A long time ago, when I was a kid of 10 or 12 living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I came upon a radio show, quite by accident. Well, as much as anything can be an accident, as I truly believe there is nothing random or accidental about the connections we make in this life.
The host, a raconteur by the name of Jean Shepherd, was to become a permanent part of my nightly radio listening habits until WOR canceled the show in 1976, and a life-long influence on my own writing interests and style. Shepherd was one of the originators of the oral narrative style, and a storyteller who was second to none.
Jean Shepherd at the mic - WOR-AM, NY. 1970
On that particular nite in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Shep was reading a short story of his that was to become one of the most beloved holiday tales of the latter 20th Century … “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” from his anthology classic, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash“. This short story, like many of the others in the book, started out as an article in Playboy Magazine, where Shep was the humor editor for years.
Never heard of the story, the book, or the writer? What do you mean you never heard of it? Of course you have … You’ve probably seen the movie that was adapted from it, at the very least, a few dozen times. I referring to the now classic, “A Christmas Story“.
While the movie lives on in the collective pop consciousness, re-visited yearly by a generation of ’80s kids passing the film on to their families as a cherished holiday tradition, Shepherd remains largely relegated to the list of forgotten authors and radio personalities of old. That is, except for a collection of die-hard fans, such as myself, who would have him declared a national treasure. Books have been written about him. Many of the faithful have preserved and re-issued his broadcasts, and have created Shep Podcasts. My own dream is to make an indie film about his life in the ’50s/’60s, and his ill-fated marriage to actress Lois Nettleton, as the man was as much of an enigma and troubled soul as he was a genius, and his life both fascinating and tragic.
So if you’ve got kids who are a bit past the Dr. Seuss phase and not quite ready for the “Twilight” saga (and is anyone, really? ), do youself, and them, a favor. Pick up a copy of “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash“, and read them “Duel in the Snow” for Christmas. Then let them pick up the rest of the book on their own. It might just inspire a lasting interest in one of America’s greatest native storytellers, or a desire to write like him. At the very least they’ll know that there was a far deeper well that the “A Christmas Story” movie was drawn from.
As a special Christmas Eve treat, I’m including an mp3 of Shep reading a shortened version of the story on his show in 1972. Hearing this story from the lips of Shepherd, the master storyteller himself, is the best way to experience this tale.
Enjoy, and Merry Christmas to all!