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Dots and Dashes
“Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy,
it gets ahold of your soul and gnaws at it and never lets go.”
Here I am, a kid, I’m twelve years old and I’m a tenderfoot in Troop 41. I was in the moose patrol. Laurence was our patrol leader. The troop met in the gym, and hanging from both ends were basketball hoops. Laurence would come in early. He was on the freshman basketball team. The rest of us came in with our knots and stuff. Laurence was out there practicing fade-away push shots. Wow, was he cool! We tenderfoots, me and Schwartz and Flick were all impressed by Laurence.
So one night we were coming home from the Scout meeting and Schwartz says the following, which I did not know at the time was to change my life. Schwartz said, “Hey, can you guys stay out about a half an hour late?”
I said, “What for?”
“Laurence has invited me over to see his short wave set.”
I said, “Short wave? What’s that?”
“Laurence invited any of the kids in the troop to watch him work his short wave set.”
Wow, anything Laurence did had a certain golden aura about it, so I said, “Yeah, I’d love to go.”
So that night me and Schwartz and Flick went to Laurence’s house and there were three or four other kids from the troop. He had a room with all his high school trophies there. He had a silver basketball, great stuff. He had a flag up there, he had a sweater from the old school he went to where he won his last letter. Oh wow!
And there in his room he had what I thought was “a short wave set.” But now I realize that what he had was a ham station. He was an amateur. I thought he was going to sit there and talk on this thing. But he had a key, like you see in the movies when the ship is sinking and they’re sending out the SOS. Out of this loudspeaker came this fantastic sound—beeps and stuff. And Laurence was sitting there writing it down. My god! And from that moment I have never turned back.
Morphos in Rio Amazonas
I have many fond memories of my four months in Peru in 1980, living and working on a Fulbright Grant, teaching a course on exhibit design in Spanish at their national museum of archeology and anthropology, and helping with some of their exhibit projects. I enjoyed interacting with the Peruvian people and getting to know a bit of Lima and other parts of the country. I spent time in the former Inca capital of Cuzco, spent three days and nights at Machu Picchu, flew over the Nazca Lines in a three-seater plane that had no working altimeter or gas gauge, and had a life-and-literature-changing time in the Amazon.
Returning to New York, I brought back many souvenirs, including a pinned morpho butterfly in a two-sided glass box that provided a view of the top of the wings, and also the bottom side.
Blue Morphos are not really blue. The effect of their shiny blue comes from the tiny scales on the wing tops that have ridges that reflect blue light. It’s said that when predator birds are attracted by the intense blue, the morpho closes its wings, hiding the blue and revealing the underside brown that, appearing to be a mere dead leaf falling, discourages the predator’s interest–and the morpho escapes. So, really, I don’t know if the blue is real or unreal, but, to the morpho, it has real importance.
I also brought back my infatuation with the young woman I spent just two days with in the Amazon. Also back home in New York I spent much of my free time for the next several years writing of that passion in a true/fiction, self-published novel for which I designed my own cover: Rio Amazonas.
In my Rio Amazonas, I intersperse true bits of my Amazonian adventure with fictional chapters that are influenced by those events in my life, in the climactic ending, the morpho plays a major role. The protagonist (not coincidentally, a museum exhibit designer as I was at the time), a timid fellow out-maneuvered by prestigious American museum scientists studying Peruvian cultures, finally possesses the young woman of his fantasies as they escape from Indian warriors and float downstream toward safety. I call myself Ernest and I call her Darcy Denby. The morphos, blue iridescence aglow, swarm around their small inflatable boat where they lie, love-enthralled.
I really did meet and travel to the Amazon with a young Canadian woman I’d met in Lima. We flew to the Amazon city of Iquitos where we had separate bedrooms. That night, as I looked out my screened-in window, there was a small salamander flat on the outside of the screen with a street light shining through it. I could see the little animal’s red beating heart as I thought of my Darci. I really did have fantasies about her. The next day we rode in a four-seat tour company’s boat up the Amazon and spent an somewhat authentic day and night in a tourist hut.
But, in real life the sexual dream never did come true. Such conscious ironies, with their unhappy realities, have bedeviled and inspired novelists of every ilk. Hemingway failed to win his army nurse after his World War I injury on the Italian front, but he used her as the model for his heroine in A Farewell to Arms. At the end, she fictionally dies in childbirth. My fantasy woman has the ecstatic pleasure of floating down the Amazon to a happiness-ever-after with the heroic protagonist (me) in her arms.
Left: Hemingway with his real army nurse,
Agnes von Kurowsky, “Catherine” in AFTA.
Right: The real “Darcy Denby” in our tourist
hut in the Amazon.
Helen Hays and Garry Cooper in the Hemingway movie.
“Darcy Denby” in the Amazon, crossing a bridge, her back to me
on the cover I designed for my fiction.
Text near the end of Rio Amazonas:
FICTION: Let’s pretend. Blue morphos….Two travelers, E. and D. will flow swiftly deeper into unknown jungle toward the wide River itself….Blue paradise clouds of morphos glittering ahead, flecks of flickering blue wings shining and flashing in clusters, shimmering flights, flowing, filling air in iridescent sheets; flights of angels….
TRUE: I am obsessed with a moment she had her back to me. We were on our jungle walk, she ahead of me and thus facing away; about to move deeper into the undergrowth; suspended above an abyss and stepping across a simple log bridge: this is my Rio Amazonas. Some say that souls are caught in photos: surreptitiously I captured her in a Kodachrome.
In New York I had the slide enlarged to a color print. I cropped the print, overlaying it with my carefully designed title and author, and had that book cover mockup color-Xeroxed. Now at my desk, with colored pencils, I work on this photocopy, enhancing the image’s hues closer to my graphic design’s desire. And thus with it—and with her—I have my will: I have my equivalent.
Ah, yes, isn’t fiction wonderful ?
Selections from the Program Guides. Recorded in 1964-1965 for syndication by Hartwest Productions but “lost” for decades, over 250 programs surfaced and began being marketed by www.RadioSpirits.com, starting in 2005. These CDs of nearly unheard (because nearly un-broadcast), recorded Jean Shepherd programs began appearing. I’ve written the program notes for all nine of the four-and-eight CD boxed sets so far released. (I receive no remuneration beyond the original fee I received for some of the latter of the nine.) Here’s a short selection of those comments.
(The Hartwest syndicated material is now in the hands of: http://www.filmsaroundtheworld.com/Jean Shepherd Radio.php and is being sold at the price of $14.99 per program by them and by www.amazon.com. They are produce-on-demand and have no program notes. (I’ve had no input on these). I bought Volume 4 because I wanted to hear what he had to say about his cooking. The rest I’d like to hear but not at that price.)
-Radio Spirits-from the program notes set
The X Random Factor
These syndicated programs are quality Shepherd, with all the style and verve of his live broadcasts. The listener might note a few minor indicators of something a bit different, none of which is in any way negative. You’ll hear that his “Bahn Frei” theme music on these Hartwest programs does not have the mysterious Shepherd “Ahhhh” at the very end that was a fixture of his shows for over a dozen years—the syndicated show music ends purely as Eduard Strauss intended. In addition, very frequently over the years Shepherd used fragments of usually quirky music to set a mood, to talk around, to play with—either in words or to accompany with kazoo, jew’s harp, nose flute, or head thumping. In the syndicated shows heard thus far, he seems to have more carefully pre-sketched (but not in any way scripted) the nature of each particular show. And within that sketch, he appears to have more diligently chosen and orchestrated into the whole, excerpts of a less quirky music, which also provide more of a focus to the general tenor of that program.
-Radio Spirits-from the program notes set
In “Foretelling the Future,” Shepherd philosophically—and oh so humorously—refutes the widely held beliefs that life and commercial products are always improving and predictable. He has fun denying the idea of progress. Related to that, his ever-present belief is that predicting the future does not work because our ideals and ideas do not jibe with reality. Human illusions, foibles, and impenetrable human complexity abound—all of these confound the “experts” in their attempts to pin down the future. What joy Shepherd has in life’s absurd unpredictability: “That jagged, peculiar, Yorkshire pudding of existence, the raisins and the grapes and the oysters and all the rest of it. The lobsters and the clams and the cabbages and the kings. All floating like some enormous mulligatawny stew.…” Listen—participate with Shep in his delight in all of life. Shepherd knew that we all have various personal styles and foibles within us, and he did not exclude himself.
Part 2 to come.
(I’ve written what’s below in as artsy a manner as I can.)
For years on the air, Jean Shepherd occasionally spoke negatively about dogs—especially about how owners would let them defecate on the sidewalk and not scoop the poop. I don’t think he’d ever owned a dog at that time.
In one of his books, he wrote and published a burlesque titled “S.P.L.A.T!” Writing as though in a dream and being interviewed on TV (a medium he demeaned) by “intellectual” celebrities of the day such as Steve Allen and David Susskind (both of whom he demeaned in the burlesque), he was asked about the meaning of the name of the organization he represented. After several pages of snide prevarication, he responded: “It stands for Society for the Prevention and Limitation of Animal Turds.”
Our previous dog died years ago, and we decided to wait a while before getting another. Within a very little while (about a week), I suggested that we go to the North Shore Animal League (“just to look,” as I put it.)
We asked if they had any puppies. The young fellow brought out two pups in arms from the same litter, one small, short-haired and brown, the other dark tan and longer-haired. I pointed to the longer-haired one: “That’s the dog for us.” Allison and I and our sons Evan, ten, and Drew, eight, each held him and checked him out. We filled out the paperwork and brought him home.
Evan, Drew, and Augie as Pups
We adopted him on August 1 and Allison named him August, aka Augie, Augustus, Augie Doggie Bergmann. Augie slept in bed with Allison and me for the rest of his life. For the last year or two, we realized that Augie was really getting old—he’d had to have many of his teeth pulled, he was almost blind and deaf, and sometimes walked into things. We lifted him off our bed in the morning and lifted him onto our bed at night. During the day, mostly, he slept and I spent time on the sofa holding him close. He began eating not three, but only two cans of what our vet recommended–Mighty Dog. As an appetizer, with each meal, we gave him several heaping tablespoons of vanilla yogurt along with the Mighty, which we heated a bit to increase the aroma.
Now almost eighteen (yes, 18), Augie’s health had deteriorated. He would wobble on his feet, pace back and forth and stare into space until we put him on the sofa for another nap. We didn’t know if the pacing was a sign of distress. One early evening he collapsed. Allison, Evan, and I rushed him to a 24-hour emergency pet service where they examined him, tested, and X-rayed him. The vet said the pacing could be dementia and that with steroid shots, we could keep him alive for maybe a week or a month. In the consultation room Augie was totally unresponsive, and for the first time ever, we heard him whimper and moan. We agreed that the time had come and we cried and held each other after we gently stroked Augie.
Last photo of Augie Doggie Bergmann
with my hand caressing him.
(Photo by Evan Bergmann)
After Allison, Evan, and I left the pet emergency care facility, my text message to son Drew, now living in Colorado, reported: “We said goodbye to Augie and are driving home crying.”
1981 dedication in A Fistful of Fig Newtons by Jean Shepherd:
“To Leigh and Daphne—Who share my bed, my board, and walks along the sea. May they never regret it.”
(Most people who read that dedication must think that Shep lived, walked by the sea, and bedded two women.)
In 1982 Daphne, Leigh’s dog, appeared in Shepherd’s PBS drama, “Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters”
In 1988, Shepherd’s film Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss,
features the family dog, Fuzzhead (played by Daphne).
Daphne (aka Fuzzhead)
I think that between the early 1970s and 1981,
Shep fell in love with Daphne the Dog.