THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
“It was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”
The chart below should be seriously contemplated for comparison with Shepherd’s fine,
but less far-flung creative work, from 1960 onward.
One might title this period
High On a Mountaintop.
Jean Shepherd’s first years in New York, starting with the beginning of
his “overnight” broadcasting,
were an assorted fervor of glorious activities.
Below are some major examples.
♦Far-flung extemporaneous monologs, “invectives”♦
♦Within New York City’s highest levels of artistic activity connected with The Voice, Greenwich Village, the avant garde, etc. Shepherd associated with such as: Amram, Silverstein, Feiffer, Antheil, Gardner, Mingus.♦
♦Look, Charlie theater piece ♦
♦Cassavetes and the promotion of Shadows♦
♦Village Voice and The Realist♦
♦I, Libertine and The America of George Ade♦
♦Promoter and participant in the forefront of modernist jazz♦
♦As Lois Nettleton put it, “He had headlines!”♦
Jean Shepherd must have felt himself to be an
innovative master of the highest
modern urban/urbane arts
–and rightly so.
The above list is extraordinary and unprecedented. A major problem is that we have as yet no available examples of his early 1956, overnight, four-and-a-half-hour shows to give us a reasonable idea of what they were like–we can only assume, for now, that they were probably similar to and even more loose than his subsequent four-hour Sunday night broadcasts. My impression is that he played some extended–if not complete–cuts of the major jazz masters of this period. (Talking from 1 AM to 5:30 five or six nights a week most probably was a bit different from Sundays only, 9 PM to 1 AM.)
I repeat here, from an earlier post: In an interview with Doug McIntyre, January 2000, (Just a few months after Shep’s death) Lois Nettleton commented that Jean’s improvisation on radio was a higher art than acting:
“…acting is not shallow, it is an art with depth and all of that,
but it seems almost–almost, less profound,
less important than what he was doing.
I mean I think what he was doing was so–
it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”
Stay tuned for Part 4 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
When I had the chance to do this, I had a lot of misgivings, and then I felt, well, if you can go there—we don’t have any concept of the real frontier today.
We landed in Lima on the coast, and in the airport we waited to take a jungle airline DC3, that goes over the Andes. They have not built DC3s since about 1947. We piled into this little airplane, and you should have seen the people in this plane. A motley collection out of all the Somerset Maugham novels you’ve ever read.
We got up over the Andes. Now, I have flown many times over the Alps, I’ve flown over the Sahara, I’ve flown over the outback country, which is considered a great sight from the air, but believe me, if you ever get a chance to fly over the Andes, do it. And the thing that really scares you about it is—these are angry mountains—you know, some mountains are just beautiful. You look at the Alps and they look remote and cold, they’re all covered with snow, they look sort of inaccessible but beautiful. These mountains look dangerous. The Andes Mountains just lay there, brown, and there’s not a stick of vegetation. They’re just brown, black, great sweeps of gray and they’re high, huge mountains.
There are Incan ruins in certain areas of the Andes. You look out there and there is a sense that you’re looking at the thing that’s in all of us, a kind of savage, primal past. If a plane goes down in the Andes, forget it. There’s no going back….
You go higher and higher until all of a sudden you’re at the peak of the Andes. It’s a mountain range that starts right outside of Lima. Right on the coast and builds up and up just like that. In an instant you’re at the peak and everybody’s sucking oxygen. The planes are not pressurized. And here’s these little old grandmothers sucking their oxygen. They give you a pipe and the oxygen is pumped in and you sit and suck it.
And the mountains here are higher up than we are. That is a sobering thought when you look up out of the airplane and see two big walls, and the pilots are flying along and, of course there are all kinds of air currents in this place. The plane goes ARRRRRRGAGAGAGAGAGA. The steward goes up and down the aisle wearing a big air mask with tanks on his back. He’s giving you a Life magazine and on the cover is Ann Margaret. This is life, and out there you see these mountains black and gray, and the plane is sweating AEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
And suddenly you’re going down the other side and it’s another world. It’s another world. It’s the jungle. You see a green carpet and it stretches from one horizon to the other. And it’s flat and it’s just solid green with no variation in color. No fields, no hills, it’s just like a great green, soft, woolen carpet and you realize that these trees down there are maybe a hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred feet high. Just a great canopy. And if you go in, they just don’t find you.
On the other side of the mountains is a city—a strange frontier town in the heart of the jungle, right on the river. The Ucayali River. Everybody goes down to this little jungle town which is on the other side. It’s a town called Pucallpa.
After we got down I was talking with one of the jungle pilots who fly single-engine float planes over the jungle and we got talking about the flight over the Andes. He says, “You came in on the DC3, didn’t you?”
I say “Yeah.”
He says, “Boy, I don’t know how they make it.”
I say, “Well, I bought a ticket!”
The jungle pilot says again, “Gee, I don’t know how they make it. He says, “You know, that little single engine gets up there to twenty-three or twenty-four thousand feet, she’s really sweating.”
I say, “You mean that?” You don’t think of the engines—they just go. You can’t imagine that little engine saying, “I think I can, I think I can.”
Part of Pucallpa and the river.
You get out of the airplane and they just throw all your junk out. You’re used to going around back and waiting with your ticket stubs and your baggage comes out of a slot, but they just throw your stuff out on the ground and the plane goes BAAAAAAAAAAA—it blows it all around.
So it’s a town called Pucallpa. This is all of the Wild West towns you could imagine in your life. It’s like a combination of Singapore, Dodge City, El Paso, Teaneck, and over it all is the most fantastic miasma of malaria—you know that malaria is here. You see the mosquitoes flying around waiting for you at the airport. Our plane taxies off with a flat tire and the only other plane they’ve got is over there with a bent wing. No hangers—nothing. Just this little building with a guy sitting there. He just sort of looks at you.
We were met by a big, heavy, rough metal station wagon-type vehicle with big round tires that was going to take us in to a jungle settlement about three miles away on a river, and as we rode, the houses of Pucallpa thinned out and we were in the jungle and then, here we were, in a tiny missionary settlement. These people have about five airplanes—a little airline that flies into the real jungle, which is further on in.
The settlement is on what seems to be a little, bucolic, beautiful lake. An hour later we’re having dinner in this tiny house, all screened in, looking over the lake. One of the missionary’s wives is serving us a meal. They’re putting on their finest for us. And she’s wearing a flowered dress that seems to be the only thing she has. They have nothing. Making conversation, I say to her, “Gee, the jungle! Do you ever see any snakes of anything?”
She says, “Oh yeah, in fact two days ago it was right down there,” and she points to the little beach where two missionary kids are swimming. She says, “Right down at the beach. I got up in the morning and looked out and there was an anaconda swallowing a crocodile. It was sticking out of him, eight feet long.”
An anaconda swallowing a crocodile.
More Peru to come.
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
In childhood and youth, Jean Shepherd encountered some little realities (no desks in kindergarten, not getting his name right!–oh my!) He discovered the joy of words and art. In his time in college he had two major epiphanies–snails and cars can give one important life-lessons. Among his early adult experiences in the army, he said that his training in Camp Crowder (aka “Camp Swampy” as it’s named in Beetle Bailey) made him a man.
Tadpole Dreams and Aspirations
Soon after the war, he began his radio career in such lesser locations as stations in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. He referred to these early times as his tadpole days. He honed his skills by talking “too much.” With the early history of radio’s dominance across America and his skill with improvised words, he had dreams, he had aspirations.
To me it’s the most romantic of all the media. Fantastically romantic medium. I’ll tell you some night.
At night I’m working in a radio station, see. I’m doing all these things. I’m doing these things–and slowly, by tiny, tiny inchings, my fame grew. I’m doing the English cut-ins on a Lithuanian man-on-the-street broadcast. After that I was given my own program. A program that was heard every morning at 5:30 AM. A program of Elmer Rhode Heever hymns–recorded–in which I did the commercials in between. I was beginning to inch my way up and up and up. Inch by inch. Moment by moment it looked like any day now–the next assignment I was Cousin Jean on a hillbilly teenage program when I had to talk like this [Imitates accent.] I was beginning to really feel it. I mean, you know, I was “tearing a side.”
I was just beginning to see that there was a world out there. I mean that there was something beyond Western Avenue, I was beginning to understand that–that out past Howard Street there was something. And it was beginning to erode me. This city [New York] is the worst seducer in the world. It erodes. It cuts and digs and grinds….Well, I got this special delivery letter. It said, “Dear Mr. Shepherd, I own a string of radio stations in Alaska. We would like you to come up and run our Juneau radio station. We will provide you with a cabin.” A cabin!
And every one of these guys who were doing things like the Elmer Rhode Heeber Gospel Hour, and guys who were doing the English cut-ins on The Croatian Hour. All of them looked at me. “What are you doing this ridiculous thing for?”
“Well, look at this–Alaska! Alaska!”
“Are you out of your mind?”
I said, “No, look around. Listen. Here we’re in this little dark radio station with the liana vines growing up the side, and the old Wayne King records that we play over and over and over again.”
Three of them looked at me with one eye, and all three of them said, “If you go anywhere, man, the only place to go–New York!–I mean, the Big Apple–that’s the big time! You can stand right next to Andre Baruch, right up there with Frank Gallup, with Kenny Delmar!”
And all the while the Bing Crosby record was going, “You and me, and blue Hawaii, da de a do do do do.”
I looked at the three guys and I said, “You’re right!”
Yes, Jean Shepherd knew that they were right. Beyond his tadpole experience in his early radio days, with what sources of nourishment and knowledge was Shepherd equipped to create a name–and a persona–for himself in New York? The Midwest storytelling tradition and style. Extended stories that create a narrative environment for insights he wanted to convey to amuse and instruct through context and humor. Mark Twain, George Ade, W. C. Fields, Jack Benny, Paul Rhymer’s Vic and Sade. No more “You and me, and blue Hawaii, da de a do do do do.” He was on the cusp of burgeoning. Evidence refutes the story that he would go to the Big Apple to take over as host of the Tonight Show. He would go to New York to be on the radio. He would burgeon.
Portent: That Andre Baruch, Frank Gallup, and Kenny Delmar are not currently names widely celebrated, or even widely known, does not tend to bode well for radio-based aspirations.
I believe that Shep’s faults and failure (despite his genius) to achieve universal renown to the height he believed to be his due, rise to the general classic level of tragedy. Read my first post on the subject and my upcoming posts (every other post on a subject, as is my custom) and give me some feedback, please, especially as I proceed with later posts in this series.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
“I find myself drawn to the uncivilized
parts of the world.”
Jean Shepherd talks about why he travels and what he tries to convey in his trips–especially during what he calls one of the great experiences of his life:
Of course there are many myths about the Peruvian jungle. I hope, in years to come, there will be the great Shepherd myth about this intrepid man who once went alone and single-handed in the Peruvian jungle—and never reappeared. The myth, of course came out later—that he became the emperor of the entire jungle in that area.
Jean Shepherd Marlon Brando
as the emperor of
natives in “Apocalypse Now.”
And they said that he was the great white anaconda, which had come from countries to the north to save them from the green ants, and he did this, and now he is down there and has a harem of seventeen thousand fantastic Amazonian bells. And all of you know what Amazons are like….
I find myself drawn to the uncivilized parts of the world. I don’t know why. Maybe Conrad—he didn’t write many stories about Budapest—and Warsaw, even though he was a Pole. He wrote about the areas of the world that very few people have much experience with. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons he’s not as popular a writer as he should be. Maybe, again, it’s that repugnance people have—a vague sense of fear about this thing—this green canopy, this jungle.
You’ll have to excuse me tonight if I’m doing a show more or less on a very personal level about things that I think about on the eve of this trip. I intend, for what it’s worth, to go to this part of the world, not as a stunt. I’m not particularly interested in stunts. I want to go primarily because I want to go. I have a chance to experience something, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s as simple as that. I’ve got a chance and I’m going to go.
When I come back I’m going to try to give you as many—I suppose you can say “objective”—but then, how is a twentieth-century man, and an urban one at that, and a fairly civilized one on top of that—how is an urban man going to be objective about a world that is at great odds and at great variance with the world that we live in?
And all the while I’m gone, you can see me somehow in your mind’s eye skulking through the impenetrable green hell. Out there with my faithful tape recorder.
Uher recorder, of the brand and time period
of one that Shep sometimes took on his trips.
“One of the Truly Great Experiences of My Life”
Wow, I’m back! This is Jean Shepherd, and I can say it will take me at least a week and a half or maybe even a month to begin to sort out all the strange, exhilarating, exciting—perhaps in some cases frightening— impressions that I’ve had. I’m going to tell you this as a man who has been in several places in the world and who has involved himself in several things. Adventure is always something that can’t truly be described. I’m talking about genuine adventures, not necessarily to go on a safari in Africa that is organized by a safari company. Or even the Hemingway kind of organized adventure.
This sort of adventure that I’ve just come through is a total adventure in the sense that you’re not going to kill an animal, you’re not going to a place where other people have gone to do a thing that other people do. This is something else again, and it’s almost impossible to tell you or describe to anyone else just what it was like. Of the three of us there, Sol Potemkin, a funny, fine photographer, a quiet, laconic type, had never been out of the United States in his life, and the first place he goes is the unexplored jungle of the headwaters of the Amazon. As we came into Lima, he kept saying, “It’s kind of like the Catskills!” That is, until we got over the Andes and we were flying in a little DC-3—a jungle airplane of Faucett Airlines.
Peru as a country is one of the most exciting, unusual, eerie, spooky, beautiful countries in the world. After trips, I constantly get heckled by people who say, “You go there and you come back an expert.” I’m not trying to say that at all. I’m not going to be an expert. I went to the headwaters of the Amazon. I was there. I am a trained reporter. My life has been devoted to absorbing sights and sounds and listening.
And I am going to try to give you my impressions
of what I consider probably the high point of my life
as far as adventures and experience is concerned.
I had no idea it would be like this when I left and I might point out that it was not a lark. It started out a little bit that way, but by the time we arrived in Lima and had begun to go over the Andes, we realized this was a very serious thing and not only was it serious, there were certain elements of danger in it and I don’t wish to even dwell on that. It had nothing to do with the headhunters by the way—the people we visited are ex-headhunters.
I’m not going to appear as an anthropologist, an expert.
I’m appearing as an artist who has seen something
and would like to transmit his impressions to you.
Are you prepared to accept that?
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
(First of a Tragic Series)
This is The Shepherd’s Life, a very partial bio, selected, condensed, concentrated, focused—one idea and interpretation of a classic tragedy as understood by a particular person based on what he knows and understands and guesses. (Many people, including the media, describe any and every unfortunate occurrence–such as a fatal accident–as a “tragedy.” This may well be very sad, but not a classic tragedy.) For me, a classic tragedy emerges from a combination of a person’s conflict with his/her cultural environment along with some personal attribute and/or flaw within that person’s being. (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, etc.)
Please remember that quotes from the Shep are not necessarily objectively true, but are probably true in spirit. The opinions are based on current knowledge.
In italics there are basic facts, objective evidence, and subjective interpretations.
In boldface there are direct quotes from The Shepherd, based on edited, transcribed words from his radio broadcasts.
The results are as objective as I can make them–and simultaneously subjective/creative. If this is contradictory and an enigma–make the best of it. And let’s have feedback, gang.
I believe this is an insecure world. I mean, you know, that’s the way life is. Lightning bolts, thunderstorms, hail, Mack trucks, fistfights in the dark. –Jean Shepherd. August 29, 1964.
Jean Parker Shepherd, born July 26, 1921 on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois to Anna and Jean Shepherd–
Jean Shepherd with football,
and other kids.
On the South Side of Chicago.
[Photo: Steve Glazer, Bill Ek]
where he spends the first years of his life, until he and his parents and his younger brother, Randy (whining under the daybed), move across the state and city lines, eventually to Cleveland Street in Hammond, Indiana. He remembers his first days in kindergarten:
I had seen pictures of classrooms—with desks. The desk itself was very very attractive to me. The idea of having a desk—little kids love desks. They love to sit at their own little thing. Pile stuff on it. And have their desk….And I always pictured school too, to have something to do with reading. I was an early reader. And I was a fanatical reader. I could read well by the time I was about four so my whole idea of school was that I would go to school and we would read and I’d have this desk, see.
….This lady took us right into that room. That was actually the beginning of life itself. The official world, those buildings, and those buildings will pursue us all the way to the end of our life. Those official places. This is the very first one.
It was our first day of kindergarten. I will always remember. And, in fact, vividly remember—the intense shock and great wave of disappointment. There were no desks! There wasn’t a desk in the entire room! And there were sandboxes. Sandboxes! There were little girls sitting around cutting stuff out! There were thousands of kids all sitting around playing in sandboxes! I didn’t know what to do sitting in the sandbox.
I didn’t know what to do sitting in the sandbox. I didn’t want to come to school to play in the sand.
Already little Jeanie can see that he is in a world filled with disappointments. The teacher wants the kids to introduce themselves by telling the others their names:
And this is the first of a long series of traumas that begin. She says, “What is your name?”
“Yes, but you see, Gene is short for Eugene. And you can all call him Gene if he wants to be called Gene. But that’s a very pretty name. Is your father’s name Eugene?”
I never heard the name Eugene in my life! My name is not Eugene. Jean. J E A N, Jean. I’m falling behind in school—over my own name! I’m lousing up over my own name!
Jean Shepherd has many experiences typical of grammar school kids, and some that are special. He is particularly fond of reading, including, when he was about fourteen, P. G. Wodehouse:
I started laughing in the study hall and I couldn’t stop laughing. I was laughing like I was out of my mind. The author, of course, was P. G. Wodehouse and I read everything this guy wrote. From that time on, to me, writing—as a writer—writing and performing has always been directed toward being funny.
And, at about fourteen or fifteen he took his class’s supplemental reading list to the library and took out a book.
And everything changed. Trumpets blew. From that day onward I have not been the same as I was the minute I opened up that first page. I never read anything in my life that was like this. It was some vast organ playing somewhere and the words rolled on and on and on and on. It wasn’t that they made sense or not sense. They were beautiful. Great crashing waves of words rolling over the rocks. And I remembered the name of the book. Always, forever. Look Homeward, Angel.And from that minute on I realized that there was nothing ever in this world as more—as even remotely as powerful–as words. Words are what it’s about.
Reading. And words. Words are what it’s all about. Jean Shepherd found his love of words at about the same time that the great invention of electronic sound and words—radio– was becoming widespread in the United States. As he was growing up radio became the great communicator of music and words—ideas. Broadcast radio, ham radio, the medium for talking and creating sounds of all kinds. Classical music, jazz, stories, sports, news, ideas, all coming to you from Chicago and around the country. And Jean Shepherd was there at the time and place for him to embrace it and eventually realize it as a love and as a career for his talent.
Interest in ham radio begins for Shepherd in grammar school and extends throughout Shepherd’s life. Shepherd several times speaks on the air about his love of ham radio. He says that in high school, it led to his being chosen to announce a sports program—his first experience with broadcast radio.
I became, at the age of ten, totally, maniacally, and for life I might point out, completely skulled out by amateur radio. Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy, it gets ahold of your soul and gnaws at it and never lets go. I would sit in class in eighth grade and I would send code to myself by the hour, as I’m reading something—say, a geography book—I wouldn’t read it, I would send it to myself. I’d actually hear it in my head. The dots and dashes of the words. As a CW man, it got to the point when all of my world was bound by the sound of this language.
Shep in 1975 talking
about amateur radio
Sound as Art
In high school Shepherd plays bass violin, tuba, and sousaphone–instruments requiring both physical strength and intestinal fortitude. He describes the crucial role music plays in his life. From the beginning he is obsessed: “I was a dedicated tuba man.”
How does a guy get to be a tuba player? There’s a certain look of sadness in the eye of all tuba players. A tuba player is a man who has lived through a peculiar kind of hell.
He comments on a broadcast that his playing tuba in the school orchestra is the first time he ever created beauty. Using music as metaphor, he illustrates his joy in making art.
As a kid in high school I was absolutely the ace of the bass section of our band. The first chair bass man. And that is a great feeling. For years I had worked my way up. I started in eighth grade playing E-flat tuba. The tuba itself is a kind of challenge. It’s a heavy instrument. You get so that you love the tuba. You get so that you actually have a physical love for your instrument—for your tuba. Yeah, you sit there and you pat it, you talk to it. Many’s the time I’d come into the band room and seen Reg Rose, who was in the bass section. I saw him one time weeping, sitting there talking to his B-flat sousaphone, weeping and crying, and the sousaphone was crying back. [He entered a tuba-playing contest and lost out to a phenomenal player.] Ever since that time I have known that for every good thing you do there are fifty-thousand better things that somebody else can do with his eyes shut.
In contrast to making art, as a youngster he spends time working in the steel mill as a mail boy (delivering words), and he describes his first disorienting and anxiety-filled day there. He finds Mr. Galambus, his protector, there and he feels better. And that was only the beginning. That day I learned something very important. I haven’t discovered yet what it is. Even after high school it’s sometimes hard to understand the nature of what one is learning. Shepherd says very little about higher education. But he learns two very important lessons outside of his college classroom. They are an essential part of his education. The lessons remain with him—because there is an aftertaste. They are epiphanies.
Escargot and Bugatti
Part 1–Escargot. He’s invited to dinner where the house and the customs and the food are much more expansive and finer than were his custom.
And the next thing I know, in front of me is this plate of something which had always been rumored in our house that people somewhere, someplace, ate. And we never really believed it! And whenever it was mentioned they ate these things—“Oh, ugh!” Nancy takes one of the snails and says, “Oh, these are so wonderful.” She takes one out of its shell and I see how she does it. She takes this little fork and she fishes one of these things out, and it looks strange, you know—like a little black snake or something. She pulls it out and puts it in her mouth—“Oh!”
I can’t chicken out. I’m feeling sick inside. With the little fork I fish the little thing out. I put it in my mouth. I go, “uuushup!” I taste it. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! [Pause.] It is fantastic! It is fantastic! It is fantastic! It is so good I can’t believe it!
And then the lesson hit me. I looked around. I saw all these other people—they’ve been doing this all of their lives! They weren’t surprised at snails. And it began to sneak up on me—what other terrible stuff did I learn at home? What other things do I think are awful? Just because it was back in the kitchen that way, you know? I ate the snails.
Late that night, lying in the dormitory room, I felt those snails—you could taste them. There’s an aftertaste. And I began to suspect that night that there was a fantastic, unbelievable world out there. And I was just be-gin-ning to taste it! Just beginning! God knows where it would lead!
Part 2–Bugatti. A Cincinnati college professor invites Shepherd and a couple of other students to go see something special on a Saturday morning. (An authority on the subject confirms to me that such a sight as Jean was about to see really was in Cincinnati at the time. Although Shepherd sees a variation on the actual car he later remembers as the one that appeared as one of the great masterworks, the epiphany remains valid.)
I’ll never forget the day that I had the great awakening regarding an art form. Even today, in this country, there are very few people who recognize this as an art form.
Up to the point when I’d discovered this form, I’d been a walking-around-ignorant. I was just beginning to see that there was more to the world than “Flash Gordon” and more to drawing than “Prince Valiant.” I was beginning to suspect things. We go through this period when we begin to see things that we never really realized. That the world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top. We begin to see how fantastically varied and infinitely complex it is.
It turned out to be a garage. A plain, ordinary, crummy-looking garage. He took his key and opened the lock on these big garage doors and he swung them open and the four of us walked into the gloom of this garage on a gray Saturday morning in Cincinnati.
And I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was that unreal. He had reached up and flicked on a neon light and that light made it look even more spectacular. This thing began to gleam with that light. And there it was.
We were looking at one of the great automobiles. I mean one of the great automobiles. By “great”—this car had appeared in probably two or three hundred catalogs of great masterworks—that specific car. Even today that car is almost priceless. It was one of the finest works of one of the great artists of the twentieth century–considered possibly his prime work. Ettore Bugatti. A man who created automobiles the way Michelangelo created altar cloths. He created them as works of art.
I didn’t realize that there was one man to whom a car was not a car, and he spoke in a universal language. It was an art—pure and simple.
“The world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top.” To paraphrase Shepherd here, he found that there was one man to whom words were not just words….. It was an art—pure and simple.
Two Epiphanies: “And I began to suspect
that night that there was a fantastic,
unbelievable world out there.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
I’m a little nervous, frankly. Tomorrow night at this time I will be in the air twenty-one minutes on my way to Lima, Peru. And from there into the wilds of the Peruvian jungle on the Ecuadorian border, deep in the heart of the Amazon River basin.
So, I’m not nervous about that place, because, you know, I suspect that this is one of the fabled parts of the world. By fabled, I’m talking about a part of the world where there are probably more myths, more rumors than most other spots on the globe. And I mean truly in a mythological sense. Most of the ideas about those places are truly myths. For example, practically every other day somebody sets out from someplace to head for the Peruvian jungle for a famous lost, golden city.
Somebody’s illusion of the mythical “El Dorado”
You’ve probably heard of that. Or they go there looking for the lost emerald mines or, like my father, who always planned to go to equatorial Africa to hunt for the lost elephants’ graveyard.
And this, for me, is an exciting thing. Not so much because travel is a novelty. But I will say this, I think travel—and I mean real big-time travel—I don’t mean getting in a car and going to Trenton—big-time travel never becomes routine.
It is something that is never ever something you can take or leave alone. It’s always there and there is always this sense that invariably shows up about twenty-four hours before you’re about to leave. This peculiar sense—this vague feeling of being sorry for yourself. On the one hand, people say, “Oh, wow, are you lucky! I’ve always wanted to go to the Antarctic. Holy smokes! Wow! Gee, Shep, how do you get away so often? You’re the first guy I know who actually visited Hell. How do you get there? Gee whiz, wow!” And at the same time I’m saying, “Let’s see, that’s the price you pay for being intrepid,” but deep down inside of me there is a little violin playing that says, “Yes, why, why me? Why am I a Flying Dutchman, forever sailing over the seas, the seven seas of this benighted globe? Always looking, always searching, always hunting—and never finding?” Nevertheless, off I’ll go.
Ask yourself this question: “Will Shep find adventure in the Peruvian jungle? Will the Peruvian jungle find adventure in Shep? Yes, ask yourself this question: “Will he come back? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Ask yourself this question: “Does he want to come back? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”
One guy wrote to me and said that the reason that I asked people about whether I should go or not is because I showed a notable lack of enthusiasm for going! One guy wrote, “The reason you’re going is because you gotta get more material for your show—so you can just tell more stories about when you were a kid and forget about the trip.” All these people, of course, are totally missing the point.
Let’s formulate vast generalities here. If you were to take any individual, like an onion, you just peel through and you’ve got all different kinds of layers. Each one of these layers often contradicts the layer before it. That the peace-loving man on the next layer is a wild, aggressive savage, and then you peel that layer off and he’s a peace-loving man again.
I feel however, that in the travel-world there are two kinds of people. There are the kinds who say, “I don’t know why one has to travel all around. Lemme tell you this, son. If there isn’t everything I want in Hessvile, Indiana, I just say the hell with it.” And there is this other kind of guy—I don’t know whether it’s good or bad—that guy always has a little thing down inside of himself, a little spark, a little blue flame, a little acetylene torch that says, “Go! Go! Go! Yes, go, go, go! And that guy ain’t easy to handle.
Now I’ll ask you for one favor. I don’t ask old listener-types many favors, but tomorrow night, I will be taking off at Kennedy Airport and I would like to have at least three people out there. Just three people out there who have signs that say:
SHEPHERD, IF YOU DO ANYTHING,
BRING YOUR CRUMMY HEAD BACK.
I’d like to have one big sign with somebody holding it up! Either that, or somebody says, “Shepherd, if you’re going to have your head mounted, have it done well. Because there are a lot of bad taxidermists down there in South America.“
Shrunken human head.
[New York’s American Museum of Natural History has a couple of shrunken heads on exhibit along with a detailed description describing how to shrink a head. See small foreground case here. It’s part of the large, permanent Hall of South American Peoples that I designed over a period of years in the 1980s. This exhibit is in the Amazon half of the hall, which was curated by Dr. Robert Carneiro, a listener, who wrote to Shep about his upcoming trip.]
By the way, speaking of myths, I received a letter from one of the museums locally and the writer happens to be an expert on South American matters, both flora and fauna, and he sent me a long note telling me about various myths. He says, you know, one of the best things he ever found in the jungle was to walk around in street shoes. He says street shoes in the jungle, and he says when he was walking across streams he wore tennis shoes.
He said, don’t worry, Shepherd, about the electric eels and the piranhas. He says, don’t worry about the crocodiles. They’ve got them down there, but don’t worry about them. He says, what you should worry about are the amoeba. He says there’s an amoeba—you order this salad in this restaurant in this town in Peru—and he says you’re going to be in that town. (By the way, that’s the town we go to after Lima.) He says, you order the avocado salad there and he says you’re going to get a dose of this amoeba. And if you think Epsom salts—well, let me tell you! He says, so don’t worry about the piranhas, dad, worry about the amoeba.
[Regarding the letter which Shepherd received from an expert at “one of the museums locally,” the present author worked with that expert for years designing and overseeing the Hall of South American Peoples, the first half of which is about pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures, the far half about peoples of the Amazonian jungle. Years before I designed that hall, in a small, temporary exhibit based on one of Dr. Carneiro’s research trips to the Amazon, he and I installed the hammock he had used there, still stained with his own dried blood, extracted by vampire bats while he slept.]
Dr. Robert Carneiro,
Jean Shepherd listener and an
ethnologist of Amazonian cultures,
sent me a copy of the letter he wrote to
Shepherd fifty years before.
With his permission I reproduce
its contents here:
Before you buy your ticket for the Peruvian Jungle, I suggest you forget all about boa constrictors, piranhas, and electric eels. If I were you, I’d start worrying about the amoebae you’ll meet in your palm hearts salad at the Gran Hotel Mercedes in Pucallpa. The world’s record for bowel movements in one day is 28, and you’ll get your chance to break it.
Curare, by the way, goes on blowgun darts, not arrows, and they’re used only against birds and small mammals. Also, since your head, whatever else it contains, is devoid of arutam soul, the Sharpa aren’t going to give it a second thought. And a beard, as far as they’re concerned, is only a place to raise lice.
You can leave your heavy leather boots home, too. In the jungle I found street shoes most convenient except when I had to wade across streams. Then I switched to tennis shoes.
If you don’t chicken out, and prefer not to carry a headful of myths with you into the jungle, come on up one of these days.
Although Shepherd didn’t seem to discuss food often, he did so more than I’d remembered. Enthusiastic Shep fan, Steve, commented that there is an extensive description of food in Shepherd’s fictional tale, “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” the opening story of Shep’s book of stories, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories–and Other Disasters (Doubleday, 1971). This is of special interest because it is the lead-up to the theft of the family’s holiday dinner by the neighbor’s dogs–the Easter ham in the book, transformed in the A CHRISTMAS STORY film into the Christmas turkey.
“Don’t Touch that Turkey!”
The book’s description of preparation for the holiday surely shows the delight Shepherd, as author, had in the anticipation and consumption of food:
When we got the ham home, my mother immediately stripped off the white paper and the string in the middle of our chipped white-enamel kitchen table. There it lay, exuding heavenly perfumes–proud, arrogant, regal. It had a dark, smoked, leathery skin, which my mother carefully pealed off with her sharpened bread knife….It just sat there on the stove and bubbled away for maybe two hours, filling the house with a smell that was so luscious, so powerful, as to have erotic overtones….The ham frenzy was upon him….
Grunting and straining, my mother poured off the water into another pot. It would later form the base of a magnificent pea soup so pungent as to bring tears to the eyes. She then sprinkled a thick layer of brown sugar dotted with butter, over the ham. She stuck cloves in it in a crisscross design, then added several slices of Del Monte pineapple, thick and juicy, and topped it off with a maraschino cherry in the center of each slice. She then sprinkled brown sugar over the lot, a few teaspoons of molasses, the juice from the pineapple can, a little salt, a little pepper, and it was shoved into the oven. Almost instantly, the brown sugar melted over the mighty ham and mingled with the ham juice in the pan….
All night long, I would lie in my bed and smell the ham….
By 1:30 that afternoon, the tension had risen almost to the breaking point….Finally at about two-o’clock, we all gathered around while my mother opened the blue pot–releasing a blast of fragrance so overwhelming that my knees wobbled–and surrounded the ham with sliced sweet potatoes to bake in the brown sugar and pineapple juice….
My father picked up his carving knife again, for one last stroke on the whetstone. He held the blade up to the light. Everything was ready. He went into the living room and sat down.
His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill, which would last for at least four months. We would have ham sandwiches, ham salad, ham gravy, ham hash–and, finally, about ten gallons of pea soup made with the gigantic ham bone.
When it happened….It was going to be a day to remember. Little did I suspect why.
We know what happened because we’ve seen the movie every year. We have been built up to the glory of the feast by the careful preliminary descriptions so that the invasion of the Bumpus hounds, exaggerated in their act–the slavering gustatory delight anticipated by the family: …the hounds–squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness….
Ham anticipated by Parker family.
Ham devoured by Bumpus Hounds.
From Ham to Hohman.
The same Shep story about Easter/Christmas feasting includes his classic description of his hometown, Hohman (aka Hammond, Indiana). Just reacquainted with it, I feel that it deserves more recognition:
Ours was not a genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation. there was a standard barbershop bit of humor that said it with surprising poetism: If Chicago (only a stone’s throw away across the polluted lake waters) was Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Broad Shoulders,” then Hohman had to be that city’s broad rear end.
Hammond Steel Mill.
“Don’t Go, It’s Dangerous!”
“I’d like to thank the people who made it possible for us to go.
The Luden’s Candy Company footed the bill for this fantastic trip
and provided me and the two other men with an adventure
which I would like to tell you about. An adventure which I’m sure
not many men have ever had.”—Jean Shepherd
Live life to the fullest. Pick it up and lay it down. Move forward. A nine-foot behemoth striding in fantastic steps across the tundra of existence.
Hey, should I really go? To Peru? This is no funsville. Everybody thinks I’m going to take one of these little Pan American flights where they give you martinis, give you some cashew nuts, and you whoopee and holler and get down there and they start playing “Begin the Beguine.” I’m talking about the Peruvian jungle, of which there are few more jungle-like, and the waters are full of crocodiles and electric eels. People down there have strange appetites. They tell me the one thing they really dig are guys with beards. You know, they can’t grow beards themselves.
Believe me, John Wayne, when he’s about to storm the pillbox, does not look back at the battalion and yell, “Shall I go or not, fellas?” To a man they’d holler, “Go! Go on!” Everybody’s for me going to see the headhunters. They all want to hear about it. Typical twentieth-century man—he wants to hear about stuff.
Shall I go or not?
[A pleading, nearly sobbing female voice, undoubtedly that of Shepherd’s producer, gofer, editor, agent, confidant, lover, Leigh Brown, cries out from the control room: “No, don’t go! No!”]
Leigh Brown: “No, don’t go! No”
What was that?
[“No, don’t go!”]
[“Don’t go!” says the plaintive voice.]
[“’Cause,” she says more quietly, but still afraid. “Don’t go. It’s dangerous.”]
Oh, ha, ha, ha, what is danger to a happy-go-lucky rake like me? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Well, I’ve been debating about this. In case you haven’t heard, I have been more or less euchred. It’s like a crummy avalanche, I tell you. At first I thought it was kids laughing about it, and the next thing I know, guys are calling me up and offering me curare cures. They’re calling me up and saying, “Of course I’ve got the stuff if you get a piranha bite.” Gee whiz, I guess you don’t get one piranha bite, do you? Piranha bites come in bunches, like bananas.
My Playboy editor called and says, “Are you really going to go on with this nutty thing? Shave off your beard.”
I say, “Why?”
He says, “They like beards.” He says, “It doesn’t make any difference how Christian they are, you know. If they’re ex-headhunters, you can’t tempt them that much. You’re liable to be the greatest head that’s shown up there. And one guy’s gonna be skulking in the back of the tribe who says, ‘Well, all right, so I did swear off headhunting. But just this once! A guy can fall off the wagon once.” And the editor says, “You can always grow another beard, but it’s a little hard with a head.”
Gee, wow, I just don’t know what to do.
[“Don’t go! No! Don’t go.”]
The voice of a listener is heard throughout the land. Oh yes, real-life adventure always leaves real-life listeners very cold. Yes indeed. We’re aware of that, friends.
We’re not going to talk about headhunters, but I’ll state my case for what it’s worth. That there are very few areas of existence today that allow for actual, true adventure. Now, getting fired from BBD & O is not adventure. Trying to get a job at Y & R is not adventure. Being rejected by a chick on McDougal Street is really not the same as Captain Ahab gettin’ belted in the chops by a white whale. Although many a pimply-faced youth thinks it’s the same problem.
So I feel, as our life gets more and more under control, as we get our world more civilized, more paved—oh, by the way, speaking of the natives down there of this particular tribe, the Shapras, they have a real hang-up on T-shirts, so we’re going to take some white T-shirts to give them. And some red beads. I’m seriously thinking of buying a bunch of those little phony shrunken heads—you can get them in novelty stores on Sixth Avenue. Bring a whole bunch of them down there and say, “Look, fellows, if you really want some heads—.“ Just sort of unload them on ‘em….
When you think of guys on a fantastic dig somewhere, near the mountains of the moon, somewhere in central Africa, you’re always imagining them uncovering this rare jawbone of Australopithica camperus, some really rare creature—great moment. “Aha! Will you please come here! Oh, please, oh!” And when the natives are coming over the tundra with their flags flying and they’re attacking the camp, you don’t see the scenes before and after, and you don’t even see the scene of preparation, really. And I wonder about that moment when you step out of the plane. We get to our location by helicopter—there’s no other way to get in. There’s no Peruvian Jungle Hilton and it’s doubtful whether they honor Diners Club Cards. The Shapras live at the headwaters of the Amazon, and they live in the jungle that is filled with jaguars.
“Jaguars and pirhanas, oh my!”
The rivers are jammed gill to gill with piranhas all looking with little red-rimmed eyes, waiting for somebody to slip on the bank. In between the piranhas are crocodiles, who live on the piranhas. Next to the crocodiles, lying down there at the rocky bottom of the river, are electric eels who generate power roughly the equivalent of Trenton with all of its lights on at once. They tell me that every electric eel down there is roughly about two-hundred-thousand Watts, and when he lays it on, he can light up light bulbs all the way down in Argentina, twelve-thousand miles away, just by sticking his eyes out of the water and squeezing hard. Under practically every rock and tree is a boa constrictor.
What has this done to the natives? Well, let me tell you. You have no idea. But I understand that for the natives, life is one long worry. Apparently the stone-age life is not exactly what most of the people who believe in the “noble savage”—like Rousseau—thought it was. Life is one long nip-and-tuck. According to the fellow who was in touch with me, these people don’t grow to be forty, you see, the attrition rate head-wise being what it is in the neighborhood. And they’re all roughly five-foot-six and extremely muscular—and touchy.
So, I don’t know. The thing that makes me wonder is getting out of the helicopter and the jungle is all around you and you can hear the piranhas feeding off in the river there.
The chief comes forward: “Ungwawa.” And he raises his skull and rattles and all the others peer out of the undergrowth. After you have made contact, then what?
You sit: “Nice day, chief.”
“Aya mula dagwaya.”
“Nice little place you got here, heh, heh.”
“Uya agarrwa. Ga waya.”
“What did he say?”
You look over to your interpreter and his face is dead white. “Oh, sorry, chief. Sorry.”
You wait for the helicopter to come back ten years from now.
An old friend of mine who does travel pieces for Playboy—Shel Silverstein—really travels around—and I mean there’s a difference between traveling and tourist things. Usually a traveler is a lonesome, solitary figure….
(Self portrait of Shep’s
best friend, Shel.)
Whereas the tourist remains part of the thing that he was that he’d left at home. He really remains a Texan or a guy from White Plains. Because he usually travels with a lot of other guys from White Plains and Texas. They travel like a little knot of migratory birds moving across the landscape. You hear people who don’t travel a lot, but once every five years they make their two-week trip to Paris, and they talk about how they’ve really been there and really know about it….I’ve often read in the angry-type magazines about the American who goes to other countries and he refuses to be anything but an American and they somehow put that down. Well, I can only submit that the saddest American of all is the American who goes to Karachi and buys himself a robe and squats down beside a sacred cow and pretends that he’s a guru. [Probably referring to Allen Ginsberg here.] And this attempt to be something you aren’t is, to me, the most profound kind of dishonesty. So it’s a profound kind of comment on a sort of cosmic rootlessness.
Shepherd often drifts into a related subject and gives his philosophical opinion. As we note, he does not like the tourist who gets off a plane and into a limo to be escorted through some exotic place, and neither does he like the American who goes to some exotic place and tries to be one of those exotic creatures. In the 1960s, many young people did don the native robe and attempt to take on a life other than the American one they probably could never escape.
Shepherd is neither one kind nor the other. He is always an American and proud of it, but he is an American who loves to experience other places and understand them in his own way—and interpret those other places for those who care to attend to him. To some extent he seems to take pleasure in frightening friends (and maybe a lover) in regard to the dangers he is about to face—and he is known for his occasional forays into hyperbole.
Stay tuned for further parts
of Shepherd’s Amazon
If memory serves, Shep did not often talk about food. Yet memory and a recent encounter serve sufficiently to note that sometimes he made offhand references to eating, and at least one major reference to cooking.
He sometimes talked about fish and fishing, such as noting that Rosoff’s Restaurant in mid-town Manhattan had created a Jean Shepherd Sandwich: “There’s nothing I like better than whitefish. It was a whitefish sandwich, a cold whitefish sandwich with very thin white bread and a slice of thin, very fresh Bermuda onion, with salt and pepper and with a touch—just a touch—of horseradish! Ahhh!”
He participated in a TV program on ice fishing, in which he was served drinks by Playboy bunnies. He once mentioned that, in an important metaphor for him and his radio career, despite doing everything right he’d gotten a fishing fly caught in his ear. Lois Nettleton remembered that she and Shep, in Maine, fished all day and they’d cook the catch at night. She commented that he was a gourmet cook.
Returning from a European trip, he talked with some note of authority, and enthusiastically, about a good meal he’d just had in Germany. And he wrote the foreword/ intro to a Guide to New Jersey Restaurants so he must have felt that he had reasonably educated taste buds. (Book still not located–but some day! Although not too likely, who knows what important sheperdiana this volume’s intro might contain?) Let’s not forget that in one his stories focused on food, in an important college-years experience regarding the wonderful taste and after-taste of the previous abhorred thought of eating snails, he had an epiphany regarding all the possibilities in life he’d previously rejected so thoughtlessly.
A couple of early 1978 Shepherd’s Pie TV episodes deal with food (Note that the show’s title refer’s to a popular English dish): One titled “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry,”and another titled “Classic Diner”–“a salute to the unsung haven of every good buddy, the classic diner.” In one episode, with a segment titled “Chez Junque,” Crewmember of the week Leigh Brown, mock-seriously at the task, tests the relative quality of hamburgers from various fast food establishments:
So what? It seems that he was both a serious fisherman and a gourmet cook. Two aspects of his interests and abilities that he kept almost entirely away from his publicly known persona. Nevertheless, though food was at least somewhat of an interest to Jean Shepherd, who among his listeners would have thought that he’d have devoted an entire program–38 minutes of airtime–to food. To exposing to the world at large his favorite recipes for easy cooking?
Among the over 250 specially syndicated shows he’d recorded in the mid-1960s, “lost/forgotten” for decades, only 56 had been recently published on CD (with my liner notes in all nine sets), and now another dozen have been made available by another audio company. Each program at $14.95 each. As much as I’d like to hear them all, beyond my current desire to spend that kind of money per disc for the entire twelve-disc load, especially as they come with no descriptive notes at all. I took a chance and bought the one devoted to cooking–surely I’d find some part of an answer to the “So what?”
“How to Cook for Cheap”
Shepherd begins the audio by remembering, as he picks up his meal at a cafeteria, that he has been hooked on meatloaf since he’d been nine years old. As we remember that he’d focused on his fictional mother’s meatloaf in numerous stories, including in the movie A Christmas Story, one can imagine that, for creative purposes, he may be exaggerating his meatloaf-obsession. We can assume that he chose meatloaf for his various excursions into stories mentioning his mother’s cooking because it is such a typical, all-American, common food. Yet, a couple of his recipes include variations for this Great American Main Dish. He garnishes his descriptions of how-to-cook with various details, including the proper way to use garlic so that there’s just the hint of it.
What follows are a few lists of unexpected ingredients for some recipes and a few varied comments (but not entire recipes which, though possibly interesting to a few cooks, would not seem much of an addition to our understanding of an unexpected subject and the true nature of why and in what ways Shep holds his enthusiasts in thrall).
1 lb ground meat
One can of tiny shrimp
A tiny bit of garlic
Some plain, dried, dark raisins
“And you will have a meatloaf that just does not stop.”
Can of tomato soup
One tiny can of shrimp chopped up
Celery salt sprinkled on top
Pat of butter
Fine Norwegian sardines
I’m sorry, I had no intention of having a food show. Once you get started, you just can’t stop. It begins to pull you right in. [This would seem to be the kind of comment that only one obsessed with cooking–like Julia Child?–would think to say.]
He describes: cooking a broiler chicken in a way that the meat just falls off the bones; a cottage cheese mix; chicken bullion soup; soup with root beer mixed in; cooking fish. He comments on his stock of recipes:
I’ve got millions of them, I’ll tell you I’ve learned over the years that you can live, really, and I’ve had to do it in this business (you can live on the most minor of things–like bread). You want to hear some great ideas for making bread?
Many of Shepherd’s descriptions include dropping ingredients into hot frying pans, accompanied by the appropriate sounds: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh! or Pshhhhhhhhhhh! and he does a great mouth-sound of fine-chopping various ingredients: Chichchchchchchchchchchch! He comments, “Always remember–don’t overdo things. The trouble with most people–“
[A scrambled egg sandwich that involves bean sprouts…] “A combination that will make eggs like Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’ all the way down.” [He also describes how to make good-tasting veal.] Pshhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
You think you know all about chipped beef. There’s a great word for it in the army. [Laughs. He says it’s a fantastic Swiss dish.] I’ll award you the brass figlagee with bronze oak leaf–hey,I’ll tell you, if there’s any woman listening without their husband around it would be great when your husband comes home and he hollers, “What’s for supper?” Well, you pause for two beats–enough for it to soak in—and then you say, “SOS, dear!”
Americans are insane eaters. They love eating. And yet–they don’t really spend much time cooking. They seem to look upon cooking as a waste of time. I’m amazed at how many people I know–housewives–one thing and another, who say, “Ah, you know, cooking is such a–what do you mean, “waste of time”! It’s one of the great pleasures in life! Literally! And I think there are two great pleasures connected with cooking. One is doing it, and two is sitting down and eating it. Actually, doing good cooking can be an aesthetic kick in itself.”
These recipes made with ordinary ingredients do sound good! Some day the food deities will present us with a copy of that Jersey Restaurant Guide so we’ll know how ol’ Shep critiques some professional Jersey cooks. In the meantime, I’ve got an idea inspired by recently encountering a cookbook for kids: Sesame Street Let’s Cook!
Which includes such enticements as: “Elmo’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese ‘n’ Bits,” “Grover’s Asian Sticky Rice Balls,” and “Oscar’s Green-Like-Me Smoothie.” Why not publish a:
Jean Shepherd’s Monolog-athon for Reluctant Chefs.
Pardon my own attempts at possible recipe titles, but the book might include such delectable fare as: “Shep’s Meatloaf ‘n’ Raisin Madness,” “Shep’s Whitefish Wonder a la Whitebread,” “Shep’s Pshshshhsh!: Perky Rice-fried Pan-Sizzle,” and “Shep’s POP” (Poop on a Platter).
Over his show-ending theme music he describes what to do with leftover rice. Shhhhhhhhhhhh! Pshhhhhhhhhhh! He discusses how to fry it. What a fantastic dish! What a magnificent dish! What a fantastic dish! [Laughs.] Pshhhhhhhhhhh!
Tshhhhhhhhhhhhhh! His “Bahn Frei” theme raises in volume, and completes the gustatory repast! Pshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
A note regarding the importance of food in Shepherd’s thinking. In an interview for his Shep-documentary, Nick Mantis recorded a scene described by Irwin Zwilling, Shep’s close friend of his last years. The following represents the last time Zwilling and Shepherd saw or talked to one another. Zwilling got a call in New York (Shepherd’s favorite and fabled former abode), and was told that Jean was at death’s door and that he should come down to Florida. Zwilling took the next flight, and the nurses and doctors greeted him and his wife at the hospital room door, telling them that Shep’s vital signs were flat and that he might be unresponsive. In his bed, Jean was lying on his back with his eyes closed and his mouth open. Irwin thought Jean looked like he’d die at any moment. Faced with what would be their last words to each other, Zwilling said loudly:
“Jean, it’s Irwin!”
Shepherd opened one eye
“Did you bring a pastrami sandwich?”
AMAZON AND THE HEADHUNTERS
Jean Shepherd traveled to the Peruvian Amazon in 1965 to deliver five-hundred pounds of Luden’s cough drops and candy to a former headhunting tribe just converted to Christianity by missionaries. The chief of the tribe had been the recent subject of an as-told-to book, Tariri, My Story: From Jungle Killer to Christian Missionary. As Told to Ethel Emily Wallis by Tariri (1965):
http://avalon44.tripod.com/fr/auca.htm: Wycliffe began work in Peru in 1946 and today has workers in 44 tribes. Not one translator has been killed by Indians, although there have been some close calls.
Two single women, Lorrie Anderson and Doris Cox, entered Shapra territory when it was ruled by Chief Tariri, the most feared headhunter in Peru. Tariri later told Cam Townsend, “Had you sent two men, we would have killed them. Had you sent a man and wife, we would have killed the man and kept the woman for a wife. You sent two young women, calling me ‘brother.’ I had to protect them.” Since his dramatic conversion, Tariri has been a sensation in Peru and a celebrity to Christians in Europe and the United States.
The Wycliffe Bible Translators had brought Tariri to the United States and through an interpreter, Barry Farber, Shepherd’s friend and fellow-broadcaster, had interviewed him on his program. Shepherd, in one of his programs about his trip to Peru, tells his singular story of how it all came about and why he went in Farber’s place. Shepherd’s experiences in the Amazon, as he describes them on several programs, and thus, in this blog, were what he feels is his supreme travel adventure.
In his excitement to tell his tales live on the radio immediately after his return—without the usual gestation period of weeks or more that he had for his fictional stories—he frequently doubles back, interrupts himself, and repeats interesting details. Several of his friends have commented that Shepherd would sometimes deliver an extended monolog to them, and they’d subsequently hear a variation of it on the air, as though he’d been trying out the material with them. Maybe in his heated excitement regarding Peru, he’d not realized that what he remembered had been a private warm-up, he had broadcast twice—a repeated on-the-air anecdote.
For example, in one of his studio broadcasts he comments on what it was like to eat cooked monkey, and then, a few days later during his live-at-the-Limelight -broadcast in front of dozens of attendees as well as for his usual radio audience, he again describes his response to eating monkey. In another example, on different broadcasts, he twice tells his story of playing music with the tribe. With only a choice tidbit or two from the other telling, one basic version of each story is transcribed in these blog posts.
Also, for better understanding in reading, some of his descriptions, (interrupted by his instant remembrance of some other bit), have been shifted to a more straightforward chronology, as he surely would have done for print publication.
Jean Shepherd, after his Peru experience, may never before have been in such an extraordinarily excited state on the air. In telling kid stories or army stories, he has as much time as he wants to prepare and organize, but giving listeners his authentic Peru tales within a mere few hours after his return, he is in a heated rush. This is a prime example of his rarely found overwrought presentation. Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Shepherd’s overflow in extemporaneous prose does not here have the necessary time for recollection in tranquility. We can only cut him some slack for his exuberance in foregoing some poetic elegance. Extemporaneous is what we expect and enjoy in Shepherd’s broadcasts. For this gift from Shepherd we should be thankful for the anomaly and treasure it. Listeners and readers are caught up in the unstoppable flow of spoken words as he describes this unique adventure for us and we exult with him.
“Hey, Shep, how’d you like to go to Peru?”
Shep tells us:
Some people have asked why we went. Why it happened. Well, like so many things in life, it’s curious how these things happen. So many things in life that you do that turn out to be big deals usually start out in the most ridiculous way. I wonder how many people are married to people who they met under totally ridiculous circumstances. In fact, most of the circumstances we live in are ridiculous. How many people go into the gas station and meet somebody by the Coke stand? They could have gone to the Esso station one block down. The next thing you know, it’s Reno, it’s three kids, it’s murder or divorce.
Well, this trip was that sort of thing. I was sitting in my office preparing a show, working away and in came Barry Farber. Barry is an interviewer on WOR who precedes me on the air. He just stuck his head in the door. “Hey, Shep,” he said. “How’d you like to go to Peru?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Okay,” and he walked away. I didn’t think anything about it. I went back to work yelling and hollering and looking out the window getting ready for the show.
And life went on. The next day I was back at the same old stand and I was on the phone yelling and hollering and Barry looked in the door and said, “Hey, Shep, it’s all set.”
I said, “Okay. What?”
He said, “You’re going to Peru. You all set now, okay?”
I say, “Yeah,” still not thinking it was anything. Well, by George, the next day Barry walked in and said, “I’ve got to talk to you for a minute.”
“What about, Barry?”
“You know, the guy from Luden’s is here and he wants to see you. Did you get your letter about the jungle gear you gotta get?”
“Well, I’ve gotten some nutty letter. “ You get millions of letters in this business and you throw them out. The letter said something about snake bite and to get a big boot, and said the natives are friendly but have no word for “thank you,” so look out. I said, “Well, yeah, I got a letter, Barry.”
“The fellow who wrote it is in the next room. Come on down and meet him. He’s from Luden’s.”
“Wait a minute, Barry. What do you mean, Luden’s?”
“Luden’s Cough Drops, you know.”
I said, “Luden’s? Clue me in, Barry.”
He said, “You’re going down to the jungle with the headhunters.”
I said, “The what-hunters?”
He said, “Headhunters. You remember Tariri—I had him on my show. You’re going down there. It’s all set.”
“I can’t chicken out?”
“Well, they bought you a ticket.”
Oh, I got a ticket to see the headhunters.
He said, “Look, I’ll tell you what it is. I went to a party.” Barry one day got an invitation to a party given by Luden’s. There’s millions of promotional parties in town all day long. He went to the party with about a thousand other people there, and they’re talking about cough drops and stuff. So Barry’s sitting there eating the rubber chicken and he’s listening to the speeches and applauding. A guy stands up on the podium and says, “Attention. We’re going to draw for the grand prize. Five-hundred pounds of candy to be given to your favorite charity. The prize goes to number 722, to Mr. Fraber. Is a Mr. Berley Fraber here?”
Barry says, “My name is Barry Farber and I got number 722.”
Mr. Berley Fraber
“You win. It’s yours.”
Five hundred pounds of cough drops. Barry said in all his life he never won anything and now it’s this! They call him up to the podium and say, “We’re going to give this to your favorite charity.”
Barry couldn’t think of anything. They must have figured he’s going to say something like the Red Cross or the Boy Scouts. He says, “Ah, I got an idea. The other day I had on my show these headhunters and I’d like to do something for those missionaries down there. I’d like to send all my candy down there.”
They say, “What?” They couldn’t chicken out. There’s a thousand dealers all standing there listening. They expected to put the candy in a truck and take it to the Salvation Army, and he says “headhunters.” They say, “Where are they?” He says, “These headhunters are at the headwaters of the Amazon River. If it’s too much trouble, don’t worry about it. Send it wherever you like, but that’s my favorite charity.” He said it into the PA system. And he walked out.
Here they are with egg all over their face. Five hundred pounds of candy, and the headhunters are four-thousand miles away. And they have to send a man with it! They have to get one of the cough-drop-men to watch the cough drops. So twenty minutes later, a man in the cough drop company is sitting there calmly at his desk and his little intercom buzzes.
He says, “Hello, J. B., what is it?”
“Lee, this is J. B. We got this charity presentation. You mind making a charity presentation?”
“Glad to, J. B.”
“It’s in the Amazon jungle. There’s headhunters there. You’re leaving Friday.” Click.
Lee is the public relations man for Luden’s and he is basically chicken. He can’t see himself going down there alone so he gets on the phone with Barry Farber and says, “Farber, I’ve got a great idea!” Barry listens. He’s one of those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, Madison Avenue Liberal types. “Yes, yes, Mr. Chamberlain, I gave that to my favorite charity. Yes, headhunters, yes. Yes indeed, I love ‘em!”
Lee says, “Say, wouldn’t it be wonderful just to see those guys when they get that candy?”
Barry says, “Yeah, sure would be great to take a look at their eyes.”
Lee says, “Be ready to leave Friday.”
Barry immediately starts babbling about having a certain blood-pressure system that won’t let him fly—his blood comes out his ears. He’s got all kinds of cock-and-bull stories. And then he hears me on the phone in the next room. He knows that I’m game for anything. He waits till my phone is ringing and I’m opening a letter. He walks in and says, “How about Peru?”
I say, “Yeah.”
He runs into his office and says into the phone, “Lee, yeah, I’ve got a guy who’ll go.”
“A Guy Who’ll Go.”