One never knows where Jean Shepherd will turn up next, what he will encounter, and how he will feel. It’s said that his producer (and other things as well), Leigh Brown, fearing for his safety, pleads with him not to go, but in early 1962 he writes a postcard from Nigeria to his wife, actress Lois Nettleton, expressing what a great time he’s having.
He talks about his Nigerian experience as soon as he returns to New York. He finds the experience puzzling—disconcerting, as no other travels have been for him. He is not sure how he feels about it all. Bittersweet he says.
Despite this immediate response, over a year after he returns, for the only time so far encountered, he says that he found one of the travel notebooks which he uses to remind him of his experiences. It is his notebook of his Nigerian trip. He comments, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country that I dug more—than Nigeria.”
Card from Shep to Lois:
Just got back from the bush in Eastern Nigeria and it is something not to be believed! I’ll have shows for the rest of the year. What a place this is. There are so many things to write about that I can’t even begin a card. Am taking a run to Ghana and Cameroon this week. The people are absolutely great! Will arrive home Monday around 5 PM–would love to see you at airport. Love Love J.
Quite a contrast from his somewhat troubled, perplexed feelings articulated immediately following the trip itself.
In one of these earlier broadcasts he describes his encounter with an African-American waiting in a post office line, who recognizes his speech as American. In the social unrest back home in these turbulent, confrontational 1960s, and now being in Africa for months, the black guy understands for the first time that “I am an American.” Shepherd’s travel notebook reminds him a year later of this encounter. He describes it again, and we have a unique opportunity to enjoy how Shepherd takes a little tidbit of abbreviated notation in his journal to jog his memory. He elaborates on it in a different context so that we find it well-worth reading about again, because it is so different. This time as a parable for patriotism on the Fourth of July. No matter where one goes, not only in his speech but in his very being, an American is still an American—and Shepherd is proud of it.
As an introduction to Nigerian history and life in the early 1960s when Shepherd traveled there, and to understand a bit about why Leigh Brown might have been worried about his safety, here is a BBC website’s description regarding the period:
1960 – Independence, with Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa leading a coalition government.
1962-63 – Controversial census fuels regional and ethnic tensions.