Home » Army Life and Stories » JEAN SHEPHERD—ARMY STORIES (Sneaky Peeks) 5 & (36) ARTSY Netsuke

JEAN SHEPHERD—ARMY STORIES (Sneaky Peeks) 5 & (36) ARTSY Netsuke


The Unforgettable Exhibition Game of the Giants

Versus the Dodgers, Tropical Bush League,”

(From Playboy, 5/1971)

baseball (3)

(Partial Image)

Shepherd told this story several times. It, along with “Troop Train Ernie” are probably listeners’ favorite Jean Shepherd army stories.

In the steaming heat of tropical Florida, to help build morale, Company K was given the chance to build a baseball field out of the jungle. They labored mightily and achieved their dream. The army supplied balls, bats, and other equipment. They started to play, and it was so uncomfortable in the heat that they all stripped down naked.

During the game a vehicle approached and stopped a distance away:

I looked back at the car. It was. In the front seat of a dark-green staff car, a stone-faced sergeant in full-dress uniform sat at the wheel ramrod stiff. From the back window, which was rolled down, peered a face—an elfin, alabaster, pert-nosed face under a cloud of cascading golden-blonde hair.

When they got back to Company K base, they got the bad word. They had been observed—naked—by the daughter of a lieutenant general. They were punished by having to return every grain of sand and blade of grass to the way nature had intended—no more baseball. The story ends:

Company K was back in business. Baseball season was over. The long hot winter had begun.

In regard to this story, I remember Shepherd telling his radio listeners that he once got a phone call from a woman who claimed to have been the general’s daughter who had seen them play that day. For me, this is an interesting way for Shep to double down on his implication as to the tale’s veracity— I believe it to have been one of his most amusing fictional creations.




artsyfratsy 10010


Netsuke are the small Japanese sculptures (mostly less than 3” long) that were traditionally worn as a “toggle” to prevent an object such as a medicine or tobacco pouch on a cord, from escaping the obi (sash) and dropping to the ground.

netsuke on man (3)

Hundreds of years ago, the first of them were comprised of a root or twig found and tied to the cord. Then, carvers began designing elaborate sculptures in many kinds of material (mostly ivory and wood), based on every imaginable aspect of Japanese life and culture.

After the Second World War, when most Japanese  had given up traditional clothing for Western garb, netsuke no long served a function, but, among a few connoisseurs, they were a collectible art, especially in the West. Are they an art or just a collectible piece of apparel no longer used–tchotchke?

I understand that because of Japanese poverty after the War, one could buy a handful of fine netsuke for a couple of dollars, and in the West they were cheaply sold in small groups. Now, even an undistinguished real one costs hundreds of dollars. Highly regarded ones—ones I now covet and can’t afford–cost thousands. (Modern ones, mostly realistically carved figurines made in China and sold on ebay, can be bought for well under ten dollars. Occasionally a decent one, reasonably inexpensive, can be found among the thousands of cheap modern ones.)

Decades after the prices went up, before I knew what it was, but intrigued by an ivory frog on a lotus seed pod for sale at the members’ auction of the Japanese woodblock print society I belonged to, I bid and won. I found out it was a “netsuke.” So began my fascination, even though that first one was nowhere near “quality.” (The top side is nice but the underneath is very crudely carved.)

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The next photo shows some of mine. Over the years I bought a few rather cheap ones, and became especially interested in the great variety of depictions of the shi-shi dog. One could make an impressive collection just with varieties of poses and styles of shi-shi.

DSCN0577 (2)

Some of my netsuke, including three ivory shi shi

roughly datable by their styles:

upper left 18th C., missing front legs;

lower left 19th C., some detail rubbed smooth with wear;

far right 20th C., apparently carved with an electric Dremel tool.

The better, more classical netsuke, are carved in a compact form so that when worn, there are no parts that might easily break off. (There are some, very fine and revered netsuke that are very long and thin human figures, that contradict the previous statement.) I like to hold the compact ones in my hand and feel their form, somewhat like a clenched fist!

In addition to owning illustrated books on the subject, I’ve photocopied and compiled hundreds of my favorite images organized by subject matter. Here are a few: two pages of shi-shi; a page each of frogs; tigers; stag horn material (including those formed by cutting the horn near its base, thus leaving the stag’s hair for the carved head); rats, showing one of the most popular forms–especially in the middle row–two by Masanao. I have one carved by the last, 20th century descendant of the Masanao family of carvers.

netsuke shi shi0003netsuke shi shi20010

netsuke frogs0010netsuke tigers0010

netsuke stag0010netsuke rats0011


One day, in one of those Fifth Avenue stores that sell overpriced stuff to tourists, I encountered among some modern netsuke, one of a squid and Japanese fisher-woman (ama) entwined in a compact embrace. I bought it for too much.

ama squid mine (3)

“Ama and Squid”

Eventually, in a photo book of netsuke masterpieces, I encountered the authentic, 18th C. unsigned one of elephant ivory with inlaid eyes and I realized that mine was a diminutive and crude knock-off. Through a contact in the relatively small field of netsuke enthusiasts, I got to visit the owner of the original at his Park Avenue apartment. He took me to his bank and, in the deposit-box vault, he showed it to me and let me hold (and fondle) it–and see the reverse side, which had not been publicly shown. I was surprised that the back was not voluptuously rounded but somewhat concave.

For the Journal of the International Netsuke Collectors Society I’d earlier written and had published, an article describing the original, just based on its photograph. The original, I’d discovered—unusually large at over 5” long–is widely considered the finest netsuke known. The owner said it would be the last one he’d ever sell.

Netsuke Ama by eb0002

About three years after my article appeared, a full-page ad by the owner of the journal that had published my article, showed the ama and squid at the-then highest price ever offered for a netsuke, $250,000. I don’t know why it was for sale or what it sold for. (As the journal owner was also the owner of the dealership selling the netsuke, I wonder if my innocently written article had helped boost the price.) More important than the price, I had held and fondled the piece that I (and, I assume, most netsuke connoisseurs), consider the ultimate masterpiece in the field. The final paragraph of my published article may prove illuminating:

What we have then is living, sensuous, aesthetically organized form and texture, a sculptor’s rendition of sexuality in phallic shape, an image of sensuality which, the squid shows us by example, we can both see and fondle. But we, mere flesh and blood in our “real” world, can only participate second-hand in the ama and squid’s artistically imagined ivory world. Yet what esthetic and salacious pleasure it must have been for those fortunate, anonymous, Edo-period Japanese gentlemen owners of this piece, to handle this part of their public apparel whenever they felt the desire—and to have it dangle pendulously from their prim kimonos.

Note to anyone not appreciating the ebullient, purple prose of that paragraph: either I failed miserably in the writing, or you should go back and re-read it a couple of times, snuggling up to it as best you can. If my comments and illustrations interest the reader at all, I suggest enlarging the page of my article and reading it. If I may immodestly say, I always find it stimulating.

Never mind.

I still enjoy my crude one and remember holding the original,

the reverse side of which I eventually encountered on the Internet.

(The two holes are for the attendant cord. Often 18th century

netsuke have one much larger hole, as seen here. Note age cracks.)
Ama & Squid originalama and squid back (3)



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