. . . under the Sheets: Catching Bill Stern at It

A recent addition to my library is I Hid It under the Sheets (2005), a personal account of New York Times reporter and sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi’s “Growing Up with Radio.” Charming and humorous, it is a rather undisciplined account of broadcasting in the pre-television era, likely to frustrate anyone fishing for facts. However impatient with chatty narratives, I do not number among such readers. I enjoy a good yarn, a point of view, an attitude. There is so little radio writing out there, which makes books like I Hid It a treat. After all, listening to recordings of old broadcasts can seem like a retreat, an act of isolating oneself from the world in the very process of connecting to it, however belatedly. You receive while being shut up, alone in your imaginings; any bookworm knows that feeling—but radioworms are exposing themselves to the spoken word, with voices entering their heads. So, when you come across a fellow listener, you get anxious to exchange notes, no matter how different they are from yours or how removed the listener is culturally or historically. As a child, Eskenazi was passionate about radio; he went so far as to urinate on some kids who did not share his enthusiasm about certain superheroes or tune in to the same serials. Perhaps, I am safer at some remove.

My main reservation about reminiscences like I Hid It is that, instead of promoting radio drama, they insist on declaring it dead, accessible mainly through the filter of their reflections. Sure, Eskenazi listened to, say, Bill Stern back in the late 1940s; but, rather than having to rely on his or anyone else’s memory and recollections, we now enjoy access to thousands of recordings, most of whom are ignored in favor of such secondhand-me-downs. It is only in the concluding chapter that Eskenazi acknowledges the existence of certain “sound bites and written dialogue of the old shows” on the Internet. Yet, the decision to “listen again” and to compare those cherished memories with extant recordings he declares to be a “dangerous turn,” one that he took only as he “came to the end of writing this book.”

Still, I let Eskenazi tell me about a past that I made my present. Of his tuning in, say, to Bill Stern and his colorful stories from the world of sports and the great outdoors, all of whom he believed to be truthful. Eskenazi vividly recalls Stern’s sensational account of an Alaskan trapper, a widower whose wife had died in childbirth. In search of milk for the infant, the trapper leaves his cottage, which was guarded by his dog. Returning after a long and arduous journey through the snow . . .

Wait, I thought, this is sounding very familiar. Some years ago, I was told just such a story while visiting a village in Snowdonia, not far to the north of me. And here is how George Borrow, in his 1854 travelogue Wild Wales, retold the legend of that place:

Beth Gelert is situated in a valley surrounded by huge hills [. . .]. The valley is said by some to derive its name of Beddgelert, which signifies the grave of Celert, from being the burial-place of Celert, a British saint of the sixth century [. . .] , but the popular and most universally received tradition is that it has its name from being the resting-place of a faithful dog [. . .]. Though the legend is known to most people, I shall take the liberty of relating it. 

Llywelyn during his contests with the English had encamped with a few followers in the valley, and one day departed with his men on an expedition, leaving his infant son in a cradle in his tent, under the care of his hound Gelert [ . . .]. Whilst he was absent a wolf from the neighbouring mountains, in quest of prey, found its way into the tent, and was about to devour the child, when the watchful dog interfered, and after a desperate conflict, in which the tent was torn down, succeeded in destroying the monster. Llywelyn returning at evening found the tent on the ground, and the dog, covered with blood, sitting beside it. Imagining that the blood with which Gelert was besmeared was that of his own son devoured by the animal to whose care he had confided him, Llywelyn in a paroxysm of natural indignation forthwith transfixed the faithful creature with his spear. Scarcely, however, had he done so when his ears were startled by the cry of a child from beneath the fallen tent, and hastily removing the canvas he found the child in its cradle, quite uninjured, and the body of an enormous wolf, frightfully torn and mangled, lying near. His breast was now filled with conflicting emotions, joy for the preservation of his son, and grief for the fate of his dog, to whom he forthwith hastened. The poor animal was not quite dead, but presently expired, in the act of licking his master’s hand. Llywelyn mourned over him as over a brother, buried him with funeral honours in the valley, and erected a tomb over him as over a hero. From that time the valley was called Beth Gelert.

Neither Stern nor Eskenazi make mention of the Welsh origins of the tale. “Bill Stern had made the whole thing up,” Eskenazi remarked, only to share his disillusionment when, as a youngster, he heard the same story at school, where it was told to him as an “Indian” (is that, American Indian?) legend. Radio provided “avenues for education that were unsurpassed, if suspect,” Eskenazi concluded. Ain’t that a fact! Stern seems to have had no knowledge of Wales. As I overheard in this broadcast, he even refers to Ivor Novello as an “Englishman.”

2 Replies to “. . . under the Sheets: Catching Bill Stern at It”

  1. Thanks, Harry, for speaking of Bill Stern\’s fanciful tales. I grew up listening to those marvelous, bigger-than-truth tales. I had not thought of them for half a century until I saw Woody Allen\’s brilliant satirical treatment in \”Radio Days.\” Probably ten times funnier to me because I heard the original Bill. Or was it bull.

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  2. It\’s time I watched that movie again. Thank you for reminding me (here and in your own journal). I had never listened to Bill Stern until found him mentioned in I Hid It. I assumed his to be a sports program. My mistake.As John Crosby said, \”[e]ven the word \’hearsay\’ [which was added as a disclaimer to the openings of later broadcasts] is a rather generous description, implying, as it does, that Stern\’s stories have reached the stature of legend and therefore are beyond the irksome confines of journalism.\”Bull is right, Clifton; but, as entertainment, his tales are no stinkers.

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