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THE COMPULSIVE I WANT, I WANT, I WANT IT STORY
I want a lot of Shep stuff for lots of reasons. To know more about Shepherd, to add to the historical record, both for itself and so I can publish it as part of my work on Shep, to be able to just look at the material and know that it’s mine there on the shelf or hanging from the ceiling, to just be able to think about my Shep stuff anytime I daydream—the typical obsessive collector.
The two-sided sign found at Snow Pond
I want that EXCELSIOR YOU FATHEAD sign from his vacation home at Snow Pond, Maine and that Audubon book with the Jean words and drawing to Leigh.
And I want to rummage through every last scrap of Shep-stuff they have stored away. I want some of that salvage material from Sanibel Island—just to look at and touch and know they are a personal part of Shepherd. And what goodies in attics or compost piles, worthy of dissemination, lie crumbling to ruin?
I want the travel journals that Shepherd said he kept of all his trips around the globe. Do they still exist? I imagine them as thick, hardbound black sketchbooks filled with commentary, insights, and maybe even drawings made on-site. What treasures, related to his great love of experiencing life in new places. What major treasures unto themselves and as private documents of his mind at work regarding one of his favorite enthusiasms—taking part in everything, everywhere he could—a passion of his that directly connected to his profound belief that one must experience to the fullest, as much of life as possible.
And those damn tapes of his overnight shows. Oh, jazzmen, camp-owners, salvager, oh, old flames (real-life loves and mere dedicated listeners alike), oh, even you bloody curators of middle-Europa Dracula Museums—come forth from your closets and crypts!
Emotion Outranks Technique 1 of 2
As a general rule regarding my enthusiasms in the arts, I tend to give some preference to emotional expression over technical agility. Understand that the expression must be backed with some facility to perform the act—not just awkwardly scatter emotion willy-nilly. Thus, my preferences might include Maria Callas, Bob Dylan’s singing of his own music, flamenco guitarist Diego del Gastor, and artists such as American modernist John Marin and English modernist Ivan Hitchens. (Marin and Hitchens Artsy to come.)
Callas, Dylan, Diego del Gastor
I know and understand little of opera, but I can appreciate that, even though it’s generally agreed that Maria Callas lacked the highest technical ability, her emotional/artistic ability prevailed.
Joan Baez, in her August 17, 1963 Forest Hills concert I attended, brought out a scraggly guy I’d never heard of and he began to sing what almost seemed like a one-note song. But it altered a bit at the end of each line in a rough-hewn and intriguing way, and by the time he’d completed his rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” I was captivated—the next day I bought the only albums of Bob Dylan available, his first two. (I had heard others’ recordings of a couple of Dylan songs, but didn’t know who wrote them.) To this day, hearing “Peter, Paul, and Mary” or “The Byrds” singing Dylan songs, I shiver with dislike at their vanilla renditions that lack all empathy for what they render compared to the authentic Dylan. (I have the impression that Peter, Paul, and Mary are heartfelt activists for many good causes, but, for me, their performances don’t project that.) Dylan is not exactly a heart-felt performer–but for me, he has artistic integrity grasped tightly in his fists–and vocal chords. I enjoy few non-Dylan singers of Dylan songs except for Joan Baez. (Yes, and of course such performances as Jimi Hendrix doing “All Along the Watchtower.”)
I enjoy flamenco—especially guitar renditions. I enjoy the complex and rapid technical ability of Carlos Montoya, Sabicas, Paco de Lucia, Manitas de Plata, and their like. But then I discovered (in a book written by an American!) an artist without their flashy and captivating theatrics, one who played a slower, deliberate, more profound, more emotional flamenco in a style that seems more authentic to the origins and meaning of the art. Diego del Gastor lived in a southern Spanish town and didn’t care to record or concertize or tour or become a celebrity. Diego did not play with groups one might see on television, groups where the female dancers wear elaborate polka dot costumes, where ignorant tour-groups are brought–where I’ve seen Granada gypsies perform in their caves decorated with shiny brass pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. Diego was a true master artist. He had what in Spanish is called corazon, he had duende. He would pick up any old, tattered guitar at hand and play it, bringing out its soul. He taught a bit, he sensitively accompanied traditional singers and dancers–as is the flamenco guitarist tradition–and played for his friends in small, nearly private gatherings known as “juergas.” Now he is gone, but fortunately, a few times he had allowed himself to be recorded at these small gatherings–one can see and hear him play on several YouTube videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvOIri5vuZw. Only in one of those videos, during a traditional flamenco celebration, does one see him on a stage.) I’d never seen him live, so videos–and audios captured from them–are all I possess of him. Diego has integrity. He is authentic. He enthralls!
Now I watch and listen to no other flamencos.
Speaking of insight, I am whistling along through the dark through a gigantic, insane, Atlantic gale, a hailstorm, through Maine, and on either side is the primeval wilderness. They really have it there. You see this giant evergreen forest and once in a while a deer comes shooting out of the woods and wildly goes to the other side.
The wind is screaming up and down the road, and I see, as you always see in Maine, a little place carved out of the woods, and here is a miserable-looking shack that’s not the classical log cabin you know. If it were you’d feel better about it, but these places look like somebody has gone around the county collecting a lot of old Pepsi Cola signs and nailed them together, and they’ve gotten themselves an abandoned Oldsmobile Rocket 88 that has been dragged to the backyard and has been slowly falling apart.
These Maine woods, by American standards, are truly the wilderness. Are you aware that there are large sections of Maine that are till inaccessible by any form of normal transportation? There’s about a third of that state that is not inhabited at all. If you want to get to certain places you fly in. You just have to fly in a little plane with floats, and set down on a lake and that’s about it. Nothing there. Howard Johnsons hasn’t made it, nothing is out there yet, and there’s a vast untapped area for dance halls and beer parlors and everything.
There are signs, though, that America is everywhere. That is one thing that has made this country totally inexplicable to other countries—you might say, the homogenous quality of it. If you travel two-hundred miles in any direction in Central Europe, you’ve gone through at least three languages. The architecture changes, the religions change, even the looks on peoples’ faces change as you go a couple of hundred miles, even sometimes ten miles in one direction. You stop at the little border fence. Achtung! The guy comes over in a uniform and he checks your passport. You go into the country ten feet! And everybody’s got a different look on their faces. The food tastes different, you get sick a different way. It’s an eerie thing. So in Europe, this is the way it is.
But you can travel three thousand miles in America and find the same knot-heads. All over. We’re all made alike. What did it? Who knows? A lot of things.
The coaxial cable, of course, is the most obvious. Here in this darkness I’m riding along and I look into this little shack, this little house stuck in the woods. The income of this family is probably about seven dollars a year. Poverty is rampant in many of the far-northern areas. But every little shack throughout Maine has a gigantic antenna in the air, a better antenna system than most of the top radar stations had during World War II, just to get “The Beverly Hillbillies.” There through this little window, you can see the flickering blue light is on and you see a couple of huddled heads there looking at this thing. They‘re in touch with the infinite. They’re paying obeisance to whatever gods are out there.
There’s a strange sense of unreality you get coming from the world where all that jazz originates, that comes down the pike on the cable to the place where people are really living. They’re really having trouble—it’s tough to get the bacon there. They’ve got real problems. You should see Saturday nights.
I’d love to do a documentary on the kind of discontent that is going on in the little towns in America. That almost every last chick in America in little towns like Waterville, Maine, almost everyone is just waiting for that instant when she can cut out and go to New York. I’m talking about the social discontent that exists among the girls. Primarily the women want to go.
I want to say this about Maine. Coming back is always a problem. You see everything anew, briefly. You see how unreal most of the things that are being done on the air about America are. You hear people being interviewed all day long who have written plays, who have done movies. And it has no real relationship at all with the life lived by a guy in Oakland, Maine. None of the stuff they’re writing, doing, saying, anything! Nothing!
Gateway to the Belgrade Lakes Region
(which includes Snow Pond Lake, site of Shep’s house)
What is it? It’s become a separate entity in our world. This whole business of show biz, writing, the whole jazz. And you find as you get out there, that the great problems that surge through the minds of everybody up and down McDougal Street and over at the 92nd Street Y have not even touched anybody. The influence doesn’t extend twenty feet the other side of the Hudson! It begins to fade out at about West Morris, New Jersey.
The discontent is becoming evident, the terrible discontent that is felt by peasants everywhere, simple people who have somehow glimpsed some kind of strange rite that is being held off in the distance. You find this true in outlying districts in Italy, for example. There’s a great discontent about wanting to get to Rome and be part of some big ceremony that’s happening in the Vatican. It’s a religious thing, you see. Make the pilgrimage, go to Mecca. And everyone today wants to go to New York, and, if possible, take up residence in Mecca.
I want to describe a scene that I ran into in a little town in north-central Maine. This little tableau. I’ve spent a lot of time in small towns in the Midwest so I know something about small town life.
They have a law that no liquor can be sold after one o’clock, Sunday morning. I went into this place, about six-feet square, just before one o’clock and two guys are wildly making pizza and Italian sandwiches, and out in front all the local males have arrived in their ’46 Mercurys, in their ’51 Hudsons and they’re pouring into this place to buy beer! They’re piling the beer on and in three minutes it’s going to close. No more beer. This is the thing I couldn’t believe. Out of ten guys who came in, I never saw such insane drunkenness in my life. Insanely pie-eyed. It was like the whole town was drunk, wandering in and out of the streets, yelling and hollering and buying the beer, and nowhere could you find a woman. Just a whole lot of men coming in to buy beer as fast as they could.
One guy has two cases of beer in his arms. And the guy behind the counter has one eye on the clock. He says, “No, I’m sorry, it’s too late.” He says, “I’m sorry, Charlie, I can’t take your money,” and he takes the beer right away from him and throws it back in the icebox. And the guy’s crying! He’s standing there and he can see the whole weekend he’s not going to be drunk! What am I gonna do! The whole weekend!
I wonder when anyone is going to do a real documentary on the peculiar kind of discontent that is settling in on the small towns in America, because of the glimpse—I think it’s because of the glimpse they see every night, of this never-never-land that television lives in. The wild, wild sense of unreality that’s beginning to take over. Even the stores these days have a vaguely TV-commercial-look about them. Endorsements by TV stars everywhere you look. People living in a world that is bounded on one side by Channel 8 and on the other side by Channel 6.
And everywhere you can see in those hemlock trees of Maine there are these long, tall, thin antennas reaching for Parnassus.
MAINE IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY
Jean Shepherd has traveled around the world and, of course, he always returns to America, the country he loves above all others. He even sailed on a bit of the same sea Columbus did when arriving in the New World. This New World is so vast and complex in its delights and, sometimes, in its less desirable attributes.
Part of this World’s great pleasures for him is the time he spends in Maine, as we saw in an early chapter, with his focus on the bucolic landscape he enjoys with such passion. One sees Shepherd as the observer and reporter, seemingly oblivious to social issues which are inescapable for anyone with eyes to see and heart to feel. As quoted earlier, Shepherd has spent most of his public life on the radio exemplifying what he’d said to a friend: “I’m only going through this life as an observer. I have no desire to influence or change anything.” Shepherd almost never discusses politics and social matters on his programs. The coldly aloof artist unmoved by some of the world’s harsh realities (except for such moments as his eulogy for JFK).
Yet, in Shepherd’s available radio audios, here is a rare, discordant, more compassionate side—which he possesses, according to statements by some who knew him—but which he almost always keeps separate from his radio persona. So here is another narrative that he delivers in the mid-1960s about Maine, his beloved state.
Shepherd sees discontent stoked in part by the unreality promoted by television, and he sees real problems that surface to a heated pitch in the exciting and tormented 60s, and which remain unresolved decades later.
In that time there have been riots in the streets—and assassinations, including that of John F. Kennedy less than two years before, an event that had brought forth from Shepherd, wreathed in his elegant elegy of the President during broadcasts that week, a major statement about discontent in America. Regarding his comments about Maine in June of 1965, exactly what elicits this new break in his usual demeanor? Mainly the unreality of television? We don’t know for sure, but here it is.
I am back and I am twice as sneaky and four times as dangerous. For the last two weeks I have been on vacation in my favorite foreign country—Maine. I mean that literally. I think as far as the mainstream of America is concerned, Maine is a foreign country.
I’ve come to some conclusions about travel. Those of you who have followed this fiasco for the last twenty years know that I’m an inveterate traveler. Whatever that means. I like to fly the coop and split whenever I get a chance to, but it took me a long time to understand why this is so. Why traveling and getting away, and getting into a completely foreign environment is as important to me, personally, as it is.
There’s a tendency on the part of every one of us to say, “You just want to get away.” Well, that’s not enough. What do you mean, “get away”? Why do you want to get away? That’s saying something about what you’re at. You say, “Oh boy, Charlie, isn’t this great to get away?” Get away from what? Well, it’s too simple really, to say, “My work.”
That means, probably, you hate your work, which is a bad scene right there. If you’re going to spend eight hours a day for forty years doing some cruddy thing that you hate, well, dad, no two weeks is going to help you. It’s only going to make it worse. In fact, for those of you who have that problem, I recommend: Don’t leave! Because you’ll come back and one day you’ll go out of the sixth floor trying to fly.
But to a person, it’s very difficult. I have known people who have changed their environment. Now that, really, is what “getting away” means. Changing your environment is one of the great things about man that makes him different from other creatures. It’s very difficult to get an orangutan to change his range. You do, and you’ve got a problem orangutan on your hands. He withers and dies on the vine. It’s a difficult thing to try to get, say, a moose, to change his environment.
In Maine Again—
Shep’s unusual verbal essay inspired by his favorite state.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of 2
HAVE A MERRY CHRISTMAS
And once again I am alone. I quickly attach another flatfish, since I have just lost one on the bottom of the log after watching that airplane, and I try another cast. Whhooooooooooo-powwww! Oh wow! Oh wow! Hardly a cast do I lay in that cove without something hitting it! Pow! Another smallmouth! He somersaults, he leaps, he glares at me, he swears, he tells me dirty jokes and then he tries to yell ‘sing to me a little bit—Yes sir, that’s my baby’—Pow! and ten minutes later he joins his fellow in my creel.
Oh, I’m drifting now, I’m just enjoying the beautiful, beautiful way it is. The world that I’m in. The water, the green trees, the fleecy white clouds, the remoteness, the alone-ness. And then I hear a strange sound approaching—from somewhere off-stage! A sort of gung, gung, gung, gung, gung. It is no boat—I know that. It is no train—I know that because there are no railroad stations around. It is no Hupmobile with bad valves, gung, gung, gung. I turn around and look behind me and not more than fifteen feet from me, I cannot believe it, is an airplane! He is coasting right up to me on floats. Gung, gung, gung, gung, gung. My boat starts to bob up and down and I see, sitting in the front of that plane, a man—in a uniform.
I look up at him. You know, you’re very small when you’re in a rowboat and you’re looking up at an airplane—that is coming right up on you with a pair of floats hanging out. And, capagung, gung, gung, gung, gung, he floats right up to me. What magnificence in this sylvan glade. It is romantic. I think to myself, well, he’s had a forced landing or something.
And then that uniformed head comes out of that cockpit. “Hey, bud, lemme see yer license, bud. Lemme see yer license there.”
And then it hits me. My god, no! I had left my license back in the cabin! Four thousand miles away! I brought that license and left it on the table and here I am! Oh no! No! I am down on my knees in the sylvan glade, in my rented rowboat. “But, but! No!”
He says, “All right, mac. Turn that boat around. You say it’s in your cabin? Turn around and I’ll follow ya!”
I am the first guy you ever heard who was followed home in a rented rowboat by a Piper Cub flying at twelve-hundred feet in circles above me. With the entire lake watching him. This was undoubtedly the most public pinch that has ever been made in the state of Maine.
That guy had everything but twin fifty-caliber sub-machineguns mounted on that little cockamamie plane. He followed me all the way back to the cabin. I went in and I got my license and came out on the shore. He landed his plane. “Okay, mac, carry it with ya. Where do you think you are—in the woods?”
And that little airplane went rrrrrrrrr down the lake and took off and I knew then that the long arm of the fuzz can never be totally escaped and I knew then also that there are people to whom things don’t happen, and there’s us. And there’s us.
The lower lake is Snow Pond, where Shepherd,
not discouraged about Maine,
still lovin’ it,
will one day buy a home and spend many
good times on vacation there with Leigh Brown.
People aware of my transcription/editing techniques for Shep audios–discussed in the introduction to my Shep’s Army transcribed stories, know that I do the minimum necessary: I don’t change or add to Shep’s words. I only do a tiny bit of silent adjustment for grammatical or other unintentional glitches on his part, and any changes in order and repetition are only done so that no meaning is changed.
Upon getting further into Shep’s travels, I’ve encountered that, for Internet reading (as opposed to reading of the more tolerant print-on-paper medium), a few of Shepherd’s laid-back commentaries, fine for listening, benefit from a couple of judicious cuts. Any cuts of more than a few words (as noted above) I will indicate with 4 dots (….). I believe the blog post format of Shep’s talks will benefit in this computer medium. Anyone wanting to listen to every single word of the broadcasts in question, I highly recommend that as the supreme way to get Shep’s message.
I would venture to say that nothing would rival a Maine lake at the right kind of light and the right air—everything has to be right. And the moment it is right—oh, there’s nothing like it! It just comes together and the water dances, the sun sort of bounces off of it and just ripples. It looks like it’s all made out of silver and gold. Just fantastic! And then that fringe, that rough fringe of pine that you see just kind of lying on the horizon off in the distance. You always see this in Maine. Off in the distance there is a sort of green, dark purple hill rising up and down. That’s Maine! Always!
So here I am, I’m a very innocent guy, I’ve never been on a Maine lake in my life and I’m just drinking this in—just beautiful, and I’m nudging this little boat, I’m exploring, I’m nudging it along in these little coves. A big lake, it has thousands of little coves and islands and all day long I am going further and further down the shoreline. Further and further away from what could be called the heart-line of civilization, which meant the Esso station and Charlie’s Bait Store.
So I’m getting way down there and I’m floating among these lily pads and the reeds, and now I am quietly drifting in to one of the most beautiful little bays I ever saw in my life, and hanging over the bay are these gigantic pine trees. Just hanging over at maybe a ten degree angle, and this great green shadow drifting all the way out to the middle of the bay. There she lay. Talk about Bali Hai—this is it.
I just drift quietly in with the current. And I’m putting my rod together and I reach down and I very carefully open the top of my tackle box and I spin the reel a little bit, clean the oil, I spit down on the nylon line and rub it in. Then I look in my tackle box. What shall I try? Let’s see. How about a River Runt maybe, heh? How about a half-ounce flatfish? Let me try that. How about maybe a little surface bass-plug, yeah, a little popper. I’m drifting in, see.
And so I just lay it out, my first cast whooooooooooo, it lies next to a rock. There’s a ripple and I see a fin just lay flat in the water. Oh, this is it! This is it!! What I’ve been looking for all of my life! Then I reel it in slowly. Slowly, slowly. I see a few little bubbles. Slowly I reel in, and I pause again and I see a log hanging off the shore, drifting down into the water and reaching down deep into it. My little boat is now skittering sideways, slowly all by itself and spinning whoooooooooooo. And I lay that plug a quarter of an inch—just a quarter of an inch from the edge of that beautiful log. Kweowoooogh, and down it goes—wow! A smallmouth leaps out of the water!
Have you ever seen a smallmouth silhouetted against dark green pine trees? It just clears the water, he’s fluttering along on his tail. He goes up again! Flips into a somersault and I play him, oh boy, with that two-ounce-tip rod with my three-pound test line. Fifteen minutes later that speckled beauty is in my landing net. Ahhhhh.
I quickly detach my hook and now I lay another one out there. And then, high overhead I hear—the sound of a motor owwwwuuuuweeeeeeowurrrw. Ah, what peace! What beauty! I see a tiny airplane high up in the sky, maybe three or four-thousand feet above me, like a small, beautiful, gypsy moth caught against the firmament of all of creation! Floating high above me. And he drifts out over the horizon.
Stay tuned for the unexpected conclusion to this story.
MAINE DECIDING TO BE BEAUTIFUL
When Jean Shepherd vacations locally rather than traveling to far-away places, he goes to Maine. In earlier trips, he goes there with his third wife, Lois Nettleton, who remembers that he would fish and she would enjoy cooking his catch. In subsequent years he travels there with his fourth wife, Leigh Brown. They buy a house on Snow Pond, north of Augusta, off the main roads. They keep the location secret so they will not be bothered by his overly-enthusiastic fans.
Maine is his favorite state. Maine is one the few American places he does special programs about, so it’s not surprising that he once referred to Maine as “my favorite foreign country.”
Consciously giddy in one broadcast, in a paean to the natural glories of Maine, Shepherd permits his emotions to slip beyond passion into awed stupefaction. (Or so it would seem if, in the audio of this homage, we fail to note his ironic tone of voice delivered over a buoyant, carefree rendition of the instantly recognizable opening bars of “Humoresque,” a Dvorak dainty ditty that long ago achieved some notoriety as the perky tune for various comic verses regarding passenger train toilets.) Shepherd does mean what he says and he is truly overwhelmed—but he wants us to know that he knows it. After all, publicly revealed unrestrained commitment on any issue might lead to a negative judgment regarding his intellectual capacity and stability.
This segment about Maine says little about anything except the landscape, and is thus rather different from most of his other travel narratives. Although he discusses Maine on other shows, he does not do so within the context of a “travel story,” so those comments don’t fit this present grouping. However, this appreciation of a location’s ambiance is kin to Shepherd’s affectionate commentary about the many-sided beauties of Ireland found in a subsequent chapter.
I am in the State of Maine. I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than the State of Maine when it’s deciding to be beautiful. It is a majestic state.
Ever since I was a kid I have been reading about the North Woods in Maine. They don’t have North Woods in Indiana, you know. They don’t have any Maine at all in northern Indiana. I would see pictures in the outdoor magazines like Hunting and Fishing and Field and Stream and all these great magazines. I would see pictures of these magnificent Maine lakes that were nestled like veritable jewels out of nature’s fantastic diadem of creativity. Veritable jewels in this great, vast, rich, verdant green forest. Glistening under that bright northern sun. With just the slightest edge of a breeze. Just the slightest edge rippling that crystalline water. Ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhhh!
And below the surface of that crystal water, great, ravishing, smallmouth bass lay waiting—just for the slightest suggestion of a Royal Coachman fly laid upon that glassy surface with the expert, magnificent technique of a born artist of the fly rod. Me.
A Royal Coachman fishing fly–
not necessarily the exact type Shep used
Well, finally, at long last, this young pilgrim on the great road of life achieved enough of the necessary scratch to get himself up to Maine. And in a rented rowboat made out of the purest lead—finally—at long last—he found himself on a magnificent, beautiful—encased with the great pine forests—a lovely, lovely, remote lake. Ain’t that great? Isn’t that beautiful now? I’m telling you the truth!
I’ll tell you this—I don’t know quite how to approach this adventure because it may cause embarrassment to the guilty, who are still out there. But I got this boat and this is the first time I have ever been in Maine. It was about my second or third day there and on the back of this rowboat I had rented myself one of these tiny outboard motors that had about, roughly, about the horsepower of a Waring Blender. It took me about forty minutes to go twenty feet, with the current, and downhill. A lot of those lakes are downhill and uphill in Maine, you know. This little motor would go catut catut catut catut catut catut. It’s very embarrassing—a guy rode right past me, saying, “You want a hitch?” You know how those Maine guys are—got a certain type of humor, “Like a hitch?” I’d say no. Catut catut catut catut, I’m driving my little motor there. It’s about the size of a football with a little tin propeller at the bottom, and I am heading out in this beautiful lake.
Snow Pond Lake
(aka Messalonskee Lake)
on which Shepherd will one day buy a summer house.
[Addition=a photo of Shep’s house on Snow Pond.
The new owners did a major renovation instead of tearing it down.]
Stay tuned for more evocations of Maine