Jean Shepherd and Me
by John Delach
Jean Shepherd was a great story teller. My favorite, told on a hot and humid night, still resonates:
Picture if you will, a sedan heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike between Exits 12 and 13. The boy is driving as his girl snuggles up against him. He has one hand on the steering wheel the other wrapped around her. The windows are open to catch the breeze inadvertently allowing an odd and unpleasant odor to penetrate the interior of the car. Neither one of them say a word, but he thinks it’s her and she thinks it’s him.
(Esso had a large refinery and chemical plant between those exits and Shepherd used his vocal talents and the listeners imaginations to bring to life the odors that permeate that stretch of the turnpike, odors that anyone of us who drove that road surely remember.)
Another time, seemingly out of the blue, he remarked:
Think of the wildest, most unorthodox and simply crazy or weird type of behavior you can think of. Guess what, no matter how bizarre it is, there is a group out there who are dedicated to it. They’re not only dedicated, they’re organized, and you can bet they have a newsletter.
Addicted to Shep, I listened to his radio show live on WOR, 710 AM, without fail. Not yet married, I still at lived with my mother in my boyhood home, 1821 Himrod Street.
Like many a teenage boy, I secretly listened to late-night radio. Transistor radios equipped with an earphone were our pathway to a personal freedom, a place our parents didn’t go. I found Shep accidentally. Shep’s 45-minute show, that started at 10:15 PM, proceeded Long John Nebel’s open-ended science fiction, science-fantasy, science-weirdos show. Unlike Shep, Long John had guests and callers. One night his guest was a self-described time-traveler who explained in detail that there were three portals in New York City where one could go backward or forward in time. I recall him explaining that one was in an apartment house. To access the portal, you rode the elevator to the basement, then pressed “B” three times to enter the portal. Long John rightly asked him, “Which portal do you use?”
“None of them,” he replied. “I Astro-project myself to where I want to go.”
That’s when I developed my doubts about Long John, but by then I was hooked on Shep. I became addicted to his radio show. He became my refuge from teenage confusion. Shep understood the torture of being a teenager: “Life is a shit sandwich and every day you take another bite.”
He had a sadness about him and his stories usually included an element of failure or of unfulfilled expectations. Sort of like Peggy Lee’s: “Is that all there is?”
Or as Shep put it. Suppose St. Peter isn’t a nice guy and likes to make people sweat? Makes them want to believe they could have done more. Especially, when a great person makes it to the Pearly Gates. He reminds them of all their failures and puts them down by telling them: “You could have done more but you were asleep at the switch.”
I did see him in person one night in the Limelight Club in the West Village where he did a live show. Somehow, I convinced Mary Ann to accompany me to this performance. That night, he chose to speak about his World War II experiences a state-side assignment at a radar facility. His story emphasized the monotony of being assigned to a radar station in some God-forsaken rural area. We had nothing to do day and night except to listen to the radar as it swept the horizon left to right and right to left constantly buzzing while it looked for Hitler.
Shep visualized this by crouching down on the stage as he spoke putting both hands up on either side of his head, palms open going back and forth sweeping the room.
These memories came flooding back when my cousin, Bill sent me a piece from The Wall Street Journal about Shep. Written by Thomas Lipscomb, who was his editor and a willing or unwilling confidant in the 1970s, Lipscomb recounts how, A Christmas Story, became a national Christmas tradition if not an obsession. Lipscomb was Shep’s editor for his anthology of his radio broadcasts that were published under the title, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” (I bought and savored this book, but with heavy heart, I admit, my copy is long lost.)
Lipscomb noted that Shep’s agent, Leigh Brown, tried to convince him to take a few of the stories from the book like Ralphie’s obsession with the Red Ryder bb-gun, Flick being triple-dared to stick his tongue to the flagpole and his old man and the flat tire, and use them to make a screen play. After a long and arduous fight, Shep conceded and A Christmas Story was made.
Still, Shep would have been reduced to a footnote except that when he agreed to be the voice of Ralphie, he perpetuated his persona in the American culture for as long as we celebrate Christmas in the land of US.
The movie allowed Shep and Leigh to earn enough money to retire to Sanibel Island. I will not suggest that it made him happy but at least he could be blue in paradise while looking for Hitler. He died in 1999. RIP Jean Shepherd.
You can easily listen to some of his broadcasts on the internet by typing, “Jean Shepherd Radio”. Just don’t blame me if you become addicted. I know I have, again, after all these years.