Jean Shepherd has 'new' book out

2013-12-15T00:00:00Z Jean Shepherd has 'new' book outJoseph S. Pete, (219) 933-3316
December 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

HAMMOND | Jean Shepherd recently published a new book more than a decade after his death, and it was not a newly discovered manuscript that had been squirreled away deep in some desk drawer.

The man who literally wrote the new book on the "A Christmas Story" author and radio raconteur from Hammond's Hessville neighborhood transcribed Army stories Shepherd recounted while hosting a late-night show on New York City's WOR during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Eugene B. Bergmann, the author of the biography/appreciation, "Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd," edited the new collection of Shepherd's work, which New York-based Opus Books published earlier this year with a foreword by television commentator Keith Olbermann.

"Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters and Boondoggles" compiles Shepherd's broadcasted stories about his experiences as a World War II-era U.S. Army radar technician, before he made it big as a humorist, radio host, author and screenwriter of "A Christmas Story." Bergmann decided to group those tales together because it was the second-most popular subject for his on-air storytelling, after his reminiscences of his Northwest Indiana childhood.

Shep, as he was known, never saw combat or left the home front during his service. But his stint in the military still inspired memorable tales, such as a night maneuver through the Everglades or when he was led to a room with 500 dead chickens piled on newspapers and told to pluck them.

"Some are humorous and laugh-out-loud funny," Bergmann said. "Other times he's telling some serious stuff about what humans are like under the pressure of the military."

A young Bergmann was studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn when he became a member of the Night People, as Shep's devout fans were called.

He was captivated by Shepherd's yarns, such as the tale of how a colleague won a contest that let him decide where Luden's would donate 500 pounds of candy. They thought he would send it down the block, maybe to the Red Cross or Boy Scouts, but he instead decided on a spot in the Amazon where a tribe of Peruvian Indians used to be headhunters before they were converted to Christianity. Luden's insisted the contest winner go along with the company representatives, but he volunteered Shepherd instead. Shep jumped at the chance, brought along his kazoo and nose flute, and got into a jam session with the tribespeople. They marveled how he was the first visitor who attempted to interact with them instead of just study them or convert them.

"A fellow student at school told me he was fascinating, but his show was on late, from 1 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. in the morning, and I went to sleep long before that," Bergmann said. "But then his show got moved to 9 p.m. on Sunday, and I began to listen. I was immediately struck by this guy saying all kinds of intellectual things he was passing off as general commentary. If another person mentioned they were a Jean Shepherd fan, there was an immediate connection. You were part of the same intellectual family."

Shepherd's way of thinking — how he was amused by the world's foibles — profoundly influenced Bergmann, who went on to be an exhibit designer for the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and to work with best-selling cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead.

When Shepherd died in 1999, Bergmann read an obituary and realized the extent to which Shepherd shaped his view of the world. He learned a writer was working on a biography and fed him clippings, notes and ideas until he suddenly disappeared.

A dejected Bergmann wondered if Shepherd would ever get the book-length biography he deserved, and then realized he was the person to write it. Since then, he has spent much of his time studying Shepherd's life and work, under the glow of the leg lamp on his desk. He penned extensive introductions to provide context for each of Shepherd's stories in the new 232-page book, and blogs about Shepherd at least every few days.

"Over the past decade, Shepherd has become my main obsession, to the point where my wife is jealous," he said.

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