, and with those four, in creating a story or other performance. There must be many other/different possible steps in such a process.
Oh, no! I broke my glasses!
Will my parents notice?
Should I blame Randy?
Should I claim an icicle did it?
Should I use the broken glasses as a paperweight?
She bought it!
Always on the move, Shepherd is in the Middle East in 1966, in Barbados and Grenada in 1968, and in India in 1969. In 1972, intent on being everywhere nearly simultaneously, he is in London, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, Bangkok and Tokyo, just to experience, in no more than seven days, a trip around the world. (He sort of indicates that an airline offered him this trip.) Later in 1972 he visits Sweden, then, in 1974 and again in 1975, he travels to Ireland. He caps off his major travels in late 1975 by taking a chartered sailboat cruise among the Windward Islands. For him, it seems, no place is foreign and every place is different and therefore worth exploring.
For Jean Shepherd, living well means paying attention to everything large and small, even seemingly odd little events he calls “cracks in the sidewalk,” experiencing as much as possible in as many places as possible.
The way he tells his travel tales, one would think he always travels alone. Probably he mostly does, but we know he goes to Frankfurt with his wife, Lois Nettleton, he’s with a friend in Australia, sometimes he’s with a guide, and along with him on his trip to Amazonia to deliver cough drops and candy are a translator (a member of the missionary team working with the tribe), a Luden’s representative, and a photographer.
Shep with jews harp and tape deck in the Amazon.
Man holding mic is probably the Luden’s guy.
Photo probably taken by the photographer.
Neither does Shepherd travel like one’s image of a threadbare “hippie” or penniless teenager thumbing a ride across the landscape. He does not lug his luggage in a backpack or lodge in rough-and-tumble hostels, although when called for, he happily sleeps on an open platform under a mosquito net in the Amazon. To get where he wants to go he may drive a rental car along less-traveled back roads or hire a local guide in the Negev, and as he can afford some creature comforts, where available, he enjoys the occasional afternoon martini. But he travels unassumingly and unpackaged, casually blending in and comfortably seeking out whatever level of authenticity there is left in the world.
More than in his fictional kid and army stories–for which, before improvising them on the air, he claims to have spent weeks making mental preparations regarding overall ideas and organization—his travel broadcasts are usually done within days after the experience. Unlike most travel writers expecting publication and usually having loads of time to gather their thoughts and hone their words, Shepherd speaks in front of a live mic, probably never expecting these tales to appear in print. Live on the air, Shepherd often goes off, stops himself in mid-thought, and continues on some other subject that he’s reminded of, probably because he has just returned and is excited to describe everything at once. Images, impressions, and ideas are still swirling and colliding willy-nilly. Describing one incident, he begins a sentence and interrupts himself seven times before finally continuing the tale about his nighttime stroll down a seaside street in Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv–a seaside street.
He has not yet had the time to recollect and organize in tranquility the fascinating details in his mind. Although distractions in his narratives engage the listener when heard as part of spoken broadcasts, for reading they can be disconcerting, especially if he begins a thought and diverges too many times. Where necessary, editorial intervention keeps the story moving along without eliminating any relevant matters. And where he sometimes returns to elaborate on the same experience, maybe minutes, days, or even months later, editorial grafting of the two fully conveys the essence without awkwardly repeating the preliminaries. Naturally, as Shepherd’s speaking style is noted for straying off-subject, some of these related matters and tangents are retained to maintain the effect and enliven the mix. Appreciating this and “listening” to his voice on the page is part of the pleasure of reading Shep.