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My Shep-quest is never-ending. Working and networking go onward and upward. Seeking, gathering, creating, promoting—however I can. Why? Spreading the word about Shep for its own sake; expanding the historical record about him; the thrill of the chase through networking and having unexpectedly enjoyable adventures; and let’s not forget the possible financial gain and ego-enhancement via book, or play, or film, or television.
Every day on the computer I check www.flicklives.com, the shepgroup email, and facebook-Shep-group chats and ebay for some previously unknown item, and I sometimes search a book site or http://www.google.com for Shepherd’s name in hope of some new gold panning out. Indeed, at times, I encounter a new nugget.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS galore
As of this writing, no new material has come forth from Shep’s will—all the known radio, TV, film, and writing has been available for years before Shepherd’s death. And the ACS musical, good as it is, derives from the movie, which comes from the printed stories, which come from Shep’s spoken work on the radio.
In mid-2006 a newspaper article featured the promotional efforts of Spalding Gray’s widow: a play, a CD, and a documentary.
a documentary, a play, what else?
One wishes that someone with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject and who has power and access to media would do the same for Shepherd. A proposed sitcom has not happened, but it would’ve had the mere ghost of a chance of having some value—it probably would have been written and produced by people without sufficient understanding of Shepherd’s wide-ranging and complex work and life, probably on the same dismal level as most sitcoms.
I push for news and I wait—like the kid who’d sent a quarter and a proof of purchase and now daily checks the mail for the equivalent of the secret decoder pin—like little Ralphie Parker.
I was the kid who sent a quarter
checking the mail daily for–
The Atom Bomb Ring!
One never knows what will turn up, what major recognition of our hero! A while ago I was surprised that recently deceased Harvey Pekar, creator of the serious, multi-issue autobiographical graphic novel, American Splendor, has his own rather diminutive bobblehead. I wonder how he felt about that. (I gather that it was produced for the opening celebration of the movie based on American Splendor.) But wouldn’t it be a nice recognition if our hero Jean Parker Shepherd could be so-honored? I know I’d want one to add to my Shepherd shrine, and if I know ol’ Shep, I’d expect him to do two things: conceal his secret delight; gather every-one he could find and smash their bloody slob-art bodies to smithereens.
Jean P. Shepherd Bobblehead–
In my dreams.
As I quest, I imagine a scowling Shep himself pacing and fuming from the heights of heaven or the depths of hell, praying that I’ll find the holy grail of early radio recordings. Will I receive the call from possible fans such as Bob Dylan, Dave Brubeck, Woody Allen, and who knows who else? Maybe a call from TV-land or from Hollywood saying yes, Kevin Spacey wants to play Shep in a Major Motion Picture—yes, yes, yes! All dreams.
J. S. K. S
Never the end concerning Jean Shepherd. Special announcements to come? Even more episodes to come? What has the picaro learned, and will he finally tie it all up into a neat bundle of profound truths? Listeners, the baton has been lifted—kazoos at the ready! Listen to that announcer’s deep baritone: “Don’t touch that dial!” Bahn Frei theme music starts here. Remember it’s a polka, so get up on your hind legs and dance.
“…let’s go out into the fields dressed as shepherds,
as we decided to. Perhaps we shall find the lady Dulcinea behind some hedge,
disenchanted and as pretty as a picture.”
—Sancho Panza to Don Quixote
in the final chapter
of their book of knight errantry.
DRESSED AS SHEPHERDS
Fields, Shepherds, Sancho, Rocinante, the Lady Dulcinea disenchanted, pretty as a picture. And of course, the grail. “This glorious quest.” “With my last ounce of courage….” Can you hear triumphant theme music? Is it from Man of LaMancha or is it that equally stirring piece of intoxicating inspiration, “Bahn Frei”?
Sancho Panza said that the great highway to glory looked to him just like the road to a little village where one could buy chickens cheap. Cheap chickens as ancillary compensations? Okay, you arm-twisted me into admitting it: the highways of the internet and the byways in the real world I travel by snail mail, phone, and loose-knees-assisted shanks’ mare; the peasants and lords and ladies I meet who assist me and give me gold to present in posts—the stuff I learn and experience along the way, are a joy. I enjoy the nuggets. Shep stories, Shep stories, Shep stories—the good, the bad and the sad, but I hope, all entertaining and informative. Essential for the historical record of Jean Parker Shepherd’s creative career and the quest it engenders. I get great pleasure out of this quest. It’s worth any number of my other potential creations that will never be. Ah—the thrill, ah the realization that the quest, the journey itself, with all its intermediate little defeats and triumphs, is indeed the best and ongoing treasure of the enterprise! Yes, it’s a good journey in the land of Shep. For all I desire that damn grail, “the journey is the destination.” See, I’ve said it, you Infernal Gremlins in the Works—no longer any need to torment me with denial! Destiny, you stingy, double-crossing son of a bitch, now that I’ve said that I might even be able to live without it, fork over that Holiest of Holies!
Come forth, Unknown Specter,
and dump your treasures into my sweaty lap.
Hey, man, you got tapes?
A comment of Adam Thirlwell in his The Delighted States, a book about the sometimes combative relationship between translation, style, and art. He is discussing a lecture on that subject that Vladimir Nabokov gave in 1937: “Life—this was Nabokov’s final point, in exile, in Paris—life, this succession of failures and mistakes, at certain visionary moments was structured with the deft formal properties of art.” Nabokov hunting
I hope that out of Jean Shepherd’s disasters and artistic triumphs, the gods-of-fate have been at least a bit artistic.
Were Jean Shepherd’s disasters and artistic triumphs worth it for him? Life short, Art long? Faulkner said art was worth any number of old ladies. Was Faulkner serious or was it a tasteless joke? What about any number of Shepherd’s friends and lovers, wives and children? Worth it? I’m not going to answer that one.
But how about us, milling around on this Great Playing Field of Life? We’ve discovered that Shepherd’s Art is not just a coldly calculated construction; that his Enigmas can coalesce into more solid figments than we’d believed possible; that this goofy Game we’re in, in all its unexpected surprises and connections–almost as if it had a mind of its own–had launched, as Shepherd might have it, a nutty fruitcake of existence careening at each of us across life’s shaggy infield grass. And that some of this phantasm even makes sense. Sure, as we lunge to make the catch we may bobble it a bit, but we snag the nutty confection going away. In the middle of our leap we twist into a 180 and sling the baked goods straight and true to first like a Yankee shortstop (Derek, in my mind, I see ya doin’ it).
in a 180,
slinging it fast and true.
So we grasp some of the fundamentals. We make the play (at least this time) because all our sensibilities are attuned to that Voice in the Night and we’ve managed to keep our knees loose.
Shep, ya did good!
My publisher once asked me if there were enough good Shepherd stories about baseball to make a book. I’m rather sure that (only considering the audios we now know of) there are not enough of any kind of actual stories to make up a book. There are Shep’s occasional comments; there are short bits such as the three variations on his “old man” heckling a Yankee, who then hits a home run, almost hitting him; there’s the one of him playing ball for the United Brethren team, there are a couple of Shepherd monologs in which he complements the New York Mets playing ability and winning the World Series. etc. But even if all those and other descriptive pieces were included, there is not enough for a full-length book.
Anyone looking for Shepherd baseball stories would surely clamor for the one titled “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game of the Giants Versus the Dodgers, Tropical Bush League.” That’s the one in which Shep and his fellow soldiers construct a baseball diamond in the tropics, play a game in the “raw,'” the nude, because of the heat, and are seen by the General’s daughter. He told that one on the air and then published a version of it in the May 1971 issue of Playboy. I would have included it and the “Troop Train Ernie” story (published as “The Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie, the Arkansas Traveler” in Shep’s book A Fistful of Fig Newtons), and possibly other of the few army stories from Playboy in my Shep’s Army, but I was told that some day the Shepherd Estate might publish a book of his previously published-but-not-collected-in-book-form stories. Don’t ask me what or when–I have no further details. (But it does bring up the question of why Shep could never get his army stories published by his publisher, the gigantic publishing conglomerate, Doubleday–which must have made lots of dough on his first two books. No known logical answer there, folks.)
As I don’t have permission to publish “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game” story, I thought it might be interesting to quote a bit from a broadcast version of it with a bit from the printed version to see what Shep did, in part, to alter the spoken word for Playboy, where he had more freedom of expression and maybe even where he might have thought that Playboy readers would expect a more immediately harsh and militaristic start and some unexpurgated army lingo.
As the radio version came first, I begin with it at the beginning. One will note that on the radio–especially at The Limelight–
with its audience–where this version originated, Shepherd is more conversational and can give more extemporaneous background thoughts about army life. On the radio in those days, of course one could not even imply a “bad” word of any sort. He sets up the scene of hollow and enervating life in the tropics nicely, as he does a little riff on one of his favorite themes about the military–the incredible boredom of it all (especially on the home front).
Excerpt of the baseball-in-the-nude story
June 18, 1966 at the Limelight
I’m in the army, see. You want to hear an army story? You know, I’ll tell you why the army is such a great place to tell stories about. Because this is the circumstances in the raw. And that ain’t all you see in the raw. See a lot of things in the raw, and that’s what this story’s about, see.
I’m in this company, and we’re way down in the boondocks. We’ve been in these boondocks for a hundred years. And the only excitement that we ever felt was once in a while you could hear an alligator off in the swamps, calling for his mate. You ever hear an alligator calling for his mate? It’s really thrilling.
You’re lying there in your sack, see, it’s two in the morning. You hear the mosquitoes. And you hear the sound of your radar set. We had a radar set. That is what our company did, see, it was a radar company. And twenty-four hours a day this radar set was going aaaaaaaaaaaaa, and the big beaming arm would sweep over us. You’d hear it going past you in the night. Over your head it would go. And you’d hear the mosquitoes. And you hear the sound of this motor going. and our world was just one long sea of boredom.
Have you ever been so bored you could taste it? Well, I’ll tell you how boredom tastes. Have you ever put a nickel in your mouth? Yea, put a nickel in your mouth and hold it there for about three minutes. That is the peculiarly active, metallic taste of boredom. Tastes just like that. And after a while you can sit there, you know–feel it.
And the whole company is just sitting there. And once in a while somebody gets promoted to Pfc. And that’s a big day, see. We can all go down and watch him sew on his stripes….
You can feel it, see, the way Shepherd begins the story by setting the mood of boredom–which will soon be interrupted by the thrill of doing constructive work that will conclude in a positive, enjoyable result–the making of a baseball diamond to play on in the jungle.
In contrast, for the printed page in Playboy, Shepherd chooses to begin with the harsh (printed) sound of the sergeant’s gruff orders. After all, when all ya got is a story wit words, ya gotta grab dose Playboy viewers by da ears–if not by the cojones.
“GET THE LEAD OUT OF YER ASS, YOU GUYS! FALL IN!”
“That makes eight hunnert ‘n’ninety-six,” Gasser whispered under his breath.
“Eight-hundred ninety-six what?” I whispered out of the side of my mouth.
“I been countin’. Ever since Basic.”
Company K instantly fell silent. Only the steady drone of our Signal Corps search radar broke the desolate stillness. But that didn’t count since it had hummed day and night, 24 hours on end, until it had become part of the stillness….
I prefer the spoken version over the written one–with printed words he describes, but on the air he evokes: “aaaaaaaaaaaaa, and the big beaming arm would sweep over us. You’d hear it going past you in the night. Over your head it would go.”
The printed story then adds a few off-color utterances: “Kee-rist, what diddlyshit.” and then describes how the army, to lift morale, decrees that: “A program of morale-building activities is hereby ordered. Athletic-type equipment will be furnished through quartermaster channels….” They will clear part of the jungle and construct a baseball diamond on which to play. With the ball field built there is joy in Mudville (Company K) as they begin a game. Of course, as we know, disaster strikes–in the form of the General’s daughter, who innocently comes to watch and encounters naked male bodies sweatin’ in the midday sun.
Back at the Company area they get the bad news–the field will be immediately returned to the elemental wilderness from which it came. And Sergeant Kowalski added his nickel’s worth of hell:
“Aw right, you bastards. You blew it. I have often stated that if you played ball with me, I would play ball with you. We will now begin my ball game. Immediately following chow, we will have a company GI party. We will clean every inch of this area. For three hours, I will see nothing but elbows and asses.”
Company K was back in business. Baseball season was over. the long hot winter had begun.
So endith the Playboy printed story.
The Limelight story ends rather differently. Of course the troops have to unmake the ball field, but on the air, Shepherd continues. He comments that in later years, he found it difficult to tell this story to anyone. No one would believe it anyway. One day he is in the Veteran’s Administration office signing up for the allowance given to honorably discharged military personnel, and there is the first lieutenant he remembered from that day when the daughter of the general had seen the team naked:
“Did ya ever make captain?”
He looked at me for a long look. He says, “You’re a third basement.”
I said, “That’s right.”
I said, “did you ever make captain?”
A long, pregnant pause. “No.”
I settled back.
He said, “Did you ever make buck sergeant?”
[They continued the little dialog.] Until the first lieutenant said: “I wonder if it ever caused that chick any sleep.”
She’s probably been dreaming about that for years! And I sat back and I said, “I’ve been thinking about that once in a while myself.”
He said, “Yep, I’ll bet that was the greatest ballgame she ever saw.”
I said, “Yep.”
And then there was another long pause and he said, “I’ll bet nobody believes it if you ever tell them the story.”
I said, “Yep, I tried to tell it to a chick the other night.”
He says, “Well, I tried to tell it to my mother.” He says, “I just couldn’t, you know?”
I said, “Yep.”
I never saw him again. And let me tell you the funny thing. The last time I told this story, five minutes after I went off the air, the phone rang and there’s this voice at the other end and it’s a female voice and she says, “Hello?”
And I says, “Hello.”
She says, “Were you the third baseman?”
Of course this could not work in print, but only live before a Limelight audience or even before any live radio audience. The surprised pleasure in the Limelight’s audience laughing enhances the ending–as it’s only really effective with that live audience response, I like that.
The suggestion Shepherd makes by incorporating his supposed phone conversation after the basic story has ended, is that this is not fiction but a real story that a real chick has been a real part of and has called him about it. Do you believe that? I think that was a clever and amusing way to end this fiction–better than the downer that ends the Playboy version.
I do believe that each version accomplishes it artistic goal appropriately for its medium.
Hurrah for live radio performance!
The baseball season
Shepherd loved baseball and referred to it in many contexts over the years on the radio, on television in a “Jean’ Shepherd’s America” episode, and in a filmed documentary devoted to the Chicago White Sox.
Radio humorist, author, and multi-faceted creative force, Jean Shepherd, loved baseball above all other sports, and seeing it as a metaphor for life as we know it, loved it for what it signified for him and all of us. His belief that life requires good offensive as well as defensive maneuvering is illustrated in the movie A Christmas Story (which he created and narrated throughout), as every idea and action ends in disaster or its near equivalent–just a few examples include the kid who gets his BB gun for Christmas and nearly shoots his eye out, the longed-for secret decoder only decodes a “crummy commercial,” and dogs run off with the family’s Christmas dinner. Shepherd’s view is that life needs to be regarded with wry suspicion every step of the way, and the movie provides examples of his favorite rule for dealing with it, a metaphor taken especially from baseball: “keep your knees loose.”
Throughout his radio career he’d repeat the saying, meaning by it that life will frequently slap fast ground balls toward you across the uneven, rocky infield of your existence, and you’d better not be rigid, but be loose-kneed and ready to quickly dodge, or better, lunge to your right to glove the incoming missiles—or they will probably take bad bounces and give you a fat lip. He had a great joy in his life, but he knew that the Management Upstairs would eventually choose not to pick up his option, and that the price of conditional joy was eternal vigilance and loose knees.
Despite his world-view that argued that he’d never win a batting title, Shepherd’s involvement with baseball was much more widespread and successful than most of his well-informed enthusiasts were aware of. He even claimed to have been a professional ballplayer in his early days, but that tale is unlikely to be substantiated. The closest we’ve come is to learn that his kid brother, Randy, had played at a high level in the Cincinnati Reds organization, and Shepherd is said to have sometimes latched onto and honed his brother’s stories of sporting exploits for his own storytelling purposes. But even so, Shepherd had the skill in managing his life and his creative efforts to metaphorically bunt for a base hit, inside-out a swing that punched the ball to the opposite field, and even sometimes loft one over the fence.
Shepherd’s stories, anecdotes, and commentary on the radio usually illustrated his view of life, starting with supposed incidents from his childhood, frequently told to make a point and often straying far enough from the truth to be considered bald-faced lies. That the local team, the Chicago White Sox, were perpetual losers at the time, gave veracity to his symbolic stories and attitude toward human woe. Using his father, known as “the old man,” as a foil and frequent subject of subtle derision, Shepherd had at least three versions of one such family legend. In one, Shep and the old man were watching a Chicago White Sox vs. Yankees game from the left field stands, his father mercilessly heckling Yankee pitcher Marius Russo to the extent that Russo, usually a very weak hitter, blasted a home run in retaliation that not only won the game but “almost decapitated the old man!”
A similar story, this one in what looks to be the strictly historical portion of a 1987 White Sox video documentary, has Shepherd telling of Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in All Star Game history, the ball, naturally, just missing his father, who went lunging for it and fell empty-handed into a woman’s lap. The third story, this one also the result of his father’s heckling, has Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig aiming a home run ball and just missing him. This version of the tale was well known enough—and believed—for a radio interviewer to ask Shepherd to tell about his father and Lou Gehrig, to which Shepherd responded, “Don’t forget, I’m a storyteller, not a historian.”
Continuing his multi-faceted chronology into young adulthood, Shepherd tells stories of playing for a ball team named United Brethren and one summer broadcasting the play-by-play for an Ohio minor league team, the Toledo Mudhens. These may well be so, but one might well question the truth of his story published in Playboy, May 1971. This tale, “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game of the Giants Versus the Dodgers, Tropical Bush League,” is about his days in the Signal Corps, stationed in the subtropical wilds of Florida. Shepherd tells of a game in a secluded jungle field between his fellow inductees, the day being so hot and humid that the two entire teams stripped down naked. This would have served well if an army vehicle hadn’t pulled up, carrying a surprised but maybe delighted spectator, a general’s daughter. Our man Shepherd apparently led an exciting youth, with many fascinating moments, but one believes all the details at one’s peril.
Years after his military service, when Shepherd moved from the Chicago area, lived in New York City, and broadcast from station WOR, he continued his lifelong passion for baseball. Fellow WOR broadcaster Barry Farber remembers seeing Shepherd come into their shared office space with all his baseball equipment, exhilarated, just in from playing a game, who knows where, in Manhattan. Though Shepherd never forgot his fondness for the perpetually trounced Chicago White Sox, he began observing, critiquing, and rooting, not for the Yankees, who, it seemed to him at the time, always won, but for those world famous underdogs, the New York Mets. He continued recognizing “the American pastime” as a long-running parable for our lives. In September of 1969 he spent a program talking about the Mets game he’d seen the night before, and discussing the unavoidable problem in all our lives of winning and losing—how do we manage to deal with it? The Met’ struggles just seemed the perfect example of all our human inadequacies and foibles. In mid-October he devoted another program to them, this one dealing with that amazing happenstance—the Mets had won the World Series! Shepherd was overjoyed—he commented that it had not been luck but the result of the high degree of skill with which they’d played. Heaven knows how he reconciled his usually negative attitude with this miraculously positive outcome!
Sometimes Shepherd talked of lesser baseball matters and sometimes of the larger picture—baseball as major metaphor. Sometimes there just seemed to be good magic in the air of baseball, such as that which had enveloped the Amazin’ Mets, while at other times there were obviously gremlins in the works. A recent find gives evidence of gremlins, devoted to denying a rightful place to those other perpetual losers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and denying rightful acknowledgment for their great accomplishment. Regarding appropriate acknowledgment, recently an old book emerged from obscurity, published, diabolically, in both Shepherd’s home state of Indiana, and in Brooklyn’s state of New York: The Scrapbook History of Baseball.
This book consists of many hundreds of photocopies of entire news articles about baseball from 1876 through 1974. Of this multitude of high points and mind-deadening trivia, for game seven of the 1955 World Series, a one-half inch by less than three inch box score is the book’s only indicator that, in the Boys of Summer’s entire history as the “Wait till next year kids,” the Brooklyn Dodgers had won their only Series.
(As a member of the Pratt Institute
ROTC in Brooklyn, I got to march
onto the middle of the outfield and
salute the flag on opening day, 1956,
when they raised the World Series
flag for the first time–oh, glory days!)
The other book-gremlin must have bedeviled baseball fan Jean Shepherd, because the only words besides his two-page foreword to this “scrapbook,” is the half-page acknowledgment of sources and the source listings themselves, presumably compiled by the book’s four listed authors. That’s worth repeating: four presumed experts in the history of baseball (with a blind spot regarding the 1955 World Series), who wrote nothing in the 320-page tome except the acknowledgment half-page, are glorified as “authors.” How does one define “author”? Ah well! The tiny text on the dust jacket just above the four expert names, says, “Foreword by Jean Shepherd.” Did Shepherd tear out his hair and jump up and down in a rage at the unfairness of it all, or did he keep his knees loose?
Maybe Shepherd kept his cool because he knew well what it was like not to receive sufficient credit for one’s work. He probably just chalked it up to one more lousy call by life’s Umpire-in-Charge. Ya can’t win ‘em all. Each year near the beginning of baseball season he’d read “Casey at the Bat,” commenting on humanity’s hopes and failures, one year half-jokingly describing the poem as “probably as close to a true American classic as you can get.”
His special perception often led to unexpected truths. For example, when Astroturf first appeared under a domed stadium in Texas, he decried the artificiality of the matter by noting that the blocking off of a natural phenomenon, wind, lessened the need for skill in an outfielder’s tracking and catching a fly ball and also in a pitcher’s ability to manipulate the path of a thrown ball. As he put it, “Actually, they’ve taken the blood out of the game now.” On another occasion, when he had the chance to speak several times in a Babe Ruth TV documentary, he commented, undoubtedly having his own manipulation of truth and fiction in mind, that the public’s erroneously believing that the Babe “predicted” a homerun shot, was, at worst, only a harmless myth. Shepherd’s take on baseball and life was observed by a New York Times reporter during Shep’s radio commentary for the Armed Forces Network during the 1964 World Series. The writer who interviewed him wrote of Shepherd’s love of “seeing things as few others see them.” The article continued, “Thus, though he was only one among 67,101 customers at Yankee Stadium, he spent the afternoon looking, not only at the players on the field, but also the players in relationship to the customers, and both groups in relationship to the stadium, and the stadium in relationship to Western civilization.”
Yes, for Jean Shepherd, baseball and all other human activities
are irrevocably entwined. As he said after one commentary
on baseball and life, as the ball flies into the outfield,
“just keep your knees loose, look up into that sun,
go back there as it’s drifting back towards the fence.
Make sure that you judge for the windage.
Drift a little to your left.
And just stand there and wait.”
WHITE SOX FAN