In the little world of boys who went to Branch Elementary school in the 1950’s there was one who had achieved the ultimate pinnacle of success. His name was George Cecchetti Junior and he had two great recommendations, he had a scar and a nickname. He lost a fingertip to his father George Cechetti’s handsaw and was graced with the nickname “Tookie.” His cachet was unassailable. In those days when corporal punishment might be meted out by teachers, he was the only boy I ever saw spanked. That just added to his legend. We knew he wasn’t bad in any sense of the word, just irrepressible.
Jerry Jesse, who lived next to the Gularte’s on Huasna Road had a high pitched voice due to an adenoidal deficiency and was saddled with “Squeeky.” He had slightly bucked teeth formed in a small vee and a pointed chin which made him look mouselike. He was a fine boy. We also had “Tubby Terra” who got his monicker by being just a big kid, not fat, but big all over. Another fine boy.
There were also Manny, Johnny, Jerry, Lulu, several Jimmys, Dickie, Billy, Reenie and even one kid who aspired, but never made the grade, my best friend Kenneth Talley, whose full name was Kenneth James Talley and who told me he wished he had been named George like my dad so he could call himself KG or cagey, he being, of course, one of the most un-cagey people I’ve ever known.
Diminutives such as those above, never quite cut it in the nickname business for those names were not given in the proper spirit or spirits. They must be given for physical appearance, embarrassing family childish endearments, see George Cecchetti above, or some significant event in a persons life.
Lee and Dwight
Lee Dudley is one of my oldest, dearest friends. Our mothers worked together in the same men and boys clothing store for over 20 years and Lee and I still have the kind of friendship that is only formed when you are kids. Went to a high school reunion lately and, you know, he still got called “Dumbo.” It’s those Clark Gable ears, a nickname he has carried for over six decades. We called him that because we love him to pieces.
Dwight Wood and I were literally introduced to each other in the same cradle by our mothers. They would put us in together while they drank coffee in the kitchen upstairs from Dwight’s fathers business, the local mortuary. I’m sure they spoke of many things but the best thing they did was to start a life long friendship. We played together as children, surfed together as ‘teens and still see each other seven decades later. He is and always will be “Woody.”
My brother Jerry, Gerald George Shannon, missed the opportunity of a lifetime because no one knew that his name Gerald was a shortened version of Geraldine. My mother wanted to honor Geraldine Sullivan, daughter of our neighbors, Gladys and Lester. She was wonderful woman and a very close friend. Think of the missed opportunities there, named after a girl. Surely some kid might of made hay out of that one. Sorry Jeb, you dodged a bullet there.
The foul name bestowed by that senior class bully on the back bench of your school bus has hopefully disappeared by now, as I hope has he, to a dark place. We had one of those. He sat on the back bench of that old Crown bus, ensconced like a king, with his courtiers by his side, dispensing names, each one containing some foul expletive, more expressive of his bullyness than actual intelligence. He graduated a year later and I can’t say he was missed. Those sycophants of his, he left high and dry, faded with him.
Thinking of dad’s friends, “Toots” Porter and “Coot;” the “Toots” seems self explanatory but “Coot” Sevier? His real name was Ernest or Ernie and I actually worked for him when I was 16 so I knew him and I never heard him referred to by any other name. I know he didn’t have yellow, webbed feet like the little black speckled duck and he didn’t give out the small squeaks they make, so how in the world did he get the name. I asked my dad and he said he though it had something to do with acting, when he was young, like an old man, but he wasn’t sure.
In my grandmothers autograph book, which she started when she was just eight are best and birthday wishes by her friends, many of which I knew as a child and it tickles me to know that Mrs. Harloe, a well known and cherished teacher in our little town once signed herself as “Maggie” Phoenix, and what about “Tootsie” Whiteley. My mother said that my grandmother used to say, when she saw a particularly grizzled, crusty old woman, “Just think, some mother once kissed her sweet baby feet!” Now just imagine the long-gone mother kissing those sweet footsie-tootsies-wootsies. I knew many of my grandmothers friends as a young man. They dressed in sober fashion, wore gloves and hats to market, had Mamie Eisenhower perms and never colored their hair. If it was grey, well, they earned it. I seemed unbelievable that they had ever been babies and girls. That they went by a nickname, but so it was and it tickles me today think of them that way.
My first car, a 1929 model A Ford pickup. My dad bought it for my 13th birthday. He paid “Mutt” Anderson fifty dollars for it. Mutt ran the greyhound cafe in our little town a was a local character and a fine baseball catcher when towns all over the country had a teams. Well before television ruined the real game, it was played by hometown people with no announcer filling your ears with personal opinions and inane chatter, just the patter of friends and neighbors over the picnic basket. Folks came out to the ball field to cheer on the neighborhood boys, and men like Mutt had a standing in the community far beyond their education or accomplishments. Why did they call him Mutt? His mother did it. She called him Mutt after the cartoon character in “Mutt and Jeff, though she reversed the names as a joke. You see, Mutt was the taller of the two characters and Jeff was the short one. Our Mutt had only an eighth grade education but he worked hard all his life in a day when that other kind of education, the hard knocks kind, was perhaps just as important as school. He was a good man and was well liked in the community. The name, as used, wasn’t derogatory at all. It had the charm that a name given in affection always has.
The “Beanie’s,” Winslow and English. To this day, I have no idea where the names came from. Beanie is much more common for girls than men and yet the only two people I knew with that name were men. Neither one of them was named Beatrice. Go figure.
There is even a nickname that is adopted by parents and particularly grandparents, given them by their little ones. Case in point, “Moonie” Maude Loomis or “Poo Poo” Jack Shannon and “Mamoo” Annie Shannon. Those names bestowed on them by yours truly when just a baby. My grandfather was so proud of his name that all of his close friends knew it too.
Even my own sober, serious father was called “Ding,” a reference to the bell that used to ring when a basket was made in the old-fashioned basketball game of the twenties and thirties. He was a dead shot at the hoop and excelled in both high school and college. He never got over the end of the two-handed set shot but he did revere Bill Russell and always gave him credit for birthing the modern game. Some of the best times with him were shooting baskets at our hoop nailed to the side of the old tank house. Dad in his sweat stained tee shirt, Pendelton, muddy Levi’s and scuffed work boot, shooting a fadeaway against his three swarming kids. We didn’t need to keep score, because we all won.
My cousins Bruce and Jim, were invariably called “Jughead,” the ears again, and “Knothead.” My uncle Ray had a way with words and was absolutely irrepressible. He called my brother Cayce, “Festus” and his wife Debbie “The Mule” and with all such nicknames they embraced them wholeheartedly. A twofer, “Here comes Festus and his mule.” If my sister-in-law was offended you’d never guess, she was too busy laughing.
My dad called my mother “Pinky.” It was used only on momentous occasions and carried such an abundance of love that when he used it the air itself became heavy. Like all married couples that must have had their issues but I never knew about them. They always seemed to us as if they were fitted like a perfect piece of joinery. Pinky, when she heard it, would light her up like a sunbeam coming in through our kitchen window.
When you are born your parents label you with a name carefully thought out, sometimes richly endowed with family legend or perhaps heavenly grace. Your name, to be carried to the grave and engraved on a marble headstone or solid brass plaque, but your real name, the one bestowed by family and friends out of pure love is the one.