Already loving history in general, and having been turned on to the notion of local history while growing up in Oregon, Illinois, I had long loved my Dad's and my Grandparents' stories of what life was like when he was a kid, or back in the Depression. With my cousin Steve, I would explore my Grandparents' house and garage in Sterling, Illinois, 30 miles down the Rock River from my home, turning up "archaeology" of when our Dads were kids.
Cleveland stole our 'Christmas Story'
By Mark Kiesling
This story originally ran in The Times on Dec. 24, 2006.
We have been sandbagged by Cleveland, of all places.
I'm not going to be one of those guys who puts Cleveland down. They've got a nice baseball park and consistently field a decent team. They've got the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. And their river does not catch fire anymore, which has to be a plus in anyone's book.
To be fair, it's Hammond's fault, in a way, that Cleveland has stolen one of America's most-watched holiday films, which is based on a book by a Hammond author and which was set in thinly disguised 1940 Hammond.
Back in 1983, when set locators were trying to figure out where to film the movie, they decided Hammond did not look enough like Hammond and instead chose Cleveland to shoot the exterior shots.
Earlier this year, an East Coast entrepreneur, who is a fan of the film, bought the house in Cleveland and totally refurbished the inside to resemble the house in the movie. The actual interior scenes were filmed on a sound stage in Toronto.
Author Jean Shepherd (1921-1999) co-wrote and narrated the film, which tells the tale of 9-year-old Ralph Parker and his lust for a Red Ryder 200-shot Range model air rifle amid the trials and tribulations of kidhood at Warren G. Harding Elementary School.
With most famous people, it's enough for a town just to remember he or she once came from there and be done with it. After all, everyone's got to be born somewhere.
But with Shepherd, it's more than that -- much more.
Hammond is not only where he spent his formative years but also is the reason he is famous. It was his stories about growing up in and around Hammond that first attracted his wide audience on New York City radio station WOR, and it was his stories of his Hammond upbringing that made him one of the most significant humor authors of the 20th century.
Hammond was not just his home. It was his muse. It was to Shepherd what Hannibal, Mo., was to Mark Twain, to whom he has often been compared. It's what Lake Wobegon is to Garrison Keillor, except Hammond is real.
So why is Cleveland cashing in on the fame of one movie while Hammond is content to let the entire body of Shepherd's work slide by largely unnoticed?
Uneasy at home
Shepherd never felt easy in his hometown, which he believed had ignored his success. Yet he accepted the second-ever Hammond Achievement Award in 1980 and came here to accept it.
But even his acceptance letter is a mild slap at his native city.
"I've always had a sneaking suspicion that an undercover Select Committee of watchful Hammond citizens was operating successfully to keep my books, short stories, TV shows and any mention of my name out of the records of the town for their own sinister purposes.
"Hammond is where I grew up. Hammond is also the town that is the center of all my writing."
Maybe it was the fact that he achieved fame in New York City, an alien world. Or maybe it was that most of his short stories were published in Playboy, which in the mid 1960s was the Ground Zero of hedonism.
Northwest Indiana has never been big on hedonism.
Whatever the reason, Cleveland has cashed in, and Hammond is once again left at the dock after the ship has sailed.
Overlooking a landmark
When Shepherd's boyhood home, the scene of most of his stories, went up for sale last year, it sold like any other Hessville home. There was no move to acquire it as a landmark, no move to make it into what Cleveland has done with what was basically used as a shell.
Unlike Cleveland, Hammond has no gift shop selling Ovaltine, Lifebuoy soap or a working replica of the 1940 Speed-O-Matic Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. There's an "Official Chinese Restaurant of A Christmas Story House" in Cleveland that offers a 20-percent discount with a house tour stub.
Hammond could easily have had its own tour. Shepherd's house remains at 2907 Cleveland St. Flick's house is at 3024 Cleveland, and although there is a new Harding school, a little forethought could have saved at least the flagpole from the old one.
Shepherd, like Ralph, had a little brother named Randy.
Schwarz' house is there at 6810 Arizona St., and Miss Ruth Shields, Shepherd's teacher in film as well as in real life, lived at 105 157th St., Calumet City, and at 51 Lawndale in Hammond.
Alas, no Bumpus clan lived next door, but the Bruners did. And census records show Rolf Bruner was born in Kentucky -- just like the apparently fictional Emil Bumpus. Bruner's son -- also Rolf, who was Shepherd's age -- also would show up in some of the short stories.
Truth or fiction?
The film's Ralph Wesley Parker is, of course, Jean Parker Shepherd in light disguise.
On radio, on TV and on film, Shepherd entertained people with his sometimes nostalgic, sometimes satiric -- but never sentimental -- look at growing up in Northwest Indiana.
In 2001, a look back by Ed Clark of Time Magazine said Shepherd "proclaimed loudly and at length that nothing he wrote about ever happened."
"Shep constantly claimed it was all fiction," wrote Jim Clavin, who maintains the fan Web site www.flicklives.com in his discussion of Shepherd.
Both Clark and Clavin note that those most familiar with the real Shepherd don't entirely buy that, or a lot of other things he said.
"I don't think he was a slave to the truth," said Tom Vanes, whose father was a year ahead of Shepherd at Hammond High School and who, like Shepherd, attended Warren G. Harding Elementary School in the city's Hessville neighborhood.
"My dad knew him and didn't have much good to say about him," Vanes said. "He thought he was kind of a, how can I put it in a way you can print?"
He was kind of a horse's posterior. How's that?
But when you have money or fame, that is known as being a "curmudgeon," which Shepherd could be.
Connecting with shepherd
But for those of us who live in Shep's world -- where "the trains thunder through the dark on their way to somewhere else and the sky is always lit by the eternal flames of the open hearth and blast furnaces" -- well, for us, we want to know where Ralph Parker and Jean Shepherd overlap.
The only sign of Shepherd's association with Hammond is the Jean Shepherd Community Center opened in Hessville's Dowling Park in 2002.
Even that was an uphill struggle. Former park board member Rick Bryant pushed for naming the building after Shepherd but had to explain to two of his fellow board members who Shepherd was.
"I don't remember hearing too much about him growing up in Hessville," said Vanes, who now lives in Lowell. "About all you knew was that there was this person named Shepherd who grew up in Hessville and went on to achieve some semi-renown as an author."
Flick ended up running Flick's Tavern, the joint established by his father, Noble Flickinger. He bought the home next to his mother at 3016 Cleveland and after retirement moved to Florida. He returned to Lowell, and died there in 1994 at age 73.
Paul Schwartz entered the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. His B-17 of the 463rd Bomb Group was shot down over Italy on March 19, 1944. A memorial reference can be found in the final chapter of "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."
"Too bad Schwartz couldn't have been here," I said.
Flick grunted, busy with his change counting. We both knew Schwartz had been shot down over Italy. They never found him.
At the end of the day
History. Fiction. They are intertwined in so much of what Shepherd said and did that it's a wonder he could keep them straight himself. Or maybe he didn't.
The 1974 edition of Who's Who In America says Shepherd was born July 26, 1929, in Chicago. Right date, right place, wrong year. Shep had shaved eight years off.
He could tell blatant untruths, such as that a place known as Flick's Tavern never existed. He could tell cruel lies as well, such as when he maintained he had no children when in fact he had two from whom he remained estranged his entire life.
Does any of this minimize what Shepherd left behind -- the radio tapes, the short stories, the books and the films? Not in the least.
In the final analysis, what writers today call "at the end of the day," what matters is not who produced the material or what resources he drew on, but that his factual fiction touches us where we are and where we live, be it Hammond or New York City.
"He was one of the great American humorists," said Bryant. "He tells stories that everyone can relate to, whether it be getting terrorized by the neighborhood bully, going to school in the winter or getting your first BB gun."
It is not necessary to celebrate Jean Shepherd the man to celebrate Jean Shepherd the writer.
But it wouldn't hurt to turn down the leg lamp, pour yourself a glass of wine and tune in to "A Christmas Story."