Jean Shepherd has a special affinity for the Middle East, which he visited on several occasions. In 1966, when he returned, he devoted the better part of a half-dozen programs to describing his experiences there.
In all his travel programs his style varies considerably, but more than usual when describing his Middle Eastern experiences. He describes sensitively and graphically what he has seen and done.
He waxes lyrically and with some purple prose in these broadcasts, especially when describing the music. He plays quite a bit of pre-recorded song to give a strong sense-of-place, and he talks about that music considerably, but, of course, in print one can’t replicate its sounds and effects. Although he perhaps unjustly suggests a sameness of sound to all Middle-Eastern music, its strange, exotic effect and insistent pulse obviously have him in its thrall. In addition to the music, he is obviously captivated by Middle Eastern aromas, and by the young women. And also, by the sheer amount of time devoted to them, he is obsessed with the Negev Desert, the nomadic Bedouin who roam its desolate sands, and Beersheba, its dominant city.
Unusually, he several times departs from his standard factual descriptions of his travel tales, going to considerable extent into erotic fictional and comic fantasies to suggest the romance of Middle Eastern sensual clichés as they have become a part of Hollywood-based American illusions—the lore and lure that has influenced our psyches.
In the summer of 1958, political and religious conflict in Lebanon and potential interference by nearby regimes, led to a limited invasion of the Beirut area by U. S. forces starting on July 15. The successful show of force, titled “Operation Blue Bat,” resulted in the withdrawal of U. S. forces on October 25, 1958.
Film producer Louis de Rochamont contracted Jean Shepherd to do the narration of an official U. S. government documentary regarding the then-developing situation, later to be titled Summer Incident. WOR Radio, in a news release dated August 4, announced that Shepherd would be gone on this assignment for three weeks.
Years later, in short portions of several broadcasts, Shepherd described his experiences aboard the aircraft carrier Essex as it was approaching the site of the “incident.” He described the activity as “this particular mission we were involved in,” which was obviously, with several others, the filming of the operation for the eventual documentary.
Of course, his trip on the aircraft carrier on its way to Lebanon came first, but his most immediate response to his experience appeared only a few weeks after his return to New York, in his “Night People” columns for the Village Voice, not describing his carrier experience, but after he’d gotten off the carrier, giving his observations about Beirut before U. S. troops had departed. This story begins on the carrier, at the beginning of his adventure.
Trouble in Beirut
I spent one brief, curious period of my life on duty with the Navy. It was on the cruiser The Springfield, and particularly on the carrier Essex in the Mediterranean.
Up on the bridge there is a microphone that connects to the PA system that’s heard all over the ship. “Now hear this! This is the Captain speaking. In seventeen minutes we will engage the enemy. Good luck, men.” You’ve heard this in numerous Alan Ladd movies. Not any guy walking by can use the microphone—you have to be authorized. So every morning at o-eight-hundred on would come a voice and the voice would say the following—in this case it was my voice—I did this a couple of days: “Good morning to men of the Essex CVA9, here is the morning news as reported by the ship’s information officer, the wires of the Associated Press, and the United Press….”
Speaking of this problem of adventure, I was sitting on the deck of the carrier. The operations were about to be launched and it was dark and it was the Mediterranean and we were miles off the coast. Turkey was off there somewhere in the darkness and the Greek Islands had gone past, and ahead of us was the Middle East. The moon was hanging over the whole scene, millions of tiny stars.
The guys are all out there with the planes up on the launchers, topside. I’m way up there near the top of the island. The little iron protective rail all around me there, wearing a big, fat helmet with earphones , listening to the conversations going on between the bridge and the pilots and the guys who are waving the planes off. Everything all a big mish-mash and I’m standing up there looking out into this ocean.
The wind is blowing over the deck of the carrier. She’s whistling along at about thirty knots into the teeth of a gale. A4Ds are taking off with the big plane launchers with the catapult knocking them off one after the other. The wind is screaming through the radar tower above me. Sticking above the bridge is the smokestack pouring all this junk out in back of us. The fallout of ashes coming on top of your head and you’re coughing, the wind is whistling and I’m up there eating a baloney sandwich. A great big one made out of rye bread and baloney and four pounds of mustard, gnawing away on this salami and baloney sandwich and there’s a guy in the darkness there next to me, a commander or something. He’s in charge of nefarious activity aboard the ship and he has a big helmet. And we are going on and on and on.
RAWAAAAAH! off goes another one into the darkness. And it goes on and on and on and on and on. This went on for about four hours and I’m getting tired. And you see the little red lights, one flight returning and another flight being brought up to the outside to be fired off and another coming and making a big circle back and it’s long, long hours and the guy looks at me and says, “Do you know that half of the red-blooded guys that read through a magazine would give their left foot to be right here now—if they could read about it?”
I say, “Yeah, yeah.”
Jet plane approaching the Essex
Twenty minutes later we’re back down in the mess hall having some coffee. I can’t describe to you the dullness. I just can’t describe it to you. Everything is just going dudududududududududu and shaking. I can’t describe to you the dullness.
More coming on Beirut, without the dullness,
which Shep chose not to describe.