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  • December 31st, 2010

The Original Storyteller

By Joel  M. Vance

If you haven’t seen “A Christmas Story” on television you’ve been dead for 20 years.  TBS broadcasts it for 24 hours every Christmas Eve.  It’s the legendary story of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB Gun, the bully Scut Farkus, the Bumpus dogs, the Old Man and his beautiful Major Award Leg Lamp.

Yes, anyone over the age of 40, maybe 50, has rolled on the floor when Flick gets his tongue stuck on an icy post or when Ralphie receives a bunny jammie outfit from his aunt.  When Ralphie spills the lug nuts as his father is changing a flat and says, “Oh, Fuhhhhhh…..” there isn’t a kid alive who doesn’t remember getting caught by a parent saying the Magic Word and who still remembers the traumatic aftermath.

Like Ralphie, I remember the taste of soap, used to cleanse the mouths of adolescent cussers.  I called a fellow tot a “Son of a bee” and I really was not thinking of the “itch” part.  But my mother interpreted it as the complete phrase and marched me to the bathroom for some Lifeboy therapy.

And when Ralphie decodes the eagerly-anticipated Little Orphan Annie Decoder Badge and finds that the Secret Circle secret message says only, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” and gripes, “It’s a commercial.  Son of a bitch!” I empathized.

I had a very similar Captain Midnight Decoder badge, much like the scam that Little Orphan Annie was running, and which probably sent messages equivalent to Drink Ovaltine.  Like Ralphie, I had a Red Ryder BB gun which I used to pin my cousin inside his family outhouse, shooting BBs through the half-moon so they’d ricochet inside.

His mother took the gun away and probably said something like, “You’ll shoot his eye out, kid,” although I don’t remember for sure.

Yes, “A Christmas Story” is in many ways parallel to my early years.

In the 1950s, I would stay up until two or three in the morning to listen to a disc jockey who rarely played records.  He told stories about his family and growing up in the south side Chicago area where I was born.

The guy’s name was Jean Shepherd and in my formative years I decided to write stories just like his.  He wrote the stories that became “A Christmas Story” and he narrates the classic film.  He was my hero when I was in high school and has remained so ever since.

Maybe Garrison Keillor also stayed up late listening to him.  Shepherd was jealous of Keillor’s fame as a storyteller, believing somewhat rightly that he paved the way as a storyteller and should have been recognized as the Founding Father.

Shepherd had a series on PBS called “Jean Shepherd’s America” and he was a mainstay on New York City radio for years.  His stories were regular in Playboy magazine (and guys really DID read the magazine for his stories).   He had countless other outlets for his storytelling, including college one-man shows.

Jean Shepherd is sadly gone.  He died in 1999, ending decades of spinning tales about the human condition.  I give him full credit for inspiring my first book, “Grandma and the Buck Deer,.”  a ripoff of sorts because the stories would not have been inspired or written if I hadn’t been so infused with the spirit of Jean Shepherd.

So here, in tribute to the master storyteller Jean Shepherd, is the first story I wrote “in the spirit of Jean Shepherd”:

THE SCHOOL PLAY

It all started with a note home from Miss Allendale, my fifth grade teacher, a wispy young woman who always looked on the verge of tears and carried herself with the nervous anxiety of a house wren.

“Here’s the word from the birdies to tell you the fifth grade has decided to entertain you.  All the children want to invite you to the school auditorium on Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.”

I read the note on the way home from school and felt like gagging.  “Word from the birdies, for Pete’s sake!” I exclaimed.  Miss Allendale’s prose could put a diabetic into a coma.  She had spent most of the afternoon studying each of us pensively, a bit apprehensively (though it was hard to tell since she always seemed apprehensive), gnawing a pencil eraser and frowning.  Occasionally when her glance rested on a particular kid a tiny birdflicker of a smile would wriggle over her mouth and she’d write something down on a pad of paper, and then resume her reverie.

We found in the last hour, that she’d been casting her epic which, contrary to the implication in the note, had been conceived and written by Miss Allendale.  It was entitled, “Children of the World” and featured simple songs, dances and situations from history and legend.  She assigned our parts just before school’s end.

“Bobby,” she told me, handing me a smudged mimeographed script, “you’ll be the little Dutch boy who saves Holland by putting his finger in the dike.  You’re the hero.  The whole play revolves around you.”

Well, now, that sounded a bit of all right.  With the massive confidence of Richard Burton, I said, “Okay, I guess I’ll take it then.”

My first speech was a soliloquy which wasn’t destined for the required reading list in English Lit., but which was, like Miss Allendale, childishly direct: “I’m just a poor little Dutch boy and nobody likes me.  Nobody pays any attention to me.  If only I could do something to make people notice me.  I wish I could be a hero!”

That Miss Allendale sure could write!

After my oration I was supposed to slump dejectedly beside the dike while a group of children trundled onstage and sang a tender ballad entitled “The Little Dutch Boy” composed by Miss Allendale (lyrics) and the band director (melody).

“All along he walked by the Zuider Zee,

Not a friend in the world had he.

He thought he’d never, never be big…

All alone like a friendless pig.”

I suspected Miss Allendale was stuck for a rhyme on the last line, grasping at straws, because I couldn’t see how a lonesome Dutch kid and an unhappy pig jibed.  “Water squirts through set behind Dutch boy,” the script directed.  “The dike has burst!” I was to cry, upon seeing the water.

But there was no one to hear me so I plugged the leak by sticking my finger in it, saving Holland from the angry seas.  Pretty neat stuff for a 10-year old.  Since practical time limitations precluded me waiting as long as the original Little Dutch Boy waited for help, the passage of time was explained by a little girl at stage right:

“Many, many hours waited he,

Holding back the raging sea.

Almost exhausted, he waited alone,

Like a hungry dog waiting for a bone.”

Miss Allendale was a great one for animal simile.  The play had a happy ending.  The fifth grade didn’t go in for grim realism.  Just as I was near the end of the my endurance, finger blue, someone happened along, found me, and sounded the alarm.  After that everyone burst on stage, shouting, laughing, and singing about what a hero I was.

I ran all the way home and into the kitchen yelling, “Mom!  I’m in a play at school!  I’m the hero!  I save Holland!”

“Well,” she said, rolling a chicken leg in flour, “before you save anything, go up town and get me a loaf of bread.”

“Ma  I can’t!  I gotta practice!”

“Bread, then practice.”  I could see John Wayne trudging off to town, stepping on his lower lip to get his mom a loaf of bread.  Uh-huh.

By the time my father came home I’d learned my part.  I dragged my parents into the front room and forced them to listen to me emote.  I gave it everything I had.  “That’s just fine,” my father said, rattling the Birch Lake Beacon.  “Which one of the Three Pigs did you say you were?”

Rehearsals went well for the first week.  I was ready for the big night but I wasn’t too sure about Miss Allendale.  She grew increasingly nervous as First Night approached.  It was her first production and she had a thriving case of  the jitters.  When someone forgot his lines, she gulped.  When the chorus lost the melody and wandered off in different musical directions like grazing sheep she blanched.  When the Russian dancers fell down she moaned.

The Russians gave her most of the trouble.  Ten youngsters stubbornly refused to learn the steps to a peasant dance and when they finally did get the steps right they lost their balance and fell down.  Several boys threatened mutiny because they had to put their arms around girls.  Miss Allendale cajoled, begged and threatened but the Russians remained stoically wrong.

Finally the big night came and all over Birch Lake fathers swore as they struggled into unfamiliar suits, mothers hovered, mouths full of pins, and youngsters wiped sweaty palms and tried to quiet galloping hearts.

There was a sense of excitement outside the school when we got there.  The night was filled with running, chattering kids.  Parents talked in the crisp dark about late-season fishing and early season hunting.  The auditorium was full of the shuffle and clack of seats being lowered and raised.  The curtain billowed as someone backstage bumped into it.  I went backstage for makeup and last-minute instructions from the harried Miss Allendale.

I found the group of Dutch boys and girls.  As if it had been waiting for me to arrive, trouble started. Little Mary Magee, who was to be the narrator of my scene, suddenly said, “I don’t feel so very good,” and threw up.

She started to cry and two members of the chorus joined her.  Miss Allendale came running across the stage, here eyes wide and worried.  “What’s the matter!” she cried.  “What’s the matter!”

“Ain’t nothin’, lady,” said the janitor, instantly on the spot with a mop and bucket.  “Little kid just pitched her cookies.  Happens every time we gotta ‘sembly.”

When Miss Allendale saw what had happened, she nearly fainted, but pulled herself together and sent someone to find Mary’s parents to tell them what had happened.  They soon came backstage and led their sobbing daughter toward the exit.  That left us without a narrator for the middle of the scene.  Miss Allendale made a quick, panicky survey of the survivors and finally drafted a little girl from the chorus.  She gave the girl a copy of the narration to study in a quiet corner.

She wiped her brow, cast her eyes briefly skyward, and rushed off to quiet a pair of pigtailed girls who were arguing loudly about the relative size of their roles.

Some of Mary’s mal-de-theatrics began to communicate itself to me.  A film of cold perspiration broke out on the palms of my hands.  Trying to calm myself I decided to practice my big speech, the final one, and found to my utter horror that I couldn’t recall even the first word.  I made a frantic grab for my battered script and looked at the speech.  Each sentence looked as foreign as Senegalese.

It was curtain time.  Oh, horrors!  Miss Allendale shushed us and hustled everyone offstage except the first scene players.  The rest of us huddled back in the wings while the curtain rose on a Gypsy scene.  Through the side curtains I saw a dim mass of faces, bathed in the hazy glow from the footlights.  The crowd coughed and shuffled its many feet, like some monstrous centipede with catarrh.

I tried to choke down a walnut-sized lump in my throat.  The Gypsy dancers whirled and rattled their tambourines.  Everything was going well until one little boy let go of his tambourine in the middle of a less-than-graceful pirouette and watched it sail out over the footlights into the audience.

There was a faint tinkle and crash from the darkness as it landed and a louder crash from the stage as a second dancer ran into the first, knocking both of them down.  A third dancer fell over the first two and everyone else stopped uncertainly.

Miss Allendale cried in a voice clearly audible at the back of the auditorium, “Pull the curtain!  Pull the curtain!” There was a rustle of nervous laughter from the audience and Miss Allendale turned an unhealthy ivory color.

The next act, however, was uneventful and both she and I settled down somewhat.  The missing speech began to come back to me.  It was nearing time for the Dutch act and I thought I’d better have someone put on my makeup.  Three harassed mothers had volunteered (much against their better judgment) to paint the faces of the players and they now were fluttering and swabbing frantically to keep up with the rush.

I managed to edge in front of a boy in the line leading to one of the makeup women.  “Hey!” he exclaimed, grabbing me by the shoulder.  “I was here first.  Go back to the end of the line.”  He pushed me and that made me mad.

”Nuts to you,” I said.  “I gotta get my stuff on.”

“Now boys,” said the makeup mother between dabs with a powder puff.  “Be quiet and don’t argue.  They’ll hear you.”  She motioned toward the audience with her puff.  The boy paid her no attention and shoved me again.  “Get back there or I’ll hand you a fat eye!” he hissed.

“You and what army, dummy?” I sneered.  He jumped at me and I dodged.  The makeup mother stepped back in alarm and raised her hands to quiet us.  Her heel came down on the bare foot of a little girl in a Hawaiian costume.

The girl gave a high scream of pain and the woman clawed desperately for her balance.  She grabbed the nearest support which happened to be the setting at the side of the stage.  The scenery had been designed to withstand normal wear and tear, but not a sudden assault by a full-grown woman.

The setting began to topple, then crashed, carrying the woman with it.  The two of them landed in full view of the audience with a thunderclap sound as the flat hit the stage floor.  All motion stopped onstage.  Several little boys giggled and the little girls blushed under their makeup.  The fallen mother was crimson.  Again the curtain was hastily pulled in the middle of an act.  There was hearty laughter, mostly male, from the audience.

The mother scrambled to her feet and shouted, “If I get my hands on those two little brats I’LL WRING THEIR NECKS!”

I melted into the crowd, my nerves singing like telephone wires.  I caught a glimpse of Miss Allendale, quietly crying, the tears streaming unchecked down her wan cheeks.  Two prop men replaced the fallen setting and Miss Allendale weakly signaled for the next act to begin.  She had resigned herself to whatever damnation results from artistic catastrophe.  She was going through the motions of running her dream production but her heart wasn’t in it.  Miss Allendale was a broken woman. Her shoulders hunched in dejection. Her movements were wooden and automatic and her eyes lifeless. Her hair was disarrayed.  Could nothing revive her shattered spirits?  I felt a great wave of compassion for her. Perhaps the Dutch skit would be such a blinding artistic triumph that all would be saved.  I owed it to her for her faith in me.  I could do no less than bring the audience to its feet, cheering, shouting “Bravo!” or what ever Birch Lake audiences shouted when they liked something.

Amazingly the tottering drama righted itself for the next two skits.  A number about Mexico, featuring Miss Allendale’s vision of the Hat Dance, went off without a hitch and drew a healthy round of relieved applause.  The skit just before mine, dealing with Hawaii, was perfect except for a slight limp from one of the hula girls.

The audience was receptive and the performers in the Dutch skit, sensing that conditions were perfect for a socko finish, were cocky and eager to have at it.  Everything seemed right for a smash finale.  I poised in the wings, waiting for the curtain, exhilaration flooding me.  This would be, I felt sure, the beginning of a dramatic career which would eclipse that of Johnny Mack Brown or even the Durango Kid.

The curtain rose.

I strode confidently from the security of the wings to the middle of the intensely lighted stage, alone and composed, the hush of the expectant audience almost palpable.

And suddenly a fantastic thing happened.  I realized that hundreds of critical eyes were fixed on my every move.  I was sure my fly was open, assuming I even was wearing pants.  My soul flooded with incalculable terror.  In less time than a lightning flash, my mouth went as dry as Death Valley, my limbs lost their coordination, and my eyes wallowed out of focus.  Fright bollixed my motor processes and I probably would have collapsed except that every joint was as frozen as if I’d gotten a cement transfusion.  All I could hear was a great roar, like the sea, and when I tried to lick my lips they were stuck together so tightly I couldn’t force my tongue between them.

Dimly I saw white faces of other children on the other side of the stage waiting for their cue but I couldn’t break the log jam in my head.  I stood rooted in panic for several million years, then very distantly heard a voice saying, “I’m just a poor little Dutch boy…”

I heard the phrase over and over again without realizing it was a hissed cue from backstage.  Finally the repetition triggering something and I croaked, “I’m just a poor little Dutch boy….”

Once the wheels were in motion I lost a bit of my fright and was able to finish the speech even though it lacked much depth of feeling.  I walked woodenly over to the dike painted on the rear stage flat.  There was a tiny trickle of water which I was not, at first, supposed to notice.  I didn’t.  I didn’t notice anything.

The chorus came on stage and warbled rather raggedly through the Friendless Pig piece and then crowded offstage, like a mob racing for a commuter train.  They should have been arrested for leaving the scene of an accident.

Dutifully I discovered the leak.  Or rather it discovered me.  I was sitting directly in front of the hole and someone turned the hose behind the scenery on full force.  The water hit me squarely in the back of the neck.

“The dike has burst!” I cried and then shouted, “Turn off that stinkin’ water!”  I leaped to my feet.  The audience roared, throwing me into another web of confusion.  Galvanized by the laughter I jammed my finger into the hole and a piercing wave of pain swept up my arm.  I had sprained the finger.

Someone behind the set was cursing softly as he tried to turn off the water.  I had poked the hose out of the hole when I stabbed my finger in it and the hose was lashing around behind the scenery.  Water seeped under the backdrop.

I sat with my back to the audience, ashamed to face them, and hoped that if death wouldn’t strike suddenly and end this, at least that I would faint and not revive until everyone in the audience had grown old and died.

The substitute for the little girl who had gotten sick marched out to the edge of the stage and promptly dropped her script into the orchestra pit.  She stood there panic stricken for at least a lifetime, and then burst into wails and had to be led off by one of the makeup mothers.

My finger was throbbing and I decided to take it out of the hole for a rest.  I didn’t think anyone would notice in the general confusion at the other side of the stage.  To my horror, I discovered that the finger had swelled and I couldn’t budge it, no matter how hard I tugged.  “My finger’s stuck,” I whispered, hoping the man who had been swearing at the hose would hear me.  But nothing happened.  I glanced at the front of the stage where the little girl was starting to read her speech from a new script. Evidently Miss Allendale had become grimly determined to finish the evening come hell or, appropriately enough, high water.  I began to sweat.

I pulled harder at the swollen finger and felt the entire setting stir slightly.  It teetered at the top.  I bit my lip and eased off the pressure.   The little girl finished her speech and the chorus came onstage and began to chant, “He’s a hero!  Look what he’s done!   He’s stopped the water!  He’s saved Holland!”

I whispered to the nearest kid that I couldn’t get my finger out of the dike but he didn’t hear me.  Two boys rushed over to me carrying a bucket and a trowel.  “Get your finger out,” one of them hissed.  “We’re supposed to fix the dike.”

“I can’t,” I told them.  “It’s stuck.”

“Come on! The second kid grated.

It’s stuck!” I repeated a bit louder.  I was getting mad.

“You better get your finger out or Miss Allendale will fan you good,” the first boy warned.

“I can’t!” I almost shouted.  ‘My finger’s stuck!”

I’ll get it out!” declared the second boy.  He clenched his jaw tight and grabbed my arm.  I started to shout a warming but too late.  He gave my arm a mighty jerk.

The setting started to topple as my finger came loose.  The thing hung in midair for a long time and we all scrambled out of the way.  It came down with a crash and a whoosh of air which nearly blew out the front three rows.  There were screams and shouted exclamations and through the hole created by the fallen set I saw Miss Allendale, her mouth working, her face blotchy.

The stage was a shambles and so was Miss Allendale’s show.  The next few moments were confused.  I found my parents in the crowd of people who had rushed to the stage to collect their threatened youngsters.  One Little League mother even had the gall to corner poor, terrified Miss Allendale and yell at her for quite a while.

I begged my parents to take me home, cried all the way, went to bed as quickly as I could get my clothes off, and curled into a tight fetal ball.

Miss Allendale never said a word about what had happened but I noticed that she never called on me for anything the rest of the time I was in her class.  She was married to an army lieutenant at the end of the school year and quit teaching entirely.  I never saw her after that.

The day after the assembly I decided to become a Texas Ranger when I grew up.

-30-

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4 Comments

  1. Eugene B. Bergmann

    January 1st, 2011 at 7:03 am

    Reply

    Your description of Jean Shepherd and your years as a fan of his, is classic. I, on the other hand, began listening in college, in 1956, and didn’t have to hide the fact from my parents. They were in the living room watching TV. Over four decades later, when I read his obituary in the New York Times, I realized that I’d lost an old friend. A few years later, the only book about him and his creative career, my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD was published. If you can’t get enough of Shepherd, see my book, and visit the great website http://www.flicklives.com By the way, many hundreds of his wonderful radio broadcasts are widely available for little or no money on the internet–see flicklives and ebay.

    Excelsior!
    Gene Bergmann

  2. Thorn

    January 7th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Reply

    I missed watching Christmas Story this year. 🙁 The holiday season went by so fast! Here’s to many more…

    • joelvance

      January 7th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

      Reply

      It’s hard to get by Christmas without seeing “A Christmas Story,” but there is a good DVD of it, which I got a couple of years ago in the unlikely event I do miss the annual TV marathon.

  3. NPN Transistor

    February 6th, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Reply

    “, that seems to be a great topic, i really love it ,.”



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