'Bummers, Blisters And Boondoggles': A Jokester Joins The Army
In a time when recollections can be reduced to just a few words, Jean Shepherd delivered monologues, soliloquies and musings. He was a raconteur.
Shepherd served in the Army during World War II — that same Army that stormed the beaches on D-Day, though Shepherd and his unit would never see the front lines. They were the homefront Army: stocking, re-stocking, sending, schlepping and training for a war they helped win — but only at a distance.
Over his career as a humorist, entertainer and late-night voice on the radio, Shepherd would occasionally cast back to his time as a soldier, portraying himself more as Beetle Bailey than John Wayne.
Shepherd himself died in 1999, but a new collection of his Army stories has just come out. It's called Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters and Boondoggles, and editor Eugene Bergmann tells NPR's Scott Simon that he can talk about Shepherd "by the hour and the day and the week."
On the semifictional nature of these essays
"Whenever Jean Shepherd told stories, whether they were kid stories or Army stories, I believe they were just about totally fiction. What is true, I believe, is that he was so sensitive to his surroundings and to what was going on and what life was like, that he knew what it was like to be a kid, he knew what it was like to be in the Army, and from knowing what it was like, he then created his fictional stories out of that."
On whether Shepherd's experience in code school influenced his stories
"Well, he loved to talk, whether it was talking on the air, on the radio, talking after hours on his ham radio set, or just talking to people in general. And he would give them a 45-minute story, he'd just keep going, he'd never stop."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In a time when recollections can be reduced to just a few words, Jean Shepherd delivered monologues, soliloquies and musings. He was a raconteur:
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO SHOW)
JEAN SHEPHERD: OK, you guys, you're in the Army. All right, you're in the Army. We have just sworn in. You know that wonderful swearing-in ceremony where Van Johnson talks and the guys cry? The thing where they play "The Star-Spangled Banner?" It's all over. We've just stood - you're in the Army; we didn't hear anything.
SIMON: That's Jean Shepherd, recollecting the moment he became a soldier in the U.S. Army that would storm the beaches of Normandy, and raise the stars and stripes over Iwo Jima in World War II, although Jean Shepherd and his unit would never see the front lines. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The U.S. Marine Corps, not the Army, led the invasion and ground fighting in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Five Marines and a Navy corpsman were pictured raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi.]
They were the homefront Army: stocking, restocking, sending, schlepping, and training for a war they helped win, but from a distance. Over his career as a humorist, entertainer, and late-night voice on the radio, Jean Shepherd would occasionally cast back to his time as a soldier, where he was more like Beetle Bailey than John Wayne.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO SHOW)
SHEPHERD: And we stood around. He says get out, out. There's another bunch coming in. And they push us out the other end of the door. And another bunch of guys came in, didn't know what - and so one or two of us holler, hey, they're going to give you the oath. Hey, fellow, the oath. And a couple of guys, you could see their eyes brighten a little bit. And then that mumbling started again up in the front. Gradually, we go down, out on the street, and it's raining. And it's all over, all over. I'm now in the Army. I'm one with Errol Flynn and Don Ameche, the Rangers, the guys that took the F.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: It was a voice on the radio, and in famous essays that enthralled millions in the times before bytes, soundbites, and tweets. A collection of Jean Shepherd's Army stories has just been published: "Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles." It's edited by Eugene Bergmann, who joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
EUGENE BERGMANN: Well, it's always great to talk about Jean Shepherd. I could do it by the hour and the day and the week.
SIMON: Well, let's just take a few minutes. OK?
SIMON: First, let's try and differentiate fact from fiction. These essays aren't meant to be a literal memoir, are they?
BERGMANN: No. in fact, whenever Jean Shepherd told stories, whether they were kid stories or Army stories, I believe they were just about totally fiction. What is true, I believe, is that he was so sensitive to his surroundings and to what was going on and what life was like, that he knew what it was like to be a kid. He knew what it was like to be in the Army. And from knowing what it was like, he then created his fictional stories out of that.
SIMON: Taking him at his word for just a moment, was he the only Druid in the U.S. Army?
BERGMANN: So he claimed. And he got the little D on his dog tag for Druid.
SIMON: We want to play another section, where Jean Shepherd said he consulted a chaplain. Let's pick up that story midway.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO SHOW)
SHEPHERD: And he sat there and looked at me for a long while, and I am telling him my story. And I'm playing it all the way, you know. I'm an old, I'm an old method sufferer - I suffer from inside. And a good sufferer, like a good Stanislavski actor, can reach hidden depths, he can dredge it out of the soul. I'm, I'm sitting there today, mess hall and, and I'm, I'm talking away there, and I'm just, you know, I'm just wringing it out. I can just feel the scene. Any good actor can feel the scene. He knows when he's milking it. He can just feel it. There's the excitement that begins to come out and the tears, the actual real live crocodile tears are pouring down my suntanned cheeks. And my corporal stripes, they are damp with the tears of humanity. And I'm crying away. And he's looking at me, and after a long pause, I say, well, you know - I finish my story. He looks at me and says, humph. Well, well - I don't know whether I can say this on the radio what he said. Remember, he was not only a chaplain, he was in the Army, and there are certain Army phrases - and this Army phrase consisted of two letters, the first one of which is a T. He shrugged his shoulders and says, well, ah, send the next one in, ah, Charlie. And I stood up. I says, is that all? He says, huh. Huh. Yup.
SIMON: As you note, Jean Shepherd wound up going to code school. With the advantage of hindsight, do you think that had anything to do with lighting his literary imagination?
BERGMANN: Well, he loved to talk, whether it was talking on the air, on the radio, talking after-hours on his ham radio set or just talking to people in general. And he would give him a 45-minute story. He'd just keep going. He never stopped.
SIMON: You know, it's hard for us to sit here in a couple of studios and not recollect the fact that if somebody came to a program director these days and said just open the mic at 9 o'clock each night and I'll talk for three hours, they wouldn't say, oh, I can't wait, what a brilliant idea. They would say that's ridiculous. This has to go through focus group. This has to go through planning sessions. Who the hell are you anyway? What do we make of that?
BERGMANN: Well, later in life when Jean Shepherd was asked if he thought he would ever like to go back on the radio, he commented that times have indeed changed and he really did not think that anyone would give him that kind of freedom. I think that's probably fairly true. There may be some shock jocks who have a different kind of freedom than he had, but they could not really give him the kind of time to just come out with his attitudes, his musings about life and his gentle humor in the way that he did for several decades.
SIMON: Eugene Bergmann. He's edited a new collection of Jean Shepherd stories, "Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles." Thanks so much for being with us.
BERGMANN: Well, you know, I'm just thinking is it over already. I really enjoyed this so much. And, as I've said - I always say - I could talk about Jean Shepherd for hours and thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.