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There are a lot of strangers yelling from the stands, and then, the worst thing, we are now in the middle of our season and they are printing our box scores in the paper. I come home and my old man says, “Hey, what do ya mean, O for four? O for four, and it’s in the paper! And you guys lost twelve to two!”
“O for four! I’m coming out next time. And by the way, we’re going out the back and I’m gonna show you how to hold the bat.”
Aw, gees, O for four. Every time I get the bat I’d see that reporter from the Hammond Times sitting there. Shepherd is taking his cuts. I’m gonna bunt, I’ve got to get on base somehow. First time in my life I ever lay down a bunt just trying to get on base. O for four!
Organization has really begun. There was a group of kids who loved that organization, and another group of kids slowly began to infiltrate Troup 41, and they had nothing to do with the rest of us.
By the end of August, one by one, guys start to drift away from that organized ball team. One by one they start to show up in Mrs. Striker’s empty lot. “Hey, Schwartz, here you go, Schwartz, catch this one in your ear! Here it comes!” Schwartz yells, “Aw, come on, don’t bounce ‘em on the plate, will ya, fer cryin’ out loud!” And from five A. M. in the morning till ten at night, me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and Emdee and all the other disorganized stragglers play our games.
The Amber Room
Amber is a sort of fossilized tree sap that has solidified to the state
of a soft stone-like substance that sometimes contains
trapped bugs and other stuff. It is studied by scientists
and made into decorative pieces by craftsmen.
In 1995, I and another museum designer, along with his wife and a museum preparator, traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia to study amber artifacts and amber paneling for a temporary exhibit in New York. In Tsarskoye Selo, the royal summer palace outside of St. Petersburg, elaborate panels covering the walls of a room in the palace had been given to Russia.
But during World War II the panels had been removed for safe keeping, and somehow lost, stolen, or destroyed. (Recent, unconfirmed reports claim the original, lost panels have been located.) For decades, Russian craftsmen, using photos of the original room (see above), had been reconstructing the panels. Our museum scheduled an exhibit about amber, featuring artifacts and a couple of the reconstructed panels, along with some of the craftsmen, working on amber artifacts for public viewing within the exhibit.
We stayed in a luxury hotel in St. Petersburg and were conveyed to the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo by limo, met with the craftsmen, and were given a tour of the almost completed replica of the amber room.
Catherine Palace, Tsarskoye Selo
We walked the streets of St. Petersburg, went to a Russian ballet performance, and twice visited the Hermitage, the great Russian art museum. We bought souvenirs.
Amber necklace and owl.
We brought back proof that we’d really been in Russia.
Our Tipper-Gore-in-Russia Experience
As we’d walked toward the Catherine Palace for our Amber Room tour, we heard through the bushes, a small Russian band playing for us, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The director of the palace met us and apologized that he could not give us the tour because Tipper Gore, Vice-President Al Gore’s wife, was there, and he had to show her around—we got the tour from a lower functionary. Back in St. Petersburg, in a nice restaurant for a meal, we noted several men in black suits wearing ear pieces at another table. Must be guarding someone important! From a table in the back, dressed in slacks, blouse, and scarf, out past us walked Tipper Gore. Later, as we strolled along Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main thoroughfare, police on foot blocked our way and herded us onto the sidewalk—we watched as a black limo drove by. Looking out a window, waving at us, was Tipper Gore.
in Congress a decade before,
confronting nasty music by the likes of
Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, John Denver.
(Denver complained that a radio station blocked his song
because of the final word in “Rocky Mountain High.”
This was the era when The Rolling Stones were told not to sing
on TV, the line “let’s spend the night together.”)
Our country was still in a rather restrictive mode, but Russia was
in the midst of a birth of political freedom, so we felt safe there.
Small Part of Our Exhibit.
PART 8. CURIOUS HAPPENSTANCES
A couple of morality tales here deal with crashing picnics and medicine-cabinet invasion: is a picnic always just a picnic? Is the medicine cabinet try-out actually a morality tale? How is thinking to do a good turn for the old man a prelude to disaster? And why is speaking in public an early problem for this eventual genius of broadcast radio? In a story about kids’ baseball, Shepherd suggests that organization is not always a good thing.
I will never forget the day that we organized the Cleveland Street Irregulars ball team. One of the worst things that I ever had happen to me as a kid, happened as a result of baseball. This is a story about the first creeping encroachment of “little league-ism” beginning to sneak into the world.
This is not a story about baseball—I do not come from a tennis background, I do not come from a polo background, I come from a slugging background. Where a man is measured in how he fields a bad hop. You notice the wide spacing between my two front teeth, and you notice how they overlap? Well, three straight ground balls on a hot afternoon one day produced this interesting denture problem I’ve got here.
I’ll never forget—one of those terrible moments we all live in our world, most peoples’ world, really—a world of frustration, sad defeats, little, tiny, momentary victories. One summer, we were just about at the freshman-in-high-school-period. We’ve got enough pizzazz to understand just a little of this world around us, but not enough pizzazz to understand that there’s a world around us. That touch-and-go moment.
I didn’t know much about Northwest Coast art other than liking raven rattles. But, in 1988, I was assigned to produce “Chiefly Feasts,” a large traveling exhibit that would begin in our museum and go to several other venues. The Kwakiutl is one of the tribes located from upper Washington State and north on the west coast of Canada—Native Americans commonly known for their totem poles. The potlatch is a competitive ceremony in which powerful leaders enhance their prestige by giving (and, at least in past times, sometimes destroying) objects of value. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict described it thusly in her Patterns of Culture.
As always, working with a curator who was an expert in the exhibit’s subject matter, I began my design. Our museum arranged for me to travel to several Northwest Coast exhibits to get a sense of the material and how it’s previously been presented—museums in Chicago, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, and Alert Bay–a small native-American town in northern Vancouver Island. The museum paid travel, food, and accommodations for me, and our family paid for my wife and son.
Allison and Evan,
Orca Inn, Alert Bay.
Although most exhibits consist of cases containing artifacts, I wanted to give a sense of environment and materials, and, reportedly, the Kwakiutl preferred something less confining than many cases—I designed a series of wide, low, open, cedar-plank platforms and cedar-paneled walls. Cedar is a common Northwest Coast construction material, especially for ceremonial buildings. All protected by a low rail that also supported some of the exhibit text, and with a security system that would sound if anyone entered the platform area. This open approach, and the overall sense of an appropriate setting, was rare and more complex to produce than the usual exhibit. Of course, the platforms needed to be disassembled for shipment and re-installation in the other museums’ exhibit spaces.
With the exhibit installed, I visited our Museum shop and bought a Northwest Coast artifact, though I believe it was created, not for indigenous use, but for non-native collectors. Despite that, I find it intriguing and elegant. It’s a combination of: what appears to be a stretched animal-skin drumhead; rattle (with pebbles or other small objects inside); and whistle (blown from the end of the bone handle). I believe the black hair is from a horse, but I have no idea about the animal skin and white feathers. From our museum’s carpenter shop I scavenged left-over short lengths of cedar to form the backing for the piece in our home. The image is of a raven holding the sun in its beak, just having opened the box in which the sun was held.
“Most important of all creatures to the coast Indian peoples was Raven. It was Raven—the Transformer, the culture hero, the trickster, the Big Man (he took many forms to many peoples)—who created the world. He put the sun, moon, stars into the sky, fish into the sea, salmon into the rivers, and food onto the land; he maneuvered the tides to assure daily access to beach resources. Raven gave the people fire and water, placed the rivers, lakes and cedar trees over the land, and peopled the earth.” –Hilary Stewart, in her 1979 book Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast.
Raven is thus similar to the Greek mythological figure, Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods (especially from our Renaissance onward, a symbol of human mentality/creativity, etc.).
My replica of a raven rattle,
as is typical in these carvings,
has a small box/sun in its beak.
Some of the great traumatic experiences of my kid life were with my father’s failures, often with fireworks. Fireworks are sneaky. You know, they have Roman candles that come in various sizes. Some of them have four or five shots, some of them will have ten, some of them will have fifteen and then you get the big bazooka-style Roman candle. These are the big ones. They use them for cannonading the next mountain.
We usually had about fifteen of these in stock, and by about midnight of the Fourth of July we would have sold maybe ten and we’d be left with five of these fantastic, five-dollar Roman candles. They were about five feet tall, about three inches around. They have straps and you hold this son of a gun behind you, and there’s a technique in shooting Roman candles.
My old man was a pure showoff. The kind of guy who was noted at the party for a thing he called “the snake dance.” Just a wiggle. He wore a lampshade. He was one of that kind. So, everything he did, he always said, “there’s a style to it.” He would play pool and do the shots behind his back. “Watch this!” He was a real pool shark. He would hold a bowling ball in one hand, turn around and throw it behind him—boom—right in the pocket. He was always tossing baseballs over his shoulder and catching them behind his back.
When he had Roman candles, this is the way he would do it. He’d light it, he would hold it down low, he would count to himself, and as soon as the fuse was about gone, he would start moving it around in a circle, he would feel that ball coming up, he would sort of move forward, bump his fanny to the left and down again like he was helping them, putting body English on them as they went up! He was pitching with the Roman candles.
Well, the whole neighborhood would gather around to watch him shoot his fireworks, because nobody had anything like the amount of money’s worth of fireworks he had. He had, in retail, maybe two or three-hundred dollars worth of fireworks left. A gigantic box. About midnight he’d start firing out in the alley back of our house. Nobody ever thought of even going into a field to do this kind of thing in those days. There were houses around and the windows, the people, the wash hanging out, and he’s shooting off this heavy artillery.
So he is standing out back there this night. One of the great, absolutely unparalleled moments of my life. And also, one of those things you feel so terrible about because your old man has really flubbed. Really done an awful thing.
Everything has been going fine. Big pinwheels he’s got. He’s got great American flags that fly up in the air and come down on parachutes. Everything’s going. Finally he takes out the Roman candle, which he always loved more than any other kind. He lights it. Everybody’s waiting. Choooo! Off goes the first one, a big green ball goes up and everybody goes “Oooooooooooh!” At the third ball, just as my old man is winding up, that Roman candle shoots backward—right out the back end of this thing comes a ball—Woooooops! like that, right up his sleeve and right out the back of his shirt! He spins around, another ball goes out the front and then quickly two of them come out the back! He is going on like he is insane. He throws the damn thing, it flies up and goes into Flick’s backyard, right in the middle of the geraniums. Boom! Boom! Out both ends. He turns around and he screams bloody murder— his pongee shirt is on fire. “My shirt! Oh no, my shirt!”
He runs up the alley and we can see him trailing smoke and flames. He runs down in our basement and turns on the hose. People are pouring water on him and then rubbing goose grease on him. What has to be pointed out is that nobody worries, it’s just natural in the fireworks world. That attitude toward infernal destruction.
Five minutes later he’s out in the backyard shooting off rockets, shirt hanging out, shirttail tattered, one sleeve missing. That is a picture of an American celebrating something—but who knows what?
[End of Part 7]
People kill animals on the endangered species list and sell parts of the cadavers to people who don’t care if the animals go extinct, as long as they have some piece of them that gives an illusion of their own importance. The federal government, when it finds such stuff, confiscates it at the port of entry, stores it securely, and eventually destroys it.
In 1982, I was assigned the design job of putting some of this confiscated material on display. The parameters were: no available exhibit spaces to put the temporary exhibit, so it would need to be installed (inappropriately and awkwardly) in the bare center of one of the Museum’s permanent halls–Oceanic Birds; and the material on display would have to be absolutely secure from theft.
The norm would have been many exhibit cases with plexiglas bonnets built to house the artifacts, creating a crowded grouping of boxes with no effect except a jumble with inadequate space for the public to move around (with a potential for pilfering). Always looking to incorporate an appropriate sense of environmental ambience in my temporary exhibits, I chose to create one massive enclosure exemplifying the security area one might find at a port of entry’s stash of confiscated materials–chain-link fencing, including a chain-link top.
Entranceway to Exhibit– Teaser
For access during installation, a sliding chain-link entrance door, with the largest padlock I could find for it at a local hardware store, also suggested high-security. (Nothing was stolen.) As pedestals for artifacts, I used the large wooden shipping containers in which the materials had arrived at the museum. Big black and white photos of endangered animals provided some backdrops. The chain link and shipping crates provided a stark/ironic contrast to some of the items such as the fur coats.
Our museum director (who was frequently generous with his praise for my designs), at first apparently taken aback by my unusual approach, wrote:
Congratulations on the “Confiscated” installation. It worked out very well, and produces a substantially more interesting and striking show than the one I saw in Cleveland….
The concept you chose as the basis for the design, while simple, was also elegant.
While readying my “Confiscated!” essay, I noted that the Tuesday, 7/11/2017 New York Times Science Times presented three full pages of color images of animal remains confiscated by the U. S. government in its unceasing effort to stop illegal trafficking:
I get out of the bus and walk nineteen blocks back to the dime store. I go upstairs to the toy department. I stand in front of the box that says GRAB BAG! WHAT’S IN THE PACKAGE? And there’s the skinny lady with the black hair and the rimless glasses, and she says, “Have you opened your package?”
Shirley Temple Paper Doll Prize
I say “Yes.”
“You want your quarter back?”
Boing! Reaches in, gives me a quarter and I hand her the Shirley Temple cutout book, and without a word I go back downstairs. The greatest lady I’ve met in years!
Well, I get downstairs. By now I’m feeling funny. I’m feeling all kinds of guilt things ‘cause I know it doesn’t make any difference. She took that book back but it doesn’t make any difference—I had loused up! (There’s a much better word for it.) I had done it and I could not escape it.
FINAL PART OF “GRAB BAG” AND GIFTING PART OF KID BOOK TO COME
SOUTH AMERICAN HALL and INTIHUATANA
The Machu Picchu stonework called Intihuatna, ”hitching post of the sun,” is one of the world’s great pieces of sculpture. Situated on the highest part of the site, which itself is a piece of landscape sculpture, it was created by the Incas around 1500. It’s carved from the very bedrock of its site. It’s about six feet high by about ten feet long. During my four months in Peru on a Fulbright Grant in 1980, I stayed three days and three nights at Machu Picchu. I spent hours looking at, photographing, and caressing the Intihuatana.
The raised area, upper left, with tourists,
with stone-walled crop-terraces on its left,
a stone staircase leading to it in the center,
the Intihuatana is on the flattened top of the hill,
mostly blocked from view here by a small wall.
[Photo of site courtesy of Al Naso.]
It’s considered the finest part of the world-class site. At the time of my visit one could sit on it and caress it—until years after my visit (during the making of a beer commercial), a piece of video equipment fell on it and damaged it.
Now there’s a rope barrier keeping away beer companies and worshipers such as myself .
At the time, I was designing the basic architecture, cases, down to the smallest details of the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent Peoples of South America Hall. I realized that a full-size cast of the Intihuatana, placed at the far end of the pre-Colombian section on its raised platform, would form a dramatic centerpiece, perfectly placed in the “Highlands” section, just on the edge of the contiguous Amazonian Peoples part of the Hall—symbolizing the highlands of Peru and the beginnings of the jungle landscape where Machu Picchu is located. Exploring the area behind the Museum of Anthropology in Lima where I had residence during my stay, fortuitously I encountered a full-sized cast of the Intihuatana, the mold it had been made from, and the Peruvian craftsman who’d made it.
He showed me a small scale model he’d sculpted and I asked if I could buy it. I wanted if for my own pleasure and also to provide support for my entreaty to the anthropologist in New York I’d have to convince, to allow a full-size cast to be positioned where I wanted it in the Hall. This anthropologist was an expert in Inca culture, and loved the Intihuatana.
At my request, the Peruvian museum had agreed to ship a full-
size cast at cost, which would provide a dramatic focal point
for our entire Hall. Based on the scale model (about 7” X 19”)
a preparartor made an illustration-board replica of it,
calculated the dimensions for the full-size one and built it
of gator-board, placing it in the Hall to show the effect.
My 1980, preliminary floor plan for the Hall.
The ramps shown in plan & elevation.
On the plan, see the Coast to left, ramp up to Highlands, ramp down to Amazon. (The dark brown in the plan represents my slate “Inca Road.”) The tan Intihuatana, shown where it should have been, positioned in center/rear of Highlands. For me, the features of a ramp up, the highland material on a raised platform, and ramp down to the lower geographical location of the jungle, are important for several reasons. 1. They give the visitor a sense that, rather than there being a single, monolithic sameness to the material, there are three distinctive parts to the Hall; 2. The ramps and levels give visitors a sense of actively moving through the varied museum environments—Coast, Highlands, Jungle–a sense of participation; 3. Most crucially, regarding the information the exhibition imparts, it effectively distinguishes the geographic importance that affects the cultural differences between the landscape areas—symbolizing this through the ramps and platform. This is what designing can help do to impart information.
Small part of Peruvian Coast in foreground, with gray slate “Inca Road,”
as a visual attraction and directional assist for the visitor,
leading up the ramp to the Highlands.
At the far end of which would have been
[the absent focal point], my intihuatana.
For all his love of the Inca and the Intihuatana, our Museum anthropologist said that, as the piece is so much at-one with its site (Machu Picchu, mountains all around, etc.), it should not be shown out of its environment, our Museum anthropologist felt so sen-si-tive-ly. So there is no focal point to the Hall—there is a bland, near-flat, scale model of the Inca town ruins he himself had studied. What I have of that battle-lost is my wonderful sojourn in Peru, the completed permanent Hall I designed, my unfulfilled dream of a better final result, and, in my study near my Shep Shrine, the two scale models of my favorite sculpture.
[Recently, a specialist in ancient Peruvian culture contacted me to discuss my hall in order to incorporate my input into her book on Peruvian archeological studies. To my surprise and disgust, she told me that a major American authority on Peruvian archeology (who, in 1980, had seen my design drawings in New York) had claimed to the Lima anthropology museum—and to the world—that symbolic ramps up to the Inca highlands and down to the Amazon jungle section of their hall was his idea for re-designing their permanent exhibition. (I believe he was promoting himself to be an important consultant for their new hall.) She, the author of the forthcoming book of Peruvian studies, had thought that I had been given the idea by the archeologist!)
She told me that this world-renowned anthropologist had made the claim in Lima in 1982. I sent her an e-mail attachment of my floor plan. As it shows my “eb” initials and the date “4-’80” in the lower right corner, it proved to her satisfaction that the design feature was indeed mine, and that the world-famous authority had stolen it from me. She told me that in her research for her book, she’d discovered that the prestigious anthropologist had been guilty of other similar lies. One knows that VIPs lie when it serves their purposes—but it’s nice to also find that sometimes, fortuitously, they’re exposed.]
WORDS ARE WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Jean Shepherd Remembering A Great Reading Experience
And all of a sudden as I read, I could see the sun coming in through the venetian blinds. And I’m gone. The sun is quietly moving like a golden finger along the floor of time. I’d never read anything like this before. I could see the leaves on the hills I had never even known existed. I could smell the fall air. And down below the town, the river dark like some great, vast, prehistoric monster. And a curtain going up in my mind. Creeping. And the show was about to begin. And everything changed. Trumpets blew.
From that day onward I have not been the same as I was the minute I opened up that first page. I never read anything in my life that was like this. It was some vast organ playing somewhere and the words rolled on and on and on and on. It wasn’t that they made sense or not sense. They were beautiful. Great crashing waves of words rolling over the rocks.
And that great river flowed on, the web of life to unsung, untold, unopened doors. The stones. A leaf dropped. And from that minute on I realized that there was nothing ever in this world as more—as even remotely as powerful as words.
Words are what it’s about. The one thing that makes us different from the giraffes and the turtles. I could not understand why Miss Easter said they didn’t give this to kids! The one group they should have given it to was kids.
This writer played upon the line, upon the language of some demented and some fantastically talented, insane dancer on the keyboard of an incredible wind-pipe organ of the gods, of the stars. Tom-toms booming in the distance. And I remembered the name of the book. Always, forever. He spoke of a stone angel, its sword pointing skyward, holding a stone leaf, the wind blowing over its stone arms and form. Look Homeward. Look Homeward, Angel. You Can’t Go Home Again. The Web and the Rock. Yeah!
Did you ever read any of those? Look Homeward, Angel. Now, who I’m talking about here is Thomas Wolfe, the original Thomas Wolfe. The real one. And the only reason I brought all this up—you know I have to say that that one book—I didn’t understand anything, I didn’t know what it was about. I think really great literature, you don’t have to understand what it’s about. You feel it like music. It’s a felt thing.
Here I was, about ten years old. It was a fantastic trauma, it really was. I remember taking this book home and reading it under the covers at home because of this rule that you had to go to bed at this certain time, and I had a penlight which my Aunt Glen had given to me for my birthday. This little fountain pen-shaped flashlight. So I was hiding under the covers reading Look Homeward, Angel. I didn’t know what it was about. I just knew I couldn’t stop reading it. It changed me forever really.
IT CHANGED ME FOREVER REALLY
MUSEUM CAVE ART
What I refer to as “cave art” is the art in which I’m in greatest awe. Of the primitive and surprising elegance and intelligence with which it was created. It is where we have come from in our world of art, it is the instant in human history when sophisticated art was born.
I refer to the great cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, and the great carvings such as the Venus of Willendorf. I visited northern Spain’s Altamira in 1966 when the public was still openly admitted. I remember how the guide instructed each visitor to lie on a flat, table-like rock in the cave, where, as he told us, the original painter must have lain while painting the image just an arm’s length above.
Over the years I collected replicas of a number of pieces, including the pieces I exhibit standing: two Cycladic female carvings and the Guennol lioness, about 3.5″ tall of about 5,000 years ago Mesopotamia, which I saw and first became aware of when it was exhibited just a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum. I immediately rushed to the Museum Shop and, as I’d hoped, found a replica for sale. I bought it and went back to the original on display, took out my replica and held it up to compare. It was very good. I have it displayed unsupported, just held up in sand, so I can grab it and hold it whenever I have the desire.
I arranged most of the smaller pieces in a long, glass-covered box, these artifact replicas nestled in fine sand. On the left are the two Venus of Lespugue replicas, the black-and-white of how it exists today, with a reconstruction of how it must originally have been. The rest are venus and animal figurines.
So one can imagine how excited I was when our Museum managed to gather a large collection of replicas on loan from European museums for a temporary exhibit showing them in their historical and intellectual context. Of course I visited the display numerous times.
So one can imagine how excited I was when, a couple of years later,
our Museum managed to gather a large collection of
on loan from various European museums for a temporary exhibit!
Before the objects were put on display for the public, I entered the exhibit space and spoke with one of the anthropologists in charge.
“I know that I can view the objects as much as I like once they’re in cases behind glass, but could I see them without the barrier of plexiglass hoods, with nothing but air between them and me?”
He took me into the locked vault where the pieces were being stored before installation. He locked the door behind us. He unlocked a large metal cabinet. I noted that there was thick carpet on the floor and the nearby tables—in case some anthropologist dropped one! He pulled out a large flat tray. There they were!
“Wow!” I said. “This is the thrill of a lifetime!”
“Would you like to pick them up?”
“Me?!” Not even with gloves! “Pick them up”?
He smiled and nodded ascent.
I picked up the Venus of Lespugue. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.
I picked up the bison licking its flank. The original. In my bare hands. And gently fondled it.
I picked up several other originals, all over twelve thousand years old
that I’d only seen in photos in books.
Tears in my eyes, I thanked him profusely. “I cannot believe it!”
“Consider it a perk of working at the Museum.”
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.
THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JEAN SHEPHERD, HUMORIST
“This is a kid story, so you can turn your radio
on again, call your friends, because
Shepherd is telling a kid story.” –Jean Shepherd
For many fans of Jean Shepherd’s writings and radio broadcasts, his kid stories, first improvised on the air and some published in print, are their favorite part of his work. Shepherd was very proud of how some of those stories were woven into the hilarious and justifiably loved A Christmas Story. Narrated by him and based on some of those stories from two of his books, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters, this 1983 film is a constant reminder of how popular his stories about kids remain to this day.
So nothing brings such a shiver of anticipation up and down our spines as can even one newly encountered Shepherd story about kids. Only a portion of his radio stories ever made it between book covers or into the pages of decades-old magazines. Many others remained heard but not seen–until now. The book you hold in your hands as you quiver with anticipation, contains dozens of funny and mind-tickling fictions Jean Shepherd told on the radio about life as a kid. Previously unpublished, they contain unread, essential chunks of kid-life—never before in print!
The fundamental enthusiasm of Jean Shepherd’s creative life was his need to communicate to us his thoughts and his experiences through the medium of ham radio, broadcast radio, television, film, public appearances, and the written word—especially as those brainstorms burst forth from his fecund and irrepressible sensibility in stories. Stories focused in varied directions, but especially in army life, his travels, and childhood.
MORE KID STORY INTRODUCTION TO COME
An ingenious preparator in the Exhibition Department was Ray Mendez, an expert in the life, times, and making-exhibits-about small animals, including amphibians, reptiles, various invertebrates, and naked mole rats.
(Among Ray’s non-Museum interests was studying and making habitat exhibits for tiny mole rats–with them, he was one of four guys with strange interests portrayed in the 1997 film, “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.” As film reviewer Roger Ebert put it: “Consider Ray Mendez. Here is a happy man. When he learned of the discovery of the naked mole rat, he felt the joy of a lottery winner. There are not supposed to be mammals like this. They have no hair and no sweat glands because they live always in a controlled environment — their tunnels beneath the African savanna, where they organize themselves like insects. Mendez lives with mole rats in his office and creates museum environments for them. That means he has to ask himself a question no scientist before him has ever asked: What makes a mole rat happy?”
Also, away from the Museum, he got moths to perform as required in the film “The Silence of the Lambs,” earning himself credit in the film’s end-titles as “Moth Wrangler.”)
For a temporary Museum exhibit, I supervised the design and installation of a half-million army ants in an enclosed corner of the Museum’s main entrance. How does one collect those ants? The curator and his assistant, Ray Mendez, flew to Panama with a generator and a vacuum cleaner. They sucked ‘em up and they brought ‘em back alive. The public gawked. The New York Times, on October 1, 1974 reported the news.
A couple of weeks into the two-month exhibit, a Museum guard left the main entrance door
open and cold wind killed off most of the army.
(Reminds one of Napoleon’s disastrous winter defeat in Russia.)
Charles Joseph Minard’s map—Napoleon with army of 422,000.
Crossing into Russia, on left in wide tan, June, 1812.
Army moving to right toward Moscow’s winter, dying.
Ever-narrowing black, army returning to border on left,
What then? Ray returned to Panama with his generator and his vacuum cleaner.
Sucked up a few thousand more to soldier-through till the exhibit’s closing.
“BANJO BUTT MEETS JULIA CHILD”
(From Playboy, 9/1967, Partial Image)
The tag for this story says: “in which the chipped-beef eaters of company k are recruited for a short-order cram course in haute cuisine—and precipitate an epicurean insurrection.”
Shepherd, in a French restaurant, is reminded of his far-off days in Company K, a radar unit:
Radar, a highly technical pursuit, naturally brought into its embrace a peculiar kind of soldier. Many wore thick GI spectacles of the type known today as granny glasses,…
He muses over the terrible food served by the Mess Sergeant, Banjo Butt, as he was affectionately known among the KPs, and comments on a military food specialty, S.O.S.:
…an indescribable pastiche of creamed chipped beef on toast, justifiably nicknamed with the initials that signified the international distress signal, but only in their secondary meaning.
Shepherd writes proliferously about the lousy food, until finally, the happy surprise one morning. He describes the gourmet food for chow then and over the next days, all accompanied by “white-coated dining room attendants.”
Eventually, after much Shep-wit, the soldiers find out what had happened. Company K had been the subject of an experiment regarding how experienced, gourmet-cooks, who had been drafted, would perform for regular GIs before being transferred to a high-level officers’ mess. Of course, Company K soon got ol’ Banjo Butt back again with his scrumptious S.O.S.:
We were back in the Signal Corps. The rain trickled down the tent pole and spread in a widening puddle beneath my bunk as I cried myself to sleep.
MORE ARMY STORY SNIPPETS TO COME
(34) VIVIAN AND FROGS
Smile For Me, Babe!
Back when we were young, when I was really busy working on several Museum projects, my department chairman said I should hire an assistant. I interviewed and I hired. Vivian was smart, did well, and was cute and sexy. Eventually she was designated as a preparator, which meant working on various exhibits including my design of the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, realistically painting plastic casts of those animals. She found frogs unpleasant, even to look at, and asked not to be given any to paint. As she put it, “They gross me out.” We did our best, but we ran out of reptile and amphibians to paint except for frogs. What would we do? What would Vivian do?
Someone had a bright idea. In one exhibit we were to show a series of painted casts describing all the stages of growth from an egg up to a fully developed, adult frog.
A Diagram From the Internet.
First we gave her a plastic egg to paint, which was no problem for her. Then the next stage, then the next, up through tadpoles, one stage at a time. Along with the stages, Vivian evolved in her ability to cope. Finally, after painting all the others, she got the full-size frog cast to paint. No problem. She painted it.
Vivian and I became not just coworkers, but friends. We gabbed; sometimes we two went to the revered Julian Billiard Academy on 14th Street to shoot a couple of games of pool; when she said she’d like to buy a house in the Catskills, upstate New York, I told her about an elegant little vacation house there for sale by my close friend Dick. She bought and loved that house in Pine Hill, eventually living there full time before moving to Cambria, California. A year before she died, she sent me a Facebook note—I wonder now if she’d realized how ill she was and was reminiscing about some of the good things in her life:
Had I not met you, I wouldn’t have worked at the AMNH [the Museum], wouldn’t have gotten my house in Pine Hill, wouldn’t have met my girlfriend in the Catskills whose grandparents had a house in Cambria. Thank you so much, Gene!
Vivian and Charlie,
Her Beloved Dog.
“THE SECRET MISSION OF THE BLUE-ASSED BUZZARD”
(From Playboy, 12/1968. Partial Image.)
In this story, Shep is in Company K in the Everglades [Camp Murphy, a radar unit in or near the swamps of Florida.] But he begins the tale years later as he watches a TV commercial featuring a pilot. It seems so glorious and it reminds him of a “bright, clear, balmy Florida day….” He relates that he’d begun military service when he was seventeen. [Department of Defense records indicates that he’d begun service at age twenty-one.] He says that he had been a corporal in the Signal Corps. [Actually a near-equivalent one, a T5.] He was an expert in the maintenance and use of secret airborne radar equipment. This, remember, was in the early days of radar.
He got orders assigning him to “detached special duty” with the Air Corps! A fantastic moment in his life! He reported to the nearby airfield and got a flight helmet, a pair of green goggles, and testing devices for the secret equipment to be tested in flight. He met the flight crew that he described as a First Lieutenant Ralphie, who “had obviously just shaded twelve” years old, and Captain Charles, who was just thirteen.
They got the plane in the air and it was obvious to Shep that the two officers were adolescent, manic, and seemingly incompetent. But they landed safely. Shepherd handed in his test results for the plane’s radar equipment, written out with his “phony figures on the clipboard.”
Before he realized it, he no longer had the glamorous life of an Air Force technician, but was back in Company K, and demoted to boot. As he encountered Gasser, his friend commented, “I knew it was too good to be true. Nobody never gets out of here.” Shep ends the tale:
Company K, at the very bottom of the barrel, slowly marched on.
MORE ARMY STORY SNIPPETS TO COME
Pacific Hall–More Margaret Mead
With more thought about my February 22, 2016 ARTSY post on my design of Margaret Mead’s Pacific Hall, I’ve added more to the story of Mead herself, and my relationship with her. Plus more on the Hall and my relationship to it. A small portion is a repeat of the previous post. I find it all interesting and I hope others will also.
Among my most treasured memories of decades designing exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History were my several encounters with the country’s mid-century cultural icon and most famous anthropologist, and the years I spent designing and supervising the installation of the permanent Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
As Senior Exhibit Designer at the Museum, I was told by the Exhibit Department Chairman that a major re-installation of our Pacific Peoples Hall would be designed by an outside design firm and that I would be responsible for its supervision and realization in its new space. It had originally been designed by a former Museum designer and had been universally criticized—The New York Times review was titled, “I Could Cry, I Could Just Cry.” That previous installation was very cold in feeling, largely because of its dominant white paint on walls and columns, the disorienting see-through glass cases, and the omnipresent ceiling lighting which shed a blandness that failed to distinguish artifacts from surroundings and created reflections and confusion. I think the museum’s administration now feared an unpleasant result from another of its own designers. I was dismayed that I, a full-fledged designer, would be responsible, in such a diminished position, for overseeing someone else’s design and having to do the clean-up job regarding every possible design flaw—and then be blamed for any unavoidable problems that resulted.
We held meetings with our Museum Director, curators in the Anthropology Department including Margaret Mead, Public Affairs administrators, my Chairman, and the outside design firm’s designer. I saw that the designer’s proposal had a major flaw that would have resulted in an anthropological disaster beyond anyone’s ability to correct—the design was to dispose of the scores of existing cases that held the carefully determined, anthropology-based organization that Margaret Mead had devised in her years of work on the old hall. Her work would have been replaced by five enormous cases, one for each Pacific culture area. In a meeting, I asked how the material would be organized in such deep cases, and was startled by the designer’s simple answer—the hundreds of objects would not be organized by anthropological understanding of culture, usage, and significance, but by distance from the viewer–small objects in front, large objects in back! I still wonder today if anyone but I, among those learned and experienced Museum folk in that meeting, recognized the import of such an anti-content proposal.
I surprised the group by unveiling my new floor plan presenting my own re-design solution, reconfiguring the layout of the culture areas, but not altering the organization of the case contents. The director gave me the chance to compete. My mockup using a portion of the still-standing old hall, by altering color, lighting, and other features, convinced all those learned and experienced Museum folk, and I was given the assignment as the new hall’s designer.
Margaret Mead had been a curator at the museum for fifty years, but she was known worldwide as a major force in anthropological studies of Pacific Peoples, bringing her knowledge and insight to her very popular books and to her widespread public media appearances discussing social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a force to be admired and reckoned with. (I originally wrote “feared,” which was also true.)
When I ascended the narrow, winding stairs to her tower offices in the Museum, for the first time meeting her one-on-one to discuss my thoughts for her hall, I was nervous. My hands were sweaty and cold, a factor I knew she felt when we shook hands. We spent half an hour discussing the hall and my design ideas. At the end she commented that she knew that we would work well together and produce a superior hall. When we shook hands goodbye my hands were warm and dry. She knew how to deal with the underling essential to her permanent hall’s legacy. Or so it seemed.
For structural reasons, the hall was somewhat narrower than the old one, so the five large cultural areas would be reconfigured in my design, while at the same time I made them more visually distinct from each other. I told Dr. Mead that a few individual cases would need to be repositioned within culture areas. She responded gruffly: “Mr. Bergmann, I see that you do not have a sufficient regard for geography!” Immediate intimidation. I realized later that she had envisioned the hall itself as a stylized, yet geographically accurate, map of the Pacific, including the placement of individual cases! Had she thought that a case’s minor shift would consciously or unconsciously affect the visitor’s understanding of content?
Apparently recognizing how much she, the famous and all powerful, had visibly rattled me, the humble and relatively powerless, when we met the next time, and apropos of nothing we were then discussing, she mused aloud, as though speaking to herself alone, “Maybe I’ve been too concerned with geography.” Maybe it was as close as she might have gotten to a rethinking and an apology? I silently accepted her comment with its attendant little victory for the success of our hall.
The Museum, lower left, fronted by
Teddy Roosevelt on his bronze horse,
and there, towering above somewhere there,
Margaret Mead’s abode.
In the following months I would go across the street from the Museum and meet with her in her apartment, spreading out my floor plan of the hall on her living room coffee table, and we would arrange plexiglas model exhibit cases for each section of the hall’s plan until we were satisfied with all aspects of the design.
Then, having advanced to the very minor design details, I could no longer get appointments to see her. I learned that she was suffering from a fatal disease, and she soon succumbed. This saddens me, as I highly respected her and appreciated her importance in mid-twentieth-century culture. And, in my small way, I had known her and enjoyed the intense feeling of working with her.
To help me complete those final details, I had been assigned a curator as a Margaret Mead-substitute. We finished the Hall, but he must have been too shy to be interviewed for the opening publicity. That left me, Margaret Mead’s designer. I was interviewed for a dozen periodicals nationwide and did a TV news program’s walkthrough of the hall. Got my name and photo published hither and yon. The Pacific Hall, Margret Mead, and me—a plethora of ARTSY experiences!
AM radio uses amplitude modulation,…Transmissions are affected by static and interference because lightning and other sources of radio emissions on the same frequency add their amplitudes to the original transmitted amplitude.
….Currently, the maximum broadcast power for a civilian AM radio station in the United States and Canada is 50 kW….These 50 kW stations are generally called “clear channel“ stations because within North America each of these stations has exclusive use of its broadcast frequency throughout part or all of the broadcast day.
FM broadcast radio sends music and voice with less noise than AM radio. It is often mistakenly thought that FM is higher fidelity than AM, but that is not true…. Because the audio signal modulates the frequency and not the amplitude, an FM signal is not subject to static and interference in the same way as AM signals.
The foregoing originates from wikipedia.org. Take that as you will.
Most descriptions of Jean Shepherd’s radio work describes his major New York City station as “WOR AM.” This jangles the daylights out of me every time I come across it. Because from his earliest NY broadcasts he was on WOR AM & FM. In fact, from September 1956 and into 1965, I mainly (if not entirely) listened to him on WOR FM. My parents had bought an early AM/FM radio so that my mother could listen to the once-a-week social studies class in which I was one of four or five students, broadcasting from the WNYE FM studios atop Brooklyn Technical High School I attended.
BTHS showing radio broadcast antenna.
This Zenith is like my old maroon AM/FM radio with the big gold dial.
Most people who now comment on their live-listening-days, listened on little AM transistor radios (as kids, the radios hidden under their pillows). Another reason so many leave out FM, I’d guess, is that once people encounter the inaccurate exclusion of FM in a reference, they repeat it without realizing that it isn’t quite correct. This way of thinking (accepting as true while failing to check original sources) causes many errors in descriptions of many aspects of Shepherd’s work.
Shepherd was not happy when the Federal Communications Commission decreed that the world would be a better place if stations with both AM and FM outputs broadcast different programming on each rather than the same programs:
Oh—this is WOR AM and FM in New York. This is the last time we’ll be on FM, right? Ohhh, it’s a poor, sad note. This is the last night we’ll be on FM. [said with irony.] Of course radio’s moving forward. Now I understand we have some magnificent programming for you—on FM. I’m sure of that—[Laughs.]
[Sings.] I’m forever blowing bubbles. [Laughs.] Ah well. Ah well. Progress is a slow descent into quicksand.–transcriptions snatched from my EYF!
It’s my understanding that the quicksand of later-day WOR included programs featuring Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and rock-and-roll. Yes, Ol’ Shep would have been delighted (“#@^%*#”).
Listen to the station identifications on Shep’s broadcasts
prior to mid-1966 for the old, familiar announcement.
On some of the Limelight broadcasts Shep
has the live audience yell:
“This is WOR AM and FM, New York!”
On the stairway in the old Hayden Planetarium, part of the American Museum of Natural History where I worked for 34 years, there was a sign that said, TO SOLAR SYSTEM AND RESTROOM. I wonder who has that sign now, because the old planetarium, an official New York City landmark, is no more. For decades I looked through the window by my desk, across the museum’s public parking lot, to the green-domed planetarium, until the day it was scheduled to be demolished and they put up a shroud around it.
Many wondered why the old landmark building had to be destroyed instead of redesigned inside. Many mourned the old building while invisible crews behind the white sheets killed it and carted it away.(I scavenged two bricks, which I still have.) One of us mourners, who happened to be writing poems in those days, wrote an elegy and designed it into a book.
Just the first and last 2-page spreads in the book.
How many millions would be spent and how many millions to maintain the new technology to be installed in the new, modern, glass cube? Indeed, that the newcomer was stunning, was somewhat undercut in some employees’ minds when someone circulated a magazine ad that showed an unheralded office building somewhere, that had been previously architected in that same sphere-in-glass-cube-format. Well, still, the newcomer on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was and is spectacular.
Somehow, I dwell on the past, maybe because, before that old Planetarium’s demise, I got to design into it our museum’s installation of a temporary exhibit of original Star Trek costumes and other memorabilia loaned to the Smithsonian. That original had been installed in traditional rectangular cases set blandly one after another with no sense of ambiance. I had other ideas in mind, as shown by the entrance and by the central exhibit case full of costumes in a setting evocative of the Enterprise’s bridge.
We had very little time to build and install. I ordered the Star Trek type font and designed a blank form so my memos would grab priority-attention of the Construction Department. I also used it for a personal memento with our kids. (Junior Officers’ uniforms designed and made by Allison M. Bergmann.)
Stirring my memories of the Planetarium-past,
while designing and installing this exhibit eons ago and light years away,
yet garnering what must be the envy of trekkies across the universe,
I got to mock-fire a painted, wooden phaser set to stun,
hold in my hand Mr. Spock’s wax ear,
sit in Captain Kirk’s chair,
and touch a tribble.