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