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Although Shepherd didn’t seem to discuss food often, he did so more than I’d remembered. Enthusiastic Shep fan, Steve, commented that there is an extensive description of food in Shepherd’s fictional tale, “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” the opening story of Shep’s book of stories, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories–and Other Disasters (Doubleday, 1971). This is of special interest because it is the lead-up to the theft of the family’s holiday dinner by the neighbor’s dogs–the Easter ham in the book, transformed in the A CHRISTMAS STORY film into the Christmas turkey.
“Don’t Touch that Turkey!”
The book’s description of preparation for the holiday surely shows the delight Shepherd, as author, had in the anticipation and consumption of food:
When we got the ham home, my mother immediately stripped off the white paper and the string in the middle of our chipped white-enamel kitchen table. There it lay, exuding heavenly perfumes–proud, arrogant, regal. It had a dark, smoked, leathery skin, which my mother carefully pealed off with her sharpened bread knife….It just sat there on the stove and bubbled away for maybe two hours, filling the house with a smell that was so luscious, so powerful, as to have erotic overtones….The ham frenzy was upon him….
Grunting and straining, my mother poured off the water into another pot. It would later form the base of a magnificent pea soup so pungent as to bring tears to the eyes. She then sprinkled a thick layer of brown sugar dotted with butter, over the ham. She stuck cloves in it in a crisscross design, then added several slices of Del Monte pineapple, thick and juicy, and topped it off with a maraschino cherry in the center of each slice. She then sprinkled brown sugar over the lot, a few teaspoons of molasses, the juice from the pineapple can, a little salt, a little pepper, and it was shoved into the oven. Almost instantly, the brown sugar melted over the mighty ham and mingled with the ham juice in the pan….
All night long, I would lie in my bed and smell the ham….
By 1:30 that afternoon, the tension had risen almost to the breaking point….Finally at about two-o’clock, we all gathered around while my mother opened the blue pot–releasing a blast of fragrance so overwhelming that my knees wobbled–and surrounded the ham with sliced sweet potatoes to bake in the brown sugar and pineapple juice….
My father picked up his carving knife again, for one last stroke on the whetstone. He held the blade up to the light. Everything was ready. He went into the living room and sat down.
His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill, which would last for at least four months. We would have ham sandwiches, ham salad, ham gravy, ham hash–and, finally, about ten gallons of pea soup made with the gigantic ham bone.
When it happened….It was going to be a day to remember. Little did I suspect why.
We know what happened because we’ve seen the movie every year. We have been built up to the glory of the feast by the careful preliminary descriptions so that the invasion of the Bumpus hounds, exaggerated in their act–the slavering gustatory delight anticipated by the family: …the hounds–squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness….
Ham anticipated by Parker family.
Ham devoured by Bumpus Hounds.
From Ham to Hohman.
The same Shep story about Easter/Christmas feasting includes his classic description of his hometown, Hohman (aka Hammond, Indiana). Just reacquainted with it, I feel that it deserves more recognition:
Ours was not a genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation. there was a standard barbershop bit of humor that said it with surprising poetism: If Chicago (only a stone’s throw away across the polluted lake waters) was Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Broad Shoulders,” then Hohman had to be that city’s broad rear end.
Hammond Steel Mill.
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!
I ♥ NOSTALGIA?
NOT NOSTALGIA ?!?!!!
Shepherd’s sometimes questionable claims to be anti-nostalgia have been pointed out, and certainly the major effect of his stories and commentary is against those feelings for the “good old days.” Despite the many times he insisted that he was against nostalgia, he was frequently accused of it. A recently heard Shepherd defense is especially emphatic:
Might as well come right to the face of it, that a—you know a lot of people say, “Shepherd, why do you tell stories about when you were a kid?” Now they are under the impression that what I am doing is dealing in nostalgia! Nothing could be further from the truth. Is a guy lying on the psychiatrist’s couch telling the analyst about some fantastically, spectacularly bad thing that happened to him at the age of eight—is he indulging in nostalgia? You better believe he ain’t.
And under no circumstances does Shepherd feel that when he was a kid things were better than they are now. I just want to get that really clearly stated. And furthermore, he also wants to state categorically he does not feel that being a child is the best of all possible worlds. He does not feel that when you were a child things were better than they are now, nor did you feel better than you do now. In fact, the actual truth is, you probably felt worse [laughs] most of the time.
So, the only time Shepherd will relate a story about when he was a child is because he is delineating a moment—a moment of traumatic reality—which has created the world of the adult that is now in existence. Was that good or bad? Neither! It’s a fact.
All this is true–I believe it–but on occasion, something that can only be described as nostalgia, does creep into Shep’s work. To paraphrase Shakespeare, sometimes the Shepherd doth protest too much.
♦ ♦ ♦
My family is moving to a new location this week, so there may be a bit of disruption to my usual every-3-day postings on this blog. New ones may be a day or so off-schedule depending on how/when we get our computer up and running in our new home, and my own available time organized.
♦ ♦ ♦
How much of his travel stories are true? Unlike his kid stories and army stories, which are very likely almost all fiction with occasional short excursions into fact, his travel stories appear to be almost all fact, with only occasional excursions into minor bits of creative embellishment and obvious fantasy. Contemplating the truthfulness of his “stories,” one is struck with the realization that Shepherd frequently begins talking about being a kid or being a soldier by saying, “Have I told you the story about….” “Story” itself can be defined as fictional or true, and I believe Shepherd consciously uses the ambiguity as a strategy to confound the listener into believing it is all true while he is inventing a fiction. And I remember no instance in which he begins talking about a trip by referring to it as a “story. “ With all the imprecise and awkward synonyms available, the descriptive word that seems most neutral and that might be used with somewhat less of an automatically “fictional” connotation might be “narrative.”
Are his travel narratives all true when he expects us to believe them so? I believe it’s significant that his travel narratives take place in locations and with people other than those in his ordinary life (thus not interfering with his closely-guarded privacy), so he has no particular cause to bamboozle us. Or has he? Let’s not forget the raconteur fraternity’s commonplace: “The truth never stands in the way of a good story.” Maybe Shepherd, talking of his travels, is up to his usual tricks when creating art out of what one might presume to be the non-fictional nature of his kid and army stories. But, as he works so hard in his broadcasts to be a mentor-like informant, a guiding force for his listeners—and he so strongly promotes travel as an important mode for discovering truths in one’s real life, I feel strongly that in travel tales he is mostly an honest-to-goodness truth-teller. Recognizing that some tampering is almost universally practiced even by professional travel writers, and that intimation and elaboration may be the sincerest form of which a storyteller is capable, I still believe we’re being given truth here that’s as pure as the driven snow, almost.
Note that it’s certain that he went to the places he talks about, and only infrequently, fictitiously, elaborates on an event. The fictional bits tend to be blatantly self-evident, such as his tale of having had shipped to him from a Middle-Eastern bazaar, Fatima, a nubile slave girl. Only in his dreams—he implies that such imaginations tend to be the fantasies of many of us when we think of that part of the world. The fantasy-nature of his purchase, with no attempt to delude us in the process, supports the truthful implications of this not-to-be-literally-believed parable. (At least he never subsequently seems to have referred to her as a member of his New York City household!) It’s only appropriate that he caps off his Middle Eastern travels with some bits of the dream-world fantasy in all of us who have grown up on flickering Hollywood illusions. Rudolph Valentino is still imbedded in our psyches, and it is undoubtedly no coincidence that one of Shepherd’s favorite songs he sings on his broadcasts is “I’m the Sheik of Araby.”
Rudolph Valentino (the Shepherd of Araby).
So, despite the occasional exception, when Jean Shepherd speaks of his travels, I believe him to be nearly always honest, and without fail an eagle-eyed and esthetically blessed reporter of what he actually sees and experiences.
Any book of Jean Shepherd’s travels would have to omit some material. All those who describe a subject, and especially travelers, leave things out. No way that Marco Polo told us the details of how he put on his socks every morning. (As Shepherd himself once deprecatingly described a grammar school geography lesson, he’d learned that “Bolivia exports tin.” But, we know that better than memorizing the fact, if you need it, you could look it up. Nobody cares about or tells everything.) Shepherd is first to admit, with a certain amount of amazement, even part of the time he spends on an aircraft carrier heading into a perilous engagement can be uninteresting. He does tell us that some of these carrier moments are boring, but—for which we thank him—he gives no examples.) Even an enthusiastic editor can find a few moments that, though interesting enough for radio listeners delighted to learn facts about some far-off location Shepherd has visited, one should check out a gazetteer for some list or other, rather than follow Shepherd’s rare, bare-bones description. Far better to focus on what Shepherd is such a master at conveying—adventures of an inquisitive and perceptive mind at work.
Regarding the order of these included tales, neither chronology nor geography dictate the sequence, so I have found a less pure but, what I believe, is a more appropriate organization. His return trips to some sites, though divergent in time, sometimes by many months or years, provide not an alternative viewpoint but a special and constant love, so they are linked here in a single chapter as parts of what Shepherd himself feels as his enthusiasm for place. Although Shepherd’s travel narratives are mostly stand-alone affairs, arranging them to conform to when they were broadcast would only disrupt one’s understanding of Shepherd’s interest in a locale, and an arrangement of narratives following a geographical sequence on the globe seems to be irrelevant as to Shepherd’s chosen destinations. The order chosen for this book is a loose organization based on a couple of factors.
As an American, his travels in this book begin with the March on Washington and the first Maine episode, both American venues, which are important, yet dissimilar from his far-off journeys to other lands.
Internet image described as being part of the 1963 March to D.C.
[A much more luxurious vehicle than the NYC Cross-Town bus Shep was on]
Next, the Middle-Eastern tales give a jolt to the newly initiated foreign-travel-reader of this book, and then Western European settings put him on more familiar, yet foreign soil. “Around the World” seems to cover it all, yet leads to some distant locations, focusing on Australia, the Amazon, and Nigeria. What seems to be his last non-American trip, consisting of the very act of voyaging, is his sailing adventure to the Windward Islands. Concluding with a second take on Maine, which he ironically refers to as “a foreign country,” seems an appropriate end, bringing him back home to his beloved United States.
Remember that Shepherd chooses no perceivable order to his travels. In fact, some such as the Peru trip, Beatle trip, and the flight around the world come about through various fortuitous happenstances. So how the chapters are arranged in this book might take various forms. I’ve tried to put together an entertaining mix, which at the same time has somewhat of a rationale. Others may well concoct their own formula and create their own Shepherdian voyage through his world. Some might prefer a sequence that would lead the reader step by step from familiar–but only superficially civilized Western Europe–deeper and deeper into outlands, discomforting wildernesses, terra incognita, on a path that Shepherd himself probably would not have conceived or wanted. I like my own itinerary, but you’re free to wander off among the chapters–become your own sort of “traveler.”
Among the travel narratives that have so far emerged from Shepherd’s broadcasts, we have many gems to enjoy. The glories of his travel narratives provide us with strikingly varied adventures and the amazingly unconventional and fascinating results of his acute sensibilities and insights—they provide us with pleasures decidedly different from, and second only to, being there oneself. So, get ready for all these voyages, keep an open mind, and as Shepherd more than once advised, you’ll enjoy them more if you leave most of your baggage behind.
The foregoing introduction to Jean Shepherd’s travel world is told in the present tense because his narrative method on the radio embroils us in the immediate moment, and what he has created in many fields (such as the highly popular holiday film, A Christmas Story) remains alive and well in the American conscience. Audios of his radio broadcasts, created between the 1950s and 1977 are avidly listened to by thousands of enthusiasts and his books of humor continue to sell. Here readers can contemplate some of what Jean Shepherd experiences through travel. It would be wonderful if he could know what a gathering of these narratives would be like. As for him, he knows that the essence of these adventures become part of him for his entire lifetime. (As far as I know, there’s no evidence that he ever intended to gather his travel narratives into a book.) But now, only we listeners and readers remain to appreciate them, as Jean Parker Shepherd, “raconteur and wit,” died of natural causes near his home on Sanibel Island, Florida, on October 16, 1999.
(Stay tuned for the first Shepherd trip)
“I’LL AWARD THE BRASS FIGLAGEE
WITH BRONZE OAK LEAF PALM
TO THE FIRST PERSON WHO CAN TELL ME…”
From time to time, Shepherd awarded the above. (That’s my interpretation of what it looks like, nestled on a bed of excelsior, as photographed by Jim Clavin.) Some of the following I quote from my “Cracks in the Sidewalk” chapter of Excelsior, You Fathead! :
Shepherd awards it for a manifestly minor feat of knowledge and memory. Every Shepherd listener heard that request for a piece of trivia many times. Within the sphere of humanity’s array of foible-filled activities, there lies the peculiar fascination with trivia, the often arcane and frequently inconsequential detail. Shepherd, with his pleasure in details, and his insistence that there is often more to life than most of us perceive, delighted in showing off his knowledge and his ability to make unexpected connections. It has been suggested that he originated the use of the word as used today to designate minor, nonessential facts of our existence….Of course, we see that, for him, the minor often signaled the major.
Trivia represents the culture of the common man, with whom Jean Shepherd had an uneasy love/hate relationship–because the common man is the dominant stuff of American culture, the frequent subject of his humor, and because he was both the harshly critical observer and the self-aware participant enjoying the foible. Big ideas and high culture are not the concerns of the common man–it’s the little things that define his life. Besides, these little things dominate not just the common man’s thoughts, but occupy more of everybody’s time than mot of us are willing to admit. He once commented that rather than concentrating on great thoughts, even the best of us are too often deeply preoccupied with what kind of gas millage we get.
As my informant Tom Lipscomb put it to me, some of New-York-types may be absorbed in big issues, but most other Americans are obsessed with NASCAR. To put it bluntly, regarding trivia, Shep was full of it (full of trivia). And frequently said, “Why do I remember this stuff?” As I continued in my book in full Shep-trivial-pursuit, I wrote, “…the implication was that knowing the tiny piece represented knowledgeable familiarity with its surrounding gestalt. It represented the ability to make connections from a vast mental storehouse of information (not the result of a college education, but of his intelligence and far-flung interests).”
And why. indeed, are we pursuing this now? Recently, Shep sleuth Steve Glazer encountered and produced an article from Drexel University, January 28, 1966, by a Mike Wedler (a Shep fan, naturally):
What was the name of the Green Hornet’s car? Who was his manservant? What high school did Jack Armstrong attend?
With these, and with questions of similar import, the game of Trivia was invented in 1957 by WOR radio personality Jean Shepherd….:
A Christmas Story enthusiasts will remember the trivia-moment at the Shepherd Hammond-homestead when the old man, working on a newspaper contest, asks, “What was the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse?” An outrageous trivia question (did the Lone Ranger even HAVE a nephew? If he did, did the nephew have a horse?) In a bizarre piece of knowledge, Mrs. Shepherd comments that its name was “Victor.” As she nonchalantly puts it, “Everybody knows that.” In a perfect Shepherd world, everybody would always know everything like that crumb of immortal American history.
By the way, the next time anyone asks who invented “Trivial Pursuit,”
knowledgeable Shepherd fans (who believe everything a
university newspaper puts in print), will be able to say
“Jean Parker Shepherd invented the pursuit of trivia–everybody knows that!”
Shepherd told many stories about American traditions. One of his favorite subjects was the 4th of July, and the favorite story is about the neighbor, Ludlow Kissel, and his disaster setting off a bomb. Another, lesser known Shepherd story is the one about him as a teenager helping out his old man during the Independence Day celebrations.
Fireworks were an integral part of my life as a kid. There were three things my old man was hung up on. There was the White Sox, used cars, and fireworks. He was an absolute nut on fireworks. He had gone into the business and he was selling them.
There was a law saying you could not sell fireworks inside the city limits, so outside of town, half the cops were selling them. For miles around you would see these little wooden stands that had been selling tomatoes and pumpkins and stuff suddenly have red, white, and blue bunting and a great big sign that would say EXCELSIOR FIREWORKS. Excelsior was one of the big names.
They sold fireworks at a stand until the evening when, with his unsold products, the old man had his own display to give joy to the neighborhood:
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?
“Celebrating who knows what?”
Shepherd does not answer his own question.
It is an irony, a conundrum, a metaphor of something.
We might guess that Americans are celebrating any of it and all of it:
→the whole uproarious conglomeration! ←
Happy Independence Day!
(I know I’ve posted this photo before, but I’m obsessed with it.)
Jean Shepherd was a connoisseur of many arts, including the design and driving of cars, motorcycles and the like. His interest in them extended to his role as emcee of the Greenwich Village sports and antique car rallies from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s,
(Miss Beatnick, 1959, with Shep’s 1931 Chevrolet Independence,
to the scores of columns he wrote for Car and Driver magazine in the 1970s and, not least, to his penchant for racing perilously through the streets of New York City and environs on his motorcycle or scooter, in his Morgan or Porsche, or in some other exotic species of automobile, such as an Isetta and a funky little Goggomobil whenever he could. He was, indeed, a motor-cuckoo—a car-cuckoo.
He often spoke about them in his broadcasts, many times about his childhood being driven in them by his father, “an Oldsmobile man,” in his teenage years driving them and riding in them. After all he was from the Midwest and had been to the Indianapolis 500.
He talked about his father’s troubles with keeping the family car going–his father was a connoisseur of used cars. Many will recall the trouble with the family car as it appears in A Christmas Story. When he got out of the army and before he’d gotten a job, he told how he had driven his MG-TD sports car up north, been spooked by the strange darkness of the sky in the morning, and had rushed back home. Other than the indomineble Morgan
(Morgan in black and white photo–the classic Morgan color was
a dark forest green known as “British racing green.”
MG-TD in color. Color cars that Shep had are unknown.
I had a bright red MG-TD, just as the one pictured.)
the MG he drove was the last of the old-style sports cars, the TC and TD models said to have been brought back to the States by GIs in the first years after WW II, beginning the sports car popularity in this country.)
He once mentioned that in his early days, he’d been in charge of a VW dealership (If true, this probably would have been in the late 1940s or early 1950s). One of his stories was published in the 1967 Volkswagen promotional booklet that contained a selection of articles and cartoons about VWs, Think Small. Shep’s article is the longest piece in the publication and it is a story about buying his first car–but it has nothing to do with VWs:
He talked about what it was like to be a passenger when his father was driving the family somewhere. He said his own first car was a black, 1933 Ford Roadster. Sometimes he talked about cars he owned as a teenager, in such stories as going on a date and the problems of getting to the girl’s house when trying to pass through a herd of turkeys and other problems trying to get the car to function.
He talked about going to the Indianapolis 500 with his father, and he even wrote a piece for Popular Mechanics about the Indy 500. I discuss it in one of my unpublished manuscripts about Shep:
“The Two Faces of Indy,” a May 1976 article on the Indianapolis 500 car race. When he writes about something he dislikes, for me the result is only occasionally amusing, a cranky burlesque. But here, as he relates the racing tradition to American customs, one of his favorite themes, his style and his sharp eye for the unexpected, yet telling detail, shine. Note how he wraps it all up with a disparaging comment on the common folk, in a long, one-sentence concluding paragraph chock-full of crying, barking, popping of cans, and the sun-struck image of eating a wiener:
“Weeks before the day of the race, the faithful begin to gather from all parts of the land, lining the streets of Indianapolis with their cars bumper to bumper, their sleeping bags, their campfires, their jackets covered with patches, their beer cans, their crying babies and barking dogs, all waiting for that boom of the cannon which announces that the infield is open, to go charging fender to fender like a herd of demented buffalo to get that same spot they have occupied for years, to put up the tent and pop the first can, and to instinctively celebrate something indefinable in the restless American spirit, the urge to move, to compete, and to eat hot dogs in the sun.”
In May of 1974 he published three articles about the Indy 500 in the New York Times. In one, he wrote:
“To understand the 500, you have to have at least a faint whiff in your nostrils of those far-off times in the dreamy Indiana cornfields when the roar of a motor was as incredibly magical to the earthbound natives as space travel is to us today.”
He owned several cars that he advertised on his radio shows, including the English Rover and the French Peugeot. One of his Jean Shepherd’s America episodes is all about cars, includes him waiting for his new car to come off the line in Detroit, and him while taking a lap around Indy with racing great Duke Nalon. The title of the episode is “I Love Cars, So There, Ralph Nader.” (Nader was well-known for criticizing the quality of many American products, including cars.)
Shep at the wheel.
One of my favorite stories about Shepherd and cars is him claiming that in his over-night radio days, to get to the station’s transmitter for his show, he would race down the New Jersey Turnpike in his Porsche, and one night he crashed it into the WOR Radio’s 50,000 Watt cooling pool.
said he had one, 1956. I assume he had a convertible.
I don’t know what color. Visually, later models were slimmed down
and lose the look of power those of this era had. No photo does justice to
the powerful look of this car–I describe it as looking
rounded and muscular and like a clenched fist.
Shepherd also, at times, drove a scooter and a motorcycle in addition to piloting his own small plane.
Shep at the wheel
Among other things, Jean Shepherd lived a life of improvisation (which includes some daring), creativity, adventure, and a sense of widespread taste in the arts. I believe the summit of much of all this in his life was in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. And cars were a kind of symbolic embodiment of it all.
PART OF COMMENT BY JOEL
Beyond cars, imagine he saw the growth of radio into a ubiquitous medium. The transformation of air travel from a military to a civilian more of transportation. The talkies. Television. The ability to travel long distances, affordably, happened in his youth, and travel he did.
His excitement over technology, whether cars, boats, motorcycles or airplanes was infectious. And as a sports car dreaming kid, he fed my fantasies.
Jean Shepherd on the air, pre-April 1977 describing WOR:
“And we want to salute all those monsters past and present. Including the present program directorship here at WOR.”
“Speaking of intimations of disaster, this is WOR AM and FM.”
“Speaking of evil ideas, this is WOR, New York.”
“Speaking of death, this is WOR AM and FM, New York.””
Herb Saltzman, WOR General Manager: “[A new general Manager] came in to ‘youthify’ the station and one of the first things he did–he got rid of the whole nighttime block…of talk show hosts [and some of the announcers].”
The New York Times, March 28, 1977: “”John Wingate, WOR reporter for 30 years…Stan Lomax, a sports commentator for 43 years; Henry Gladstone, a newscaster for 32 years; and Jean Shepherd, famous for his impressionistic nostalgic monologues, which have been heard for 20 years, all resigned and will leave within two weeks.”
THE DASTARDLY DEED
Could April Fool’s Day be a parable
for something important?
Sometimes a taped show is rebroadcast at a later date—maybe when he is out of town or for some other just cause. At least once, a significant tape is chosen to fit an occasion. Most dramatically and sadly, he chooses his broadcast of April 1, 1968—April Fool’s Day in sixth grade—to stand in metaphorically for his final broadcast on WOR after twenty-two years, on April Fool’s Day of 1977. Shepherd and several other long-time radio talkers on WOR were asked to leave because of a change in programming philosophy. The week before he tells his listeners of his imminent departure and claims that he has chosen to devote more time to his many other creative projects, saying that the decision is his alone, not connected to WOR’s new policy. Somewhat of an obfuscation regarding the whole truth—surely he would have preferred to choose his departure totally on his own terms. We’re told that he is furious about being dismissed—
WOR has been cruel
to this broadcaster considered to be both
supreme in his field
and one of America’s great humorists.
Instead of the anguish of having to improvise for forty-five minutes and say goodbye on his last day, he chooses the old tape from 1968. Surely he chooses it because of the description of cruelty perpetrated on him in sixth grade—the ending a powerful metaphor for his present situation. Terminating his creative life on WOR, he rebroadcasts his kid story about being April-fooled by his cruel friends. They fake some notes from a girl in class, suggesting that she wants him to come to her house to make fudge–like on a date. When he goes to the house he is rejected, and sadly starts back home. His cruel friends, in hiding, make fun of him–“April fool!” The story ends:
“Humiliated before the entire world. They heard! I couldn’t figure out why they did it to me. Why did they do this to me? [He pauses] And we walked our separate ways.”
[A longer pause before that previously recorded voice of Jean Shepherd ends his last broadcast on WOR]:
“April Fool’s Day”
Jean Shepherd and WOR walked their separate ways.
Regarding the details of Shepherd’s last show, of 4/1/1977 (the earlier broadcast, April Fool’s show of 1968) Laurie Squire, Shep’s friend and his radio producer for his final year at WOR, sends me these details of her remembrance:
Mea culpa [pause]…here goes…in the last couple of months of Jean’s time at ‘OR he did very few live shows and left it up to me to pick any show for air. I would listen through a tape for any glaring problems, have the old spots edited out and new ones inserted. I tried to choose shows that aired around the same time of the month so the April Fool’s tape was chosen for that reason (I know, sounds bad but…). As to why he didn’t do a last live show, that decision also was not up to him (but, for the record, he had no desire to do an “official” final live one): typically (not always but often) when an on-air talent was removed, the ‘OR management at the time did not want anyone’s final show to be live out of fear that something untoward might happen or be said.
Despite Laurie’s exacting memories, I still imagine that Shep must have been aware of the supreme irony and significance of the final words in the 1968 program as broadcast on April 1, 1977, as I posted above.–eb
I had a busy Shep-day last week.
I took the LIRR to Manhattan to be interviewed about Shepherd by the “Here and Now” show commentators of NPR in Boston. NPR has New York City studios on 42nd Street. One sits in a little room with a microphone and various electronic equipment, one dons earphones and looks through the window at an engineer. In August the voice in my ears was that of broadcaster Scott Simon in D. C. interviewing me about SHEP’S ARMY. Last week the voice in my ear was Jeremy Hobson from Boston and we were discussing Shep’s career and persona. I thought it went well, and I await word as to when it’ll be broadcast and can be heard on the internet).
On the Manhattan trip I also hoped to be able to photograph at the Madison Square Garden theater, an A CHRISTMAS STORY poster I’d seen on the facade of the theater where it played last year. There was a close-up of Dan Lauria playing Shepherd and the words THE JEAN SHEPHERD SHOW, HOME OF THE GREATEST STORIES EVER TOLD. Waiting for the train in I encountered an ad the size of a folded train schedule (and I encountered a slightly larger one by the theater):
The theater at Penn Station had no posters at all, so now my hopes rest on a response from Shep (Dan Lauria), to whom I wrote, c/o the theater, explaining my desire for an image of the poster.
Meanwhile, back home, I’d received a Google alert for Shep and found that it directed me to a great review of SHEP’S ARMY by Tom Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who in 2005 had written a really complementary review of my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! He’s obviously a Shep fan from way back, in addition to being a perceptive critic (I’m delighted to opine.) Here’s the Shep’s Army review:
Jean Shepherd’s widest fame today may be as the writer, narrator and cameo actor of “A Christmas Story,” the movie that came relatively late in his career, 30 years ago.
Fans earlier knew him as the writer of stories (some of which were the foundation of the film), host of several public-TV series and hugely influential radio monologist with a cult-like following.
Shepherd, who died in 1999, came to dismiss the radio work, preferring to be recognized for his writing. But the shows are responsible for his first new collection of stories in 30 years, thanks to Eugene Bergmann, author of the 2005 biography “Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.”
Bergmann smartly edited and organized about 30 transcribed stories, and contributes useful notes and an introduction for “Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles” (Opus Books, 256 pp., $14.95). He thinks it can reasonably be deemed “Shep’s Army Life Novel.”
Shep would approve. He insisted his story collections were novels and fiction, though his work is often called autobiographical, because he liked writing in the immediacy of first person, and sometimes called nostalgia, because of the way his kid stories — like the ones in “A Christmas Story” — so sharply drew the past.
He’s more accurately called a humorist, especially for his gifts of comic description and hyperbole, but he saw himself as a realist describing the way things really are and the way people really live. More than his kid stories, the army tales show that.
Shepherd, who was secretive about details of his life, served in the Army from 1942 to 1944, all of it stateside. The tales he created from the experience — unless he really was “the only registered Druid in the history of the contemporary army” — are inevitably funny, but darker and more adult. We hear him talking about boredom, terror, confusion, cruelty and, off-handedly, death.
“Talking” is the word. His wildly expressive voice is almost audible in the stories, all told on the New York AM station WOR between 1963 and 1976.
While Shepherd would have labored to make them a book — he once said that simply transcribing spoken stories into print “is the last thing you can do” — Bergmann’s gentle editing retains his style.
“Shep’s Army” is probably not the best introduction to Shepherd’s writing for the curious drawn by “A Christmas Story.” But for his established fans — readers or listeners — it will rate as a welcome gift. Here’s hoping Bergmann has more.
[I emailed him that indeed, I do have more! He responded, in part: “The book was really a pleasure to read. Having written several “as told to” books, I know well the difficulties and pitfalls of translating spoken words, which only increased my appreciation. You did wonderful work, just masterly, and it’s great news that we can look forward to more.” He also sent me a photo of Downtown Cleveland (Terminal Tower, overlooking Public Square) decked out in all its Christmas-and-Leg-Lamp glory!]
“Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Fa la la la la–la la la la!“
Most people, upon seeing or hearing a Shepherd kid-story, get nostalgic
and even teary-eyed, especially when viewing the movie
A Christmas Story.
Shepherd often seemed to them to be dealing in nostalgia,
but he strenuously insisted that it wasn’t so.
Feeling nostalgic, in spite of the fact that it might not be at all appropriate, is endemic among the many thousands of Shepherd’s enthusiasts throughout the land. Consider A Christmas Story, a movie he not only created but narrated, the story of the kid who wants a BB gun and, when he gets it, nearly shoots his eye out. The legions of people who know little if anything about Shepherd don’t need to be reminded of their nostalgic reaction to “the good old days”in the movie:
[Sign, in the movie turned sideways, upon which Ralphie
had placed his BB gun target. One only sees it for less than
a second= “GOLDEN AGE”
–what an ironic comment on nostalgia!
The sign’s words, which rebound the BB and almost shoot his eye out!]
but even those who do know a great deal about Shepherd and his wary attitude toward nostalgia get teary-eyed at the memory of the film. In it, Shepherd plays on the nostalgia embedded in the very fiber of our being (the days we gamboled in the snow and, secure in the bosom of our family life, waited for the presents that were sure to shower down upon us) even as he besmirches this rosy image with the mundane turmoil and conflict he depicts. Friend Flick gets his tongue stuck to a frozen metal pole; the longed-for secret decoder merely decodes “a crummy commercial”; Santa shoves our hero down the slide with his big, black boot; the father’s “major award,” a sexy piece of “slob art” in the form of a curvaceous female leg lamp, is “accidentally” broken; dogs make off with the family’s Christmas dinner; and the kid, after all, almost does shoot his own eye out. The simple truth is that Shepherd, in his work, sometimes used nostalgia only to undercut its sentimentality with sardonic humor. Indeed, he viewed nostalgia with considerable ambivalence.
Shepherd objected to the label of nostalgia, saying that his hundreds of extemporaneous stories about childhood told on the radio, published in Playboy, in books, and many of them later transformed into television stories and movies, were not about the good old days, but about how we humans have always been, and always will be, flawed. Nevertheless, Shepherd fans as well as the millions of others who simply enjoy his work, while maybe understanding his argument, still find something in many of his creations that indeed does strike a nostalgic chord that tugs at our hearts. Whatever Shepherd’s intention, he seems unable to avoid sounding a note of yearning when he talks about the days that are no more. We have a sneaking suspicion that, in fact, he wants to sound that note. At the end of A Christmas Story, the kid does get the gun, he doesn’t really shoot his eye out, and his parents, who had been at odds throughout, sitting before the Christmas tree at the end, contemplate the beautiful tree, the night, and the gently falling snow outside as, now at peace with each other, they snuggle up contentedly. They are happy in their world—and we respond accordingly to a fondly imagined past.
In most of his work, in fact, Shepherd treated his past with the same mocking tone that barely concealed his fond memories of it. His radio work, which thousands of diehard fans such as myself, still consider his finest achievement, began in Indiana where he grew up, an Indiana which, for good or ill, he often derided but could never get out of his system. By 1956, often describing the act as an escape from the Midwest, he had moved to his intellectual and emotional home, New York City. There, in the twenty-two years of his New York programs, we find his stories, commentaries, anecdotes, his expertly rendered snatches of tunes played on kazoo, jews harp, or nose flute, and his infectious laugh and joy in life. Though his talents burgeoned in the Big Apple, the background, inspiration, and joy for all of this grew out of his Midwest past, and he both knew it and appreciated it in a way that was, but that he would not have wanted described as, “n*******c.”
In his New York City years, mixing great pleasure and enthusiasm with his irony and his put-downs, his spoken and written tales, as well as the television stories and films based on them, emphasize that even through all the travail, we’d not only muddle through and live to tell it, but even laugh at it too with more than a bit of warmth in our hearts. At the end of one of those TV tales, after all the minor tragedies have ended on happy notes, Shepherd, as narrator, ties it all up in a comfy bow with the story’s final words:
“Those thanksgivings at home were what Thanksgiving is all about.
Mothers, fathers, brothers, the family dog, and Time,
like a gray shadow pursuing us all.
But those Thanksgiving drumsticks were the sweetest of all.
Even Time can’t rob you of those memories.
They are forever.”
We don’t know whether he said those words under some TV-production arm-twisting or spoke them freely with an acceptance of their comforting truth, but we certainly know that despite his complaints, he found joy not only in his life as he was then living it but also in his life as he’d experienced it from childhood on—and he had an appealing way of describing not only his own life but of also capturing the customs and lives of all of us.
* * *
His stories and articles, many of them anthologized or collected in books, the videos, the films, and several thousand of his radio programs of extemporaneous outpourings that were recorded and preserved by adoring fans, are all readily available and are appreciated by a growing multitude who had no experience of his work when it was originally presented to the world. And therein lies a difference. Although the words and images are the same for us older folk and for newbies alike, there will always remain for me and those others who heard him on the radio as he originally spoke to us from out there in studioland, when we were young, impressionable, and eager for intellectual companionship–the realization that we were hearing, off the top of his head, a jazzman’s improvisations in words—magic being made nightly—live—right before our ears.
“HE WAS IN STUDIOLAND,
AND I WAS LISTENING TO HIM OUT THERE IN RADIOLAND
ON MY MAROON PLASTIC ZENITH AM/FM RADIO
WITH THE BIG SIMULATED GOLD DIAL.”
In this we have an advantage over his newer fans—we were there when it happened, and through our recognition of that gift from ol’ Shep, we now enjoy special feelings that can only be described as gratitude and nostalgia.