I was upstairs when I first heard the noise. Home alone on a Friday night due to a geometry-related offense (I hate you, Pythagoras and your theorems!), I reacted like every other teenage slasher-film victim, running directly toward the source. I flew down the stairs and through the breakfast nook, only to come face to face with the scariest person of all — not Freddie Krueger or Michael Myers, but Ronald Lancaster, my father.
Back in early 1983, my dad was tasked with keeping unions from organizing in his company's distribution centers. His work pulled him away from home for months on end. Even though he'd been fortunate enough to ride out most of the miserable Indiana winter in Atlanta, his job stress was overwhelming, and his good humor was practically nonexistent. Yet when I clattered down the steps, there was my dad, and he seemed ... happy. I was as surprised to see him smiling as I was to see him home, so I decided to endure whatever boring British farce he had on and joined him in the family room.
My father was watching a movie called The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, the story of Ralphie Parker's unfortunate date with a beautiful Polish girl from East Chicago. Turns out the noise I'd heard was laughter, because the show was dramatic, but hilarious. My father and I spent the next hour cackling so loud our dog hid under the kitchen table.
When it was over, my father told me Jean Shepherd had written what we'd watched. Dad explained he'd become a fan when Shepherd first narrated his short stories on the radio. He told me that if I looked on his bookshelf, I'd find the Josephine Cosnowski story and many others in Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters.
I grabbed the book and headed back upstairs, where I immersed myself in Shepherd's distinctive voice. I snorted over stories of bad country neighbors and their rogue ham-stealing dogs in "The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds" (later to be immortalized as turkey-stealing bloodhounds in the film A Christmas Story).
My stomach ached as Shepherd recounted his heroic intake of junk food in "County Fair!" His description of being jammed into a 15-inch space of back seat carved out of picnic baskets and inner tubes hit a little too close to home in "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss." Yet that story made me nostalgic for my own miserable family road trips, and I recalled having contests with my brother over who could eat and drink the least, because my dad considered rest stops a luxury.
I finished Wanda Hickey in a few hours. Later, over blueberry pancakes, Dad and I laughed about our favorite scenes, enjoying the kind of relaxed banter we hadn't had since my childhood. Conversations about the book led to him telling stories about his wild teenage years and, suddenly, my performance in geometry didn't seem so dire.
When I was 15, I didn't fully appreciate Shepherd's ability to turn simple childhood injustices into Greek tragedies. I had no idea that one day, Jerry Seinfeld would credit Shepherd for forming his entire comedic sensibility. I didn't know that later that year, Shepherd's movie A Christmas Story would become a tradition for millions of American families. All I knew was that he wrote a book that helped my dad and me build a bridge between generations and find some common ground. And that was enough.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.