The part of "A Christmas Story" that I think about from time to time is what came after. The movie ends with mom and dad hugging and Ralphie cherishing his bee bee gun. The Bumpusses are still there and the taste of soap still resonates in Ralphie's mouth. It's a feel good movie. It portends well for the future of Ralphie and his family.
Or does it? As the three or four of you know - and there really are only three or four of you since I stopped blogging through the pandemic - Jean Shepherd started his radio career at WJOB, which I own and, like you, love. He went on to fame at WOR in New York City as a late night personality back when that mattered. Shep grew up on Cleveland Street a few blocks from where I talk on the radio every morning.
Shep's dad, from what a couple old-timers tell me, worked at a candy factory in north Hammond. I want to say it was the old Queen Anne Candies, but I can't be sure. The part of the story that has always stuck with me is that soon after the Christmas that we relive each year, Shep's dad ran off with a secretary and left the family. This devastated Shep. He watched his mom decline. Shep eventually escaped by going to the Army.
Perhaps this explains the force at which Shep throws good memories at us. They were good times, simpler times. Pick up your phone. Go to CNN or Fox News. Trump denies that Biden won. There's a scandal about pardons for the president's kids and his lawyer, Giuliani. Little kids got shot in a drive by. There's massive lines at food banks. Hospitals are overcrowded and not taking more patients. We are a divided, hurting nation. We often don't care about each other.
We did care about each other at one point, and that was during the two hours of "A Christmas Story." Jean Shepherd brought to life the last Christmas before his dad left and his family fell apart. His mom was in love and a sturdy character... in the movie. If you did a sequel, as far as I've been told, you might not recognize her. Despair and sadness have a way of ripping a person apart, even a tough Hessville woman. We watch "A Christmas Story" for the laughs and the feel good. We don't want to know that soon after Christmas Ralphie's mom cried herself to sleep.
I know what comes after sometimes. My mom and dad and their five kids - me the oldest - lived an almost fairy tale life in Munster, Indiana. We had a big house down the street from the high school and at Christmas every year there tons of presents under the tree. I had dozens of cousins all over the Region and when we got together it was total mayhem... and fun.
Then the hammer came down. My mom got cancer and died and my dad lost his construction company to one of the many steel recessions around here. If I were to write a story about the last Christmas before all of this happened, it would be idyllic... but would it be real?
It's the middle of the night and I'm not doing the radio show in a couple hours. Dave Kusiak is. He got Covid and had to have open heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. It was touch and go for a while. "A miracle," Kusiak calls it. He and Lisa came to the house on Saturday - social distancing and masks - and Dave cornered me. He wanted to tell me something.
"This whole thing has given me time to think. I want to be a bigger part of WJOB," he said. I have known Dave Kusiak forever. His uncle blocked for my uncle Charlie at St. Stan's in East Chicago. We go way back. If he wants the mic, he can have it. Life is short.
The Kusiaks, like Shep, lived through sadness. Dave talks about it from time to time on the air. He and his three brothers and sisters lived around the corner from us in Munster behind Johnny's Tap. One day, Big Tony and his son Sean went to a Sox game. Big Tony never came back. That changed the family forever. Jean Shepherd's dad left with the secretary. Dave Kusiak's dad died in the stands behind the third base dugout at Comiskey Park. My mom died of cancer and my dad lost his business. These things happen. You live through them. You learn from them. But do you want to warch a movie about them?
Not right now. We want Ralphie sitting on Santa's lap, Randy rolling around in a snowsuit. We love the look of a leg lamp in the living room. We don't want to think about what comes after, about Ralphie's mom busting that leg lamp on the corner of a couch. We want escape from a country divided, protests in the streets, massive unemployment, overcrowded hospitals, people dying in the ER. We want to remember when you could actually hug someone, wrestle in the basement, sit next to each other on the sofa. We want, now more than ever, Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story."