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Jean Shepherd's jaded journey home to Indiana
Airdate: Wednesday - April 21, 1982

Last Update: 03-14-2018

Show Description
Get in the car, Mr. Shepherd. We're going home to Hammond. "What in God's name for?" he expostulates, squinting against the sunlight reflecting from hundreds of chrome bumpers in a Northwest Side parking lot. He proceeds to say, with less delicate phraseology, that he thinks Hammond is the armpit of the Western world. "Why would anyone want to go there?'' Reminiscences. Romance, my friend. A sentimental journey through the boyhood land. We're going to Hammond because Jean Shepherd has, above all others, immortalized that nondescript little city in the heart of the Calumet industrial region south of Chicago. In his critically acclaimed books, "In God We Trust [All Others Pay Cash],'' ''Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories" and recently, "A Fistful of Fig Newtons'' [Doubleday, $14.95], he spins witty and whimsical yarns about life in pre-World War II "Hohman" where he spent his youth. For his artistic pains, he was Hammond's man of the year not too long ago. "A pit," he laughs. "Boring. I spent a good part of my life trying to leave there." One hates to think what those who are not Hammond's man of the year have to say about it. Shepherd lives in New York City now, as he has since the late 1950's, and basks in his reputation as an author, actor, artist and former radio personality. He is remembered by some for his brilliant monologues on an all-night radio program emanating from New York in the '50s and '60s, by others for his writing, and by others as the creator of highly acclaimed television dramas such as "The Phantom of the Open Hearth" and, this year, "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters." "I don't think of myself as being from Hammond," he says as he surveys the unfolding scenery from atop the Skyway. "I don't write about Hammond, anyway. I write about Industrial Town America ... Newark, Gary, Detroit, ... kind of like Faulkner used his mythical county to represent the south. It's not reality, I don't write from memory. None of these things actually ever happened. This comes as a disappointment. What readers seem to like about Jean Shepherd's short stories is that they ring true, as if they were all names-have-been-changed-to-protect-the-innocent vignettes. His tale of sport and sadism at summer camp in "Fig Newtons," for instance, is a relatively plot less series of events - disastrous wienie roasts, cramped bowels, drudgery, tipped canoes - so accurate it's hard to believe he never went to such a camp. "And you know that story in "Wanda Hickey" about the senior prom?" he asks, recalling his legendary chronicle of one of the worst imaginable dates in history and preparing to twist the knife another turn. "I never went to a prom." He laughs again. "A lot of writers today are frauds. They write things only a minority of people care about, like the lives of Jewish New Yorkers. I write about the great unrecorded. You see this landscape?" he points to the distant rows of toothpick chimneys issuing soot and flame, "A clear vision of hell. You see those homes?" he sweeps his arm at a street of bungalows stretching toward the horizon. "These people are the modern peasants. No one writes for them." Home again in Hammond, just across the Indaiana state line, he gets out of the car in a remote parking lot to stretch his legs and be photographed. "This is a very special world, actually. It produces people who are sardonically funny and fiercely loyal." He poses, one penny loafer cocked onto a 2 foot post, an arm lopped onto his stained white bell-bottoms. "How's this? Shepherd contemplates his misspent youth." "There never were any good old days," he argues loudly as we get back in the car. "That's an American myth. It was worse then. Everything is better now. Am I nostalgic? Hell, no! That's the worst affliction this side of cold sores - " He curses a few more times about Hammond in general. "You see that river there? It once caught on fire. Can you believe it? And those railroad tracks; at least a half a dozen of my friends were killed on those tracks, I swear." As he reaches downtown he declares: "Still smells like tennis shoes." The look-homeward angle to this story about local boy does good is looking worse and worse. Although his readers might wish and believe otherwise, Shepherd in real life is not a sentimental Midwestern boy who writes misty-eyed on the subject of home sweet home. Once in a while he says "Oh, I'm only kidding, I love this place," as a matter of form, but it is nevertheless clear that years of life in Greenwich Village consorting with "Norman Mailer and some of the other guys," as he puts it, have created a philosophical charm between him and those he writes about. He is no longer of them. He was actually born on Chicago's South Side almost 60 years ago, and moved to Hammond early in life when his father, a white collar executive with Borden Dairy, was transferred. He left at age 17, "delightedly," to join the army and never really come back. He has no connections here now. He doesn't even know who lives in his old house. After the Army, Shepherd went to Indiana University and discovered his facility with storytelling and performance which ultimately developed into a multi-faceted career. He is immodest about his talents - "I can walk down the street in New York and draw a crown of 100 people in 10 minutes. I create American myths and fables" - but has a great deal to be immodest about. He is a well-loved, high-profile author of "light" fiction [call him a humorist] in the tradition of Mark Twain, George Ade, and Robert Benchley. His books are the volumes most often stolen out of the New York Public Library, he says. His magazine fee for short stories is more than $10,000, one of the highest in the trade, and he works regularly as an actor and storyteller. The onetime Tribune newsboy has a keen vision of a past that never was. Even when he's sentimental, as when strolling around in front of his house, a frame bungalow on Cleveland Street, he's still hard-bitten: "Ahh, see, nothing changes. There's a kid out back hitting fly balls to his brother. Nothing changes. I used to mow that lawn - see that lawn? - They're letting it go to hell..." "I used to have girlfriends on all those corners here. It was tough. You couldn't grow up in this area and be a sensitive kid. N way. The oly reason I'm glad I grew up here is that I've got a real sense of reality: bad winters, crime, death. . . It's a place to see life." By the end of the afternoon as we head back toward Chicago and his hotel, he has laughed up his sleeve at Hammond so many times, his cuffs have got to be wet. "Don't you love spring? You can always tell spring in Hammond. The smog changes from grey to green." Shepherd need not love Hammond to write about it, of course. He only has to understand that city and the people who live in places like it, and to know how to manipulate his material in order, as he puts it, "to give them their mythical childhood; what they think they had." In this sense, then, he is very accomplished; a slick Easterner creating a Midwestern world of illusions that is even more illusory than it first appears. To learn he's not "for real" is to remember that, well, Babe Ruth had venereal disease and Robert Frost in real life was crabby, cynical, and unlovable. Nothing's sacred anymore. Why should Jean Shepherd be any different?
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