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Shep on the Radio

 

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A LONG-BELATED TRIBUTE

Date: 01-06-2009
By: Russ Firestone

Above all else, Jean Shepherd was about laughter and the love of life. I wish my connection with him made for a funny story. But it's a tribute far too long overdue. While I was growing up during the 1960s in Long Island, NY, my father (who died when I was ten) was a mean, sometimes violent drunk. He got off work around 8PM and -- depending on if he stopped off for a few drinks, or how many he had -- he'd be home between 9 and 11. Those being schoolnights, I was in bed by 9. A good night was when he'd come home and merely have a loud argument with my mother. A worse night -- if he was extra-drunk, or my name came up -- would find him opening my bedroom door and slurring curses at me while I pretended to be sleeping. The worst nights were when nothing (including my mother) could stop him from hauling me out of bed and taking his belt to my butt. Not surprisingly, I was an insomniac by the age of eight. It was better to wait up for whatever was coming than to be snatched out of a dream into a waking nightmare. So, I began sneaking a little 9-volt AM radio under the covers and listening to it through an earpiece, while keeping my other ear peeled for my father. That was how I first stumbled upon Jean Shepherd on WOR, 10:15-11PM, Monday through Friday. I didn't get all of his humor at that age, of course, although I enjoyed many of the stories he told about himself and his friends as youngsters. But, far more importantly, what I got was this booming, jolly, friendly, male voice -- with the warmest laugh -- in my ear every night. After his show, I'd turn off the radio and, if the house was quiet, I could finally get to sleep... because Jean had told me a bedtime story. And, every night, I fell asleep wishing (pretending, I think) that Jean Shepherd was my father. I became a TV writer and producer, and remained a life-long Shep fan. Unfortunately, I had such a big ego early on in my career -- exaggerated, no doubt, by my childhood insecurity -- that I thought it beneath me to write a fan letter to anyone in show business, no matter how much I privately admired them. Well, I'm now into my fifties, the ego is gone, and I guess I'm doing some "housecleaning". There are a number of artists who have left us in recent years to whom I wish I'd written those fan letters; but there is no error of omission I regret more than not telling Jean, while he was alive, how he helped save MY life. I don't know if this is the right forum, or the best forum, on which to say these things. I don't know who's out there to read these words. And I'm not religious. But I'm going to address them to Jean, anyway, because I don't know what else to do with them: Thank you, Shep. Peace. Forever. Russ Firestone Orlando, FL rfirestone2323@gmail.com 8
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