For some unaccountable reason, I discovered I was
Jean Shepherd (1921-1999) is a writer, humorist, and journalist. Many of you will recognize him as the author of the short stories on which the popular perennial Christmas movie A Christmas Story is based. Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories is a collection of several of Mr. Shepherd's reminiscences that originally appeared in Playboy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, of which the Wanda Hickey essay is the final installment. Right from the gitgo, reading the titles, you realize you're in for a superior reading experience, as each of them conveys an American-original young-male sprout's world in all its complexity:
The Wimpy doll was special:
...at one point in American history there was actually a Popeye radio program.... They offered you a choice of a Wimpy doll, a Popeye doll, an Olive Oyl doll, or an Alice the Goon doll if you ate enough soup and sent in the labels. ...I was probably the only kid in the United States who didn't order a Popeye doll; I went for Wimpy, a down-at-the-heels moocher who lived only to stuff his gut with hamburgers. I identified with him.
Then, of course, the featured essay, Wanda Hickey, who is the adoring romantic girlfriend who attends the junior prom with Ralph at the Cherrywood Country Club. I love the way Shepherd sets up his stories, and to configure Wanda Hickey's special night, Shep is performing his one-night-a-week forced watching of educational TV. This evening the TV announcer is discussing rites of passage for a Micronesian tribe:
"When an Ugga Buggah reaches puberty, the rites are rigorous and unvarying for both sexes. Difficult dances are performed and the candidate for adulthood must eat a sickening ritual meal during the postdance banquet. You will also notice that his costume is as uncomfortable as it is decorative."
So we are taken to the modern-American ritual of going to the prom. Even though the actual era of Jean Shepherd's prom was the mid-1930s, the ritual hadn't changed much through the 1950s—the promotional art and TV imagery for Jean Shepherd's nostalgia pieces suggest a late-1940s/early-1950s period (for example, the front cover of the book shows a ~1953 Ford convertible), I'm guessing for Baby-Boomer marketing reasons—and even into modern times with Generation <letter du jour>. For the guy there's the agonizing process of asking the right girl, then the tux, the corsage, the car, the money, the dancing, and the post-prom shenanigans; for the girl it's often seen as a dress rehearsal for a "queen for a day" wedding and the measured release of feminine virtue to secure the best possible husband-and-father-hood material.
Dark and sensuous, the dance floor engulfed us all. I felt
tall, slim, and beautiful, not realizing at the time that everybody feels that way wearing a white coat and rented pants. I could see myself standing on a mysterious balcony, a lonely, elegant figure, looking out over the lights of some exotic city, a scene of sophisticated gaiety behind me....
And I'll let you read the hilarious denouement.
As the dim bulb illuminated a faint circle on the gray concrete floor, I scratched out a mark in the exact center of the pool of light for a target and stepped back into almost full darkness. I could smell the moldering old tires that my father kept hanging on the walls just in case someday he might pick up another Hupmobile, and the mildewed Sunday papers of years back that lay piled against the concrete-block walls, and the scent of countless generations of field mice who had lived out their lives in this basement, and the dusty Mason jars filled with grape jelly and strawberry preserves that lined the plank shelves under the steps, and the sharp rubber smell—bitter and strong—of the coiled garden hose under the workbench, and the more subtle but pervasive aroma of a half ton of damp soft coal in the pitchblack bin, all held together with the soapy dankness of the drains covered with perforated iron lids, that every week carried the family's used water back into Lake Michigan.
You want wow? This is wow. It's pure poetry. I wish I could write like that. I wish I had his subtle emotionally descriptive vocabulary. I wish I could remember things that well. Perhaps that's his appeal, too: Shepherd's books go a long way toward filling in the blanks that seemed to give our lives meaning and significance so long ago. Jean Shepherd: An American treasure who deserves a hearty rediscovery.
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