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July 3rd, 2003


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03:32 am - 73-07-04 Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back
Finally, Kissel struck a match, which instantly went out. He struck another -- it, too, flickered and died. Another. And another. There was a slight breeze which puffed fitfully from the northwest. The audience grew restless but no one dared leave; in fact, more viewers of this historic event were arriving by the minute. Kissel, as is so often the case with the massive drunk, seemed totally unware of the drama he was creating and with maniacal intensity struggled with his matchbook, lighting match after match after match.

Suddenly, out of the crowd, a kid darted, an experienced detonator of high explosives of all sorts, who shoved into Kissel's palsied hand a stick of briskly smoldering punk. The kid, according to witnesses who testified later, uttered one word -- "here" -- then turned and scurried back into the throng and into the pages of local folk history forever...


This week's Jean Shepherd rerun is a true classic and one of Jean's favorite stories -- he told it no less than nine times, sometimes with interesting changes in the narrative, over the course of his radio career (usually on the Fourth of July.) It also appears in his novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. It's your average tale of a not-so-bright drunken neighbor nearly getting his at the receiving end of a very large firecracker and to listen to Jean tell it himself is absolutely wonderful, especially as the story rumbles along to its climax and things start to get exciting.

Oh, the story couldn't be told to the Day People today. For one, there are no such things as Dago Bombs anymore, at least in name, and perhaps that's for the best.

But sadly I know there are far too many nattering nancies who would listen to this or read the story and shriek with horror at the inevitable catastrophe that's about to befall ol' Ludow Kissel as he heroically attemps to re-right the humongous firework after he knocks it over. (But don't worry, Kissel makes it out okay.)

"FIREWORK SAFETY IS NO LAUGHING MATTER!" they'd screech as they wag their fingers (all ten safely intact, they'll have you know) and quote statistics. "THE TINY TOTS MAY DISCOVER THIS AND TRY TO EMULATE IT!" -- brilliant logic when you realize the near destruction of an entire neighborhood was narrowly avoided. "AND WHY DIDN'T ANYBODY THINK TO EVER PUT THE DRUNKEN MAN INTO A NICE DETOX PROGRAM?"

This, clearly, is not a story for them. It is, however, a story for the rest of us to enjoy what with another Fourth rumbling overhead with red, white and blue stars and numerous reports. Light quickly and get away.

Interesting sidenote: Shep was always very quick to deny that the first-person perspective in his nostalgic stories was actually his, and he was more than ready to claim at any time that the stories he told were of events that never actually happened. In this broadcast, he claims "The I in the novel is not me, per se. It is a universal New Yorker..." and explains that the universal New Yorker is the fellow who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in New York. Just like Shep.

Personally, I like to think the reality of it is that while some of Shep's tales were pure fiction, others were embellishments and retellings of favorite childhood memories, keenly honed and modified for the sake of the narrative. We've all done similar things before, whether changing the outcome of a story to favor the teller or creating imaginary conflict when the reality was rather boring and conflict-free. Shep just made an artform out of it with a keen sense of nostalgia and memory and always with the good-natured hyperbole.

Kissel slowly pulled himself to his knees and made his statement which is even today part of the great legend that is Ludlow Kissel:

"My god, what a doozy."

Kissel had said it for all of us. As the crowd slowly got to its feet amid the quiet tinkling of glass and the heavy sensual smell of oxidized dynamite they were aware -- to a man -- aware that they had been witness to history.

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