|[ Courtesy: Bill Forstchen - 05-07-2001 ]
The home in Maine. I lived on Snow Pond from 1984-1987 and that meeting was late in the summer of 1984. The place was on the east bank of the lake, a modest typical summer cottage, about two miles south of the village of Oakland. Oakland is about two or three miles to the southwest of Waterville Maine. Snow Pond, that's the local name, officially I remember its called Long Pond, is actually a rather large lake, about ten miles long. Its part of the Belgrade Lakes chain. Jean had a beautiful location, just below the first narrows, it was a tight place for tacking a sailboat and as I write this, I remember clipping past his place one day, hiked out in a strong breeze, Shep standing on his front porch holding up a beer in salute! I know they still had the place when I left in 1987.
My old man introduced me to Shep when I was a kid back in the 60s, growing up just outside of Newark NJ. We had a ritual late in the evening. Dad would pour me a small six ounce glass of Iron City Beer, we'd talk about the day and then listen to Shep. On occasion the old man would figure it was a bit too over the top for me and send me packing, but on most nights I'd sit there laughing, but then usually get a bit bleary and finally go to bed. In the morning as Dad drove me to school he'd tell me what I missed. When I got a bit older I had one of those pocket transistor radios, the type with the small dial on the side, put the earplug in, and tune the show in after going to bed.
I think I was one of the few of my generation who actually brought a Playboy for the articles, whenever Shep had a story, I was there to buy it, and could actually look the clerk in the eye as I slapped down my 75 cents.
I moved to Maine in the late 70s, started teaching and sold my first novel in 1982, a science fiction book. The advance on the book payment finally gave me enough change to actually get a house, my wife (who was also a Shep nut, she's Polish and just loved the Polish date story) and I settled on a home just outside of Waterville, on Snow Pond. Anyhow, we were watching a rerun of Shep's American Pie series, the episode where he is driving to Maine and then started the wheels clicking. I pulled out one of his books and sure enough, it was copyrighted under "Snow Pond" productions. Next day I was at the Oakland Maine tax office, ran a quick search and up popped Jean Shepherd, hell the guy was my neighbor on the lake!
So I waited, and a couple of weeks later I saw a car in the driveway with Jersey tags. Gamely I took copies of my book, and all of Jean's books, and walked boldly to the "Great Ones" door and knocked.
Oh, what unfolded over the next few minutes. Leigh answered the door, I nervously mentioned Jean's name and her features just fell. The woman went pale, stuttered she didn't know anyone named Shepherd and started to close the door. I was crushed. In fact, ironically I could see Jean out on the front porch with, of all things, a box load of his books which he was busily autographing. I was devastated, after all this guy was my HERO. So, I mumbled an excuse, apologized to Leigh, told her that I truthfully was their neighbor who had just built the house up the hill and left a book of mine on the doorstep. I slowly walked away, embarrassed, not sure how to react and then I heard that distinctive voice. "Hey kid, come back here!'
There he stood on the doorstep. I tried not to act like a golden retriever being invited over to play. Jean extended his hand and then offered a warm genuine apology and explained why Leigh panicked. Their place in Maine was secret, known just to a few friends. The previous year, someone had come to their home, knocked on the door, the same as I did, and when Jean opened it, a crazy maniac had attacked Jean. He pointed out that I stood nearly six and a half feet tall, had a fairly strong build, and well, one day I might realize that there are a lot of crazy people to avoid. (Oh, how I've learned that since, though not considered well known in SF, I do have a bit of a following and a couple of times fans have scared me half to death.)
Thus unfolded a wonderful afternoon. We sat on the porch, drank beer and talked writing. Jean was intrigued by my own career and a lot of what he shared with me was so on the mark about the business, about what I should write, how publishers too often push you towards the wrong direction, and most of all to write from the heart and write what you know.
If anything, it was an afternoon of professional advice from a Master which I've always treasured.
I didn't live long in that house in Maine, just a couple of years. Jean made it up to Maine several times, I'd see him on occasion, we'd trade a little small talk, but I didn't want to intrude, sensing Maine was the place of hidden escape and the last thing he needed was another fan. Once, however, while I was away on business Leigh dropped up to our place, to invite us over for dinner, something I shall always regret I was unable to make.
So, that was my day with Jean, and a life of grand memories of Jean. I am convinced he was truly the great social critic, humorist and commentator of our age. Though I love "A Christmas Story," I wish more people would realize that here was the Mark Twain of our age, a guy who could cut deep into what we are, particularly those of us who grew up working class and those who become trapped in the mad consumer urban society we've created. I'd like to think that at this moment Jean is sitting back somewhere, watching, shaking his head, and laughing that rich infectious chuckle.
I wonder if my old man knew, when sharing that small six ounce glass of Iron City Beer with me each night while listening to Jean, I wonder if my old man knew that he was helping to set me on a career as a writer and was exposing me to one of the great minds of our time. . .I suspect he did.