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Home » Middle East » JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. Middle East Beirut part 3

JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. Middle East Beirut part 3

Life-Mag-1958-07-28. lebanonjpg

They were operating twenty-four hours a day combat patrol.  That old catapult was going up there every ninety minutes as another flight would take off.  The flight that was out would land and you’d hear the arresting gear.  You’d hear that bullhorn:  “There is a banjo in the groove.  Banjo in the groove,” and you’d hear that SHROOOOOM! you’d hear that bounce and a plane had landed.  Thirty seconds later they’d start launching.  The launch is a special sound.  You hear this thing cocking itself.  It’s a great, steam-operated slingshot!  An enormous piston that literally hurls the planes right off into the void, right down the carrier deck.

As a pilot, I must say, you have never really experienced the ultimate flying thrills until you have been in an aircraft that is landing on the deck of a tossing carrier in a spanking wind—oh, wowee!  And I have done this on several hairy occasions.  Holy Smokes!

Here it is, two o’clock in the morning.  We’ve been up for maybe eighty hours.  Sweaty, hot, and I’m lying there in nothing but skivvies and T-shirt.  Just drenched, the bunk is so wet that it was like sleeping on a sponge.  You can feel that water all over, just clammy and at the same time you are so hot.

I’m lying there in the darkness and everything is fine and you hear this SHHHHHH GEROMOMOMOMMMM! That’s the sound of a plane being launched.  A long pause between the cocking of the mechanism and then GEROMOMOMOMMMM! 

catapult detail

Catapult and plane on an aircraft carrier.

GEROMOMOMOMMMM! Off she goes and another guy has been hurled out into the night.

We’re now in the immediate vicinity of Lebanon and there’s a lot of enemy action going on.  There’s a lot of stuff happening.  Lying there, everything is kind of funny to me.  You reach a point when you’re so tired that you can’t sleep.  You’re physically tired, your mind keeps running on and on like some kind of giant flywheel that won’t stop, and I had been trying to sleep now for about half an hour.

This is down in the junior-grade officers’ quarters where every bunk had a tiny light above it and I turned on the light.  I reached down into my seabag, looking for something to do, something to read, and I pulled out a book and started to read, and I started to laugh—I couldn’t stop.  It was a hysterical, tired laugh, and I looked across the darkness and there on the bunk across this little stateroom, lying in the dark and sweating like hell was Bob Gaffney, the man who committed the Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster epic movie disaster that was made a few years later.

Bob is half asleep, and he says, “What are you laughing at?”

I say, “I don’t know, Bob, just everything.”

He says, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

And then SHOOOOONK! AAAAWUUU! Off it goes again.  We both start to laugh—at the sound of the planes being shot off.  Then we begin to ad lib a giant movie script in the darkness.  We’re laughing like hell—can’t remember a word of it next morning.  We’re ad-libbing a movie script at two in the morning in the heat and sweat, and all of a sudden this clanging bell goes through the ship DOING DOING DOING. It’s General Quarters.  We jump up out of our bunks and run through the dark corridors, which are lit with these dim red lights, to our battle stations down below in the intelligence department, where they have the great radar screen.  We’re down below and we can’t stop laughing, and the Lieutenant Commander is looking at us.  “What?  What?  What’s up now?  Take it easy, guys.”

Uncontrollable laughing.  We’re in the big navy helmets and all.  And that night is just one long, involved, curious nightmare, with the heat and the script and all the sounds of the planes being launched high above us on the flight deck and we’re hurling through the night off the coast of Lebanon and Syria, we’re at General Quarters and the radar screen keeps whirling round and round.  A fantastic, total nightmare.

After they called off GQ, Bob and I are sitting in the ward room soaked in sweat and drinking navy coffee, trying to remember the script we just invented.  I saw pieces of it in the Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster movie years later, I really did.  That strange, nightmare quality to it.  These are things that even Stanley Kubrick would never under understand.  No way!

frank. and space monster 1965

[Note  above, Shepherd’s sound effects made by his voice alone. He loved sounds of all kinds and he loved to produce replicas of those he heard–and he was very good at doing so. My printed word attempts can’t possibly produce and elicit the pleasure of hearing him do what he did with his voice. On  a few of his programs he played the actual sounds of various machinery (such as vintage airplane engines). He once commented that such sounds should be preserved as much as should the actual objects from our past.]

 Village Voice, “Night People,” Jean Shepherd, October, 1957.

“In Beirut When It Was on the Hit Parade”

Jean Shepherd begins by stating that he arrived in Beirut with five or six other passengers in a 15-year-old Navy transport plane by way of Naples and Crete.  Apparently the Carrier Essex dropped him off in Naples after he’d completed his work on the documentary film on board.  He comments that Beirut was at this moment at the top of the news media’s hit parade, but would not be there for long when the public got tired of its temporary celebrity.  At the moment, with a headline including the important word “crisis,” Beirut was it.

Seeing a man with an ice-cream cone in the airline terminal, Shep is pointed in the proper direction, and soon has his own frozen custard cone just like those a New Jersey Dairy Queen ladles out daily.  He is happy, ending his column by exulting, “By God, I was in Lebanon.  I caught a bus and went to town.”

 •

“Trouble in Beirut?  Not Before Dinner.”

The Village Voice comments that Jean Shepherd has just returned from working on a movie in Beirut, indicating that he was there during the crisis.  Shepherd tells how he has just gotten his room in an elegant hotel in Beirut, describing the place as having the aura of a class B spy movie, with people coming and going who would do well in Hollywood if found by a good talent agency.   He describes Beirut as being the Riviera of the Middle East, with rich shipping magnates surrounded by brown-skinned girls in pink bikinis.

Rushing toward the elevator in his swim trunks, he asks the bellboy what he thought of the current troubles.  “Oh,“ the bellboy responds, “that doesn’t start until 8 p. m. every night at dinnertime.”  Shepherd enters the terrace, feeling like “a bit player in a Sydney Greenstreet movie.”

Bye, bye, Beirut.

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