In these tales, beginning with his earliest remembrances, we are engrossed in his life as a kid—and knowing Jean Shepherd’s unpredictable turn of mind, we should not be surprised to find that sandwiched among slices of Midwestern delights and travails, in his first public performance in grade school he portrays a decayed tooth. Unpredictably yet crucially, we learn of the traumatic moment near his final days before adulthood that remains the supreme metaphor for his insufficiently-educated college years–when he first sits down with tiny fork in fist and is forced to confront a plateful of snails. It’s probably in an otherwise uneventful, sophomore college year that he’s not only served (oh, horror-of-horrors!) that dreaded escargot, but that he also encounters in a dingy Cincinnati garage (oh, joy-of-joys!) a fabled Bugatti.
Shepherd told so many kid stories that, even a decade-and-a-half before he stopped inventing them and went off the air, comic wit Henry Morgan, in 1960, obviously deluded into thinking the stories were meant to be realities rather than fictions, complained that, “He talked about that youth of his in such detail that I suspect it lasted about forty years.” Shepherd could do that, not because of a memory for true occurrences, but because of his unbounded imagination in creating stories about what he knew it was like to be a kid. Contained herein are dozens of these stories heard by listeners on transistor radios late at night under covers and preserved by some enthusiasts on audio tape, but which no one before has ever seen on the printed page.
Jean Shepherd had some strong ideas about getting along in the world. He definitely believed that kids should go to school, and as we’ll see, he had the highest regard for libraries and books, but he believed that kids—and adults—learn some of their most important lessons from actual experience. Whether it’s in the army, traveling the world, or just being a kid, what one does and how one understands the experience, may be all-important. He was sort of a practical guy like other important Americans such as educational reformer John Dewey with his “learning by doing” pragmatism, and Walt Whitman who, in “Song of Myself,” proclaimed:
“You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
Whitman, Dewey, and Shepherd—what an educational triumvirate! Reading Jean Shepherd’s kid stories here is a thrilling education for all of us. Listening to his renditions on the radio, one appreciates the humor, the wit, and his story-telling mastery. Yet, being able to read them at our own pace, contemplate them, and even reread if so inclined, our appreciation of his insights, his commentary on the life all of us experience, and his humor, become increasingly manifest. We find that these stories have a wider scope and a wider relevance to life itself than we may have suspected. Jean Shepherd is even better than you and I have realized. His stories are also literature.
MORE KID STORY INTRODUCTION TO COME
Back to the making of my permanent Reptiles and Amphibians Hall, Ray helped with the large Komodo Dragon case that contains three of the monsters and a putrid wild boar they were beginning to gnaw. We needed a few flies on the boar for ambiance. Ray explained that he could prepare some real mounted flies, but, despite dipping them in poison, tiny insects endemic to just about all exhibit cases would eventually gobble them up, so he suggested making the flies of plastic. To save time, and because they couldn’t be seen close up, he would construct them very schematically—don’t observe them with a high-powered telescope.
(Parenthetical info. To obtain the proper grasses for the exhibit, a botanist at New York’s Bronx Botanical Gardens contacted for us a scientist doing research near Komodo Island in Indonesia. The scientist sent a large wooden crate to our Museum and we eagerly opened it to see the imported grasses. Our coordinator, Rose, brought some of the grass samples up to the botanist in the Bronx, who said they were of the right species, but of the two sexes of grass required, only one sex had been collected, packed, and shipped. I don’t remember which gender was missing for our habitat, but several months later we received a crate-full of the other sex. After being dried, chemically preserved, and spray-painted in fade-proof colors, the two sexes are now permanently cohabitat-ing.)
Komodos, Dead Boar, Ray’s Plastic Flies, Two Sexes of Grass.
Ray’s talents and special interests helped in one of the last cases to be completed–on the subject of the relationship of amphibians, reptiles, and humans. The curator wanted to show how the amphibs and reps sometimes serve a good purpose by eating poisonous spiders. With a painted plastic lizard in hand, Ray built a small mockup corner of a garage with bricks, wood, and debris. He put it in a well-sealed container with food and water to sustain his very own pet black widow spider while she did her work. As Ray had her well-wrangled, she wove a web in the mockup corner. He removed her, killed her, and cast a replica out of her, positioning it in the web. In the large exhibit case, the small scene can be admired, complete with painted, plastic lizard about to pounce on painted, plastic black widow posed astride the actual web she (while real and alive) had woven.
Other strange-but-true Reptile Hall exhibit details:
The previous hall had displayed two enormous turtles swimming, but for our hall, the curator wanted the two sea turtles on the sandy shore in egg-laying mode, requiring cutting off all eight plastic legs and repositioning them for on-land activities, and, because only females lay eggs, the previously swimming plastic male had to be reconfigured in a tail-region sex-change.
To demonstrate the four differing modes of slithering, four different live snakes were prodded by the curator into moving in their appropriate manners on boards covered with sand to receive the distinctive moves (for example, a “standard-kind-of-snake” vs a “sidewinder”). Of course, in time, the sand-sculpted snake-tracks would have gently sifted down to in-distinguishability. So a preparator, with very diluted white glue, sprayed the tracks so they became immovably rock-hard. Last snake-track issue—although the three heaviest snakes had made deep impressions, the least-heavy had made a shallow track that, because of the overhead case lighting, was invisible. I called preparator Ray Mendez and explained the problem. He arrived in the Hall and, on that shallow track, with very diluted black pigment, painted in the appropriate shadow. Four painted, plastic snakes positioned on their tracks completed the scene.
A Sidewinder and its Track
Another lighting problem presented itself. Set in a small habitat, a plastic frog with open, very large, bright-orange roof of mouth, which mother nature designed to intimidate potential prey, failed to demonstrate its protective coloration because the orange lay in shadow. I remembered an old museum-exhibit-accessory used from time to time. I had a preparator position a very small round mirror–hidden by a well-positioned dead leaf just in front of the frog–angled so the overhead lighting reflected up into the now well-lighted, orange mouth.
Most museum visitors can’t possibly realize the sneaky techniques used in exhibits that seem so straightforward, unless given a guided tour by someone with an insider’s view of the artsy tricks-of-the-trade. However, during the very special guided tour of the Reptile hall I gave Allison (my eventual bride) on our second date, I hadn’t known of her extreme distaste for snakes. But she never said a word. Not until a year later, our marriage safely accomplished, did I learn of her successfully stifled subterfuge.
I haven’t talked much about snakes since.