Gang, although the following material previously appeared in my blog posts
on Shepherd’s travels, I feel that this small grouping,
condensed and rethought from the earlier postings,
brings together important elements of Shepherd’s ways of responding
to his experiences of life and to humanity in general.
That all four happened to Shepherd (and to us as listeners)
in only a bit over two years, is extraordinary. –eb
JEAN SHEPHERD, TRAVELER
MARCH ON WASHINGTON
On his radio programs, Jean Shepherd sometimes described traveling–one of the great enthusiasms of his life. Several times on his broadcasts he talked about what it meant for him, once in mock-melodramatic tones, wondering why he did it:
Deep down inside of me 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?”
In reality, he was forever finding. He emphasized that being in new places promotes new ideas, new ways of understanding our world. As the cliché has it, “travel broadens one.” Beyond expressing himself to others–conveying his experiences and observations—broadening his listeners’ understanding obviously added to his pleasure.
Shepherd not only traveled around the world, but to many parts of the United States, including an important bus ride from New York City to our nation’s capital. He told a lot of fictional stories about his kid-hood in the Midwest. He was an enthusiastic American patriot. He expressed his feelings and understanding of American ideas and cultural attributes in many of these stories–as in much of his work, including his creation and narration of nearly two-dozen half-hour programs in his television series, “Jean Shepherd’s America.” This series, but a partial, potentially much longer opus, should be recognized as a central marker in his creative world:
The period from mid-summer 1963 through late summer 1965 especially, provides important and expressive examples of his special turn of mind, his focus on the American experience, and his proclivity to travel in an engaged and perceptive way.
Because he was a serious traveler, he told a lot of true narratives about his experiences traveling the world. (I chose and edited, in an unpublished book-length manuscript, dozens of his travel-based broadcasts) I believe that his travel narratives are, in almost all details, true, especially because, as a mentor for thousands of listeners, he was expressing to them truly, why experiencing other places and peoples was important for understanding America and the entire human condition. Yes, he enjoyed travel:
“As far as I’m concerned, travel—I have found travel to be one of the most—oh—use all the clichés, but it is the one thing that I find that really, truly, does give me a kind of a final sense of involvement and satisfaction.”
MARCH ON WASHINGTON AUGUST 28, 1963
Most written and spoken words on this great American gathering come from those reporters who arrived in Washington in an official capacity and viewed the experience from an official news perspective. Shepherd however, wanted to experience it as a typical American—he traveled to the nation’s capital on one of New York City’s cross-town buses with other typical Americans. Thus, as a perceptive traveler, he could describe the occasion based on a participant’s vision of what really happened, and describe this to his fellow Americans. (On the fortieth anniversary of the event, National Public Radio regarded Shepherd’s vision highly enough to re-broadcast a ten-minute segment of his original, 45-minute program.) What follows is a collage of comments taken from his original broadcast. This is Jean Shepherd’s unique historical document about what over two-hundred thousand participants experienced, and as such, it contains much objective truth and authentic feeling. As for Shepherd, he was overwhelmed. [Excuse a few politically incorrect words that were okay at the time.]
I had all kinds of ideas about the way it would be. Just like all of us have ideas in our head about how history is. I’m sure you have ideas about how it must have been to be in Germany in the 20s. Well, it wasn’t. Not the way you think it was. I’m sure you have ideas of how it must have been when Washington was crossing the Delaware. Forget it. It wasn’t. I was not there but I know one thing—it wasn’t the way you think it was. I’ve found that very few things are the way you think they are.
I went down on this thing very specifically as just a marcher. Just one of the people in a delegation, because I have learned through long experience—and hard experience—that the only real way that you ever get to have even a vague understanding about events is, if you can, possibly, be part of or in the group, or be in with people to whom the event is occurring.
I wonder just how much a newsman ever learns about anything—standing up on the platform. I’m curious. I listened to a lot of jazz yesterday from the newsmen and almost all of them were up on the platform, they were in the news section, which was very, very, very much roped off from the great herd of people who walked along the streets. The great multitude who gathered under the trees, who pushed up through past the Coke stands and finally stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
And every last man that I saw involved in this situation—the police, the MPs, the Red Cross people—was in the most wildly great, holiday mood. You just don’t expect it from officials. Everybody cheering when you came in. I don’t know how much of this has been reported! I haven’t seen much of it reported in the press.
So we were walking along and thousands and thousands of white people and colored people are standing on the sidelines waving. Guys in offices are cheering and waving. Nobody reported on this! And I want to go on record saying that during the entire day, I did not hear one word that I could construe as being the kind of word that you would hear in demonstrations, I did not hear one moment that I could call a moment that gave me even one instant a feeling of imminent rabble-rousing or any of that stuff. There was just an amazing attitude towards everything. You know, I hate to use such words as “love.” These are ridiculous, meaningless words, but there was a feeling of humanity in the air.
We were coming in and millions of people were gathering, and I don’t know how they can estimate the number of people who were there. There would be no way to estimate it.…and suddenly through the crowd was this tiny band of people coming with a little sign that said “MISSISSIPPI.” That was really a moment, I’ll tell you! That was a moment. They came all the way up on some crummy old bus. And everybody was hollering at them and talking and they were laughing and hollering. Incidentally, in that Mississippi group there were more than just a few white people. That should be pointed out. People were slapping them on the back as they walked through.
Well, we were all standing around in this great crowd—it’s going to sound like I invented this. Please listen carefully. This is exactly what happened. There was a man standing back of me who had a big white Panama hat on and like so many of the demonstrators, it was obvious that this was a very big moment for him and he was all dressed up, as were so many. That’s an interesting thing—my delegation was told to wear a jacket and a tie and white shirt, because “this is a thing we’re going to that is very important.” So everybody was all dressed up. As we came into Washington, all the guys were putting their jackets on. And it was hot—oh boy was it hot on the bus. Putting their ties on. Trying to straighten up their clothes and everything, because, as somebody said, it was like going to church with two-hundred-thousand people. The man behind me, a great guy, a short, stout, negro man with glasses clouded-up because he was sweating like mad, was holding up his little sign that said, “NAACP Boston Branch.” It’s a long way from Boston to Washington on a bus.
And Marian Anderson started singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The usual kind of “Star Spangled Banner” where it was through a PA system and we were so far away we could hardly hear. You couldn’t distinguish the words, but it was “The Star Spangled Banner.” Everybody standing there.
Suddenly, a few feet from me, a big colored lady with a big red hat with big white flowers—the official kind of lady who’s always organizing—starts to holler, “Will the Brooklyn Corps representatives please assemble over here. Please get over here. Brooklyn Corps representatives.” She was hollering in the middle of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Well, the guy back of me says, “Madam, madam.”
She looked at him. “What?”
He said, “They are singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ We usually are quiet during the singing of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Please. They are singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”
And he stood there sweating, with his hat off, as Marian Anderson sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Don’t anyone say to me, “The Uncle Tom.” Stop it, man. You know not whereof you speak.
Coming back….It was like a great company picnic where everybody knew everybody else. Waving, talking, eating. And finally the busses assembled and one by one the busses took off. Our bus backed out, going north and, all along the route through town—and this was late, about eight-thirty or so—there were people walking, waving at our bus, which didn’t have any big, jazzy sign, it was just a busload of plain, ordinary people sitting in there. And they were waving and hollering and grinning. It wasn’t a feeling of, “Boy, we showed ‘em, didn’t we!” but it was a feeling of, “Boy, it was wonderful that you came!” People were riding along in their cars, just ordinary people, and they were all waving at the busses from their cars as we were going out of town, going north.
Out along the highway, millions of busses one after the other. One after the other! A fantastic parade. And in the end, I’m sure it was a parade that no one will ever forget. A truly historic moment. Not a historic moment politically even. It was a historic moment for a lot of people who did not conceive of people being this way. It’s a new concept, really. For a moment there. At least for a moment it was there.
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