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Occasionally, something small triggers a synapse, which nudges a dim memory, which elbows a nagging recollection, and the next thing you know, you're on the Internet chasing an unscratched itch with a Louisville Slugger. With me, it started as a snippet from a poem I'd heard on the radio a generation ago. Eventually, Google yielded the name of the poem, The Ballad of Yukon Jake, and then I did a search on Jean Shepherd, whose voice recited those lines to me from a radio speaker when I was young. I learned he died in October 1999, just a little over a decade ago.

I imagine many of you may be asking, "Jean...who?" That's right. Go ahead. Make me feel old.

Who was Jean Shepherd? Well, “Shep” was a rare talent who observed the world, extracted the silliness, pretension, humor and absurdity, distilled it down to "white lightning" strength, and then administered it in liberal doses that left you rolling on the floor, laughing yourself blue.

My first encounter with Shep was purely accidental. About a week after my fifteenth birthday, I was under the covers in my bedroom, in the dark, surreptitiously listening to my new, 8-transistor AM pocket radio. This was strictly against my parents’ rules, but I figured, hey, it was Saturday night, and if God hadn’t intended for me to use the earphone, the radio wouldn’t have come with one.

I was blindly tuning around for something that sounded interesting when BOOM! I tuned in a signal that nearly blew out my eardrum.

It was some guy, holding forth in front of an audience. He called them “fellow sufferers” and referred to us radio listeners as “wretched reprobates,” and for a moment, I thought I’d picked up a come-to-God broadcast from someplace in the boonies – a neat trick from Queens, New York – but there was too much laughter in his voice. I took my thumb off the dial.

The speaker was spinning a tale involving him and some buddies named Schwartz and Flick, and the audience kept howling with merriment, and I could tell the storyteller was laughing, too. Pretty soon, so was I (and, under the circumstances, trying to do so quietly).

And so began my time as a Shepherd fan. I wasn't a dyed-in-the-wool kind of fanatic, but I always managed to listen once or twice a week. I recall that on weekdays, Shepherd broadcast his show from the WOR studio between 10 and 11 pm, and on Saturday nights, he'd do a show from 9 pm to midnight at a club called The Limelight in Greenwich Village.

Then again, come to think of it, maybe I was something of a fanatic. Looking at my high school yearbook, I note that, among the standard mix of Biblical and other high-falutin' quotes selected by the members of my graduating class to set off our respective mug shots, I was the one who proclaimed The king is dead! Long live Jean Shepherd!

After acquiring a tape recorder, I captured a number of Shep’s broadcasts, and I listened to some of them so many times that I ended up memorizing – by osmosis, apparently - poems such as The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Pines, by Robert W. Service.

Then there was the, um, minor scam I pulled in freshman year at college at the student newspaper office, pitching my attendance at a Shepherd press conference at Town Hall in Manhattan as newsworthy, but really with only one thought in mind: to obtain press credentials to see Shep in person, up close and personal. (It didn't quite turn out that way. I got into the press conference, just barely, together with about every journalism major within 200 miles of Central Park. All of us stuffed a small room to hear Shepherd hold forth on I’ve-long-forgotten-what and to lead us, at the end of the event, in his trademark cry of “Excelsior!”)

Shepherd did talk radio way before talk radio was cool, at a time when radio personalities relied on their own talent and imagination and not telephones to fill the air time. Shepherd was an artist, a raconteur, and in his own way, a rabble-rouser.

One story from before my discovery of Shep was his I, Libertine hoax, in which he asked his late-night listeners – whom he christened “the night people” (as distinguished from those who went about their mundane lives engaged in what Shep called “creeping meatballism”) - to go into bookstores the following day to ask for a book titled I, Libertine. The gimmick? No such book existed.

“The first couple of times,” said Shep, “the response is going to be ‘I, Libertine? Never heard of it.’ By mid-day, you'll hear ’Sorry, we just sold the last copy!’ By late afternoon, they’ll be saying ‘It’s back-ordered!’” Would I, Libertine make the best-seller list? Who could tell? Shep’s practical joke took on a life of its own.

Rumors cropped up suggesting the book had been banned in Boston. Listeners wrote in, saying they had dared to submit term papers on the book, and had received respectable grades in return (including the occasional "deep" comment about the book from a prof). Eventually, a publisher hired Theodore Sturgeon to write the book based on Shep’s outline, and I, Libertine actually went on to become a short-lived bestseller.

Besides his radio work, Shep wrote books and articles, and later produced a PBS series called Jean Shepherd's America. But I think what he will always be remembered for is his movie-length tale of A Christmas Story, light-heartedly relating the Yuletide tribulations of a boy named Ralphie in Depression-era Indiana. No doubt you’ve seen it, as it’s a classic offering on the tube during this time of the year.

As with perhaps too many things in my life, I moved on from Shep to other things without too many thoughts or backward glances. I was saddened to learn of his death. Sad, too, to know he missed one of the finer opportunities in recent memory to snicker at society's foibles when the year changed from 1999 to 2000. He would have had a lot of fun with that, I think.

Then again, we might not have survived the laughter.

Excelsior!
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