Bad Attitudes, a magazine of culture, politics, art, literature, 
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The Proper Use of Names
Down in Bush Country ...

This piece is going nowhere in particular, just so you’ll know. It comes to mind because we have recently been awarded a president who lived in west Texas for some of his childhood. As a possible result of this, he gives everybody nicknames whether they like it or not. Most of them at least manage to act as if they do.

George W. Bush was a two-year-old when his parents moved from New Haven to Odessa, Texas, in 1948. I was just short of sixteen when I arrived a year later, also from Connecticut. I spent a night in Odessa, passing through, but wound up 53 miles farther south in a tiny town called McCamey.

It was in the high desert: tough, hot, dry country. The only place you could have cooled off after work was the small public swimming pool, but a polio scare had closed it indefinitely. People said there hadn’t been a drop of rain in McCamey for three years previous.

Maybe so. It certainly didn’t rain all the time I was there. Now and then you might see a small cloud high in the blazing sky, with kind of a gray veil below it that might have intended to be rain. But whatever it was, it never reached the ground.

My boss said the country was great for men and horses, but hell on women and dogs. On the other hand, he also said a man didn’t really live in west Texas, he just resisted. So maybe it wasn’t so great for men, either.

I worked as a roustabout--an oil field all-purpose laborer. We cleaned out the sludge that settled on the bottoms of storage tanks, dug ditches, painted, ran pipelines, and serviced those angular contraptions you see all over the oil patch, the ones with walking beams that bob up and down like huge toy birds as they pump up the crude.

I wasn’t much use--didn’t have the habit of work yet, and didn’t have any experience with tools--but everybody put up with me and helped me along. From the very first, they called me Slim.

All of them went by nicknames, too. The nicknames weren’t friendly or belittling--just descriptive. They were along the lines of Heavy, Shorty, Slim, Blackie, Whitey, Red, or Stretch, which covered the major flavors that humans came in. (Blackie and Whitey referred to hair, not skin; back then, the oil fields were for whites only.)

It didn’t occur to me at first that this business of nicknames had any particular point to it. But one day while we were eating lunch somebody asked me, “Slim, what’s your name, anyway?”

And somebody else jumped right on top of him. “Why, you goddamned old fool,” the second man said, “it ain’t none of your business what that boy’s name is. If he’d have wanted you to know, he’d have told you.”

So that’s what was going on, at least in McCamey. Grown-ups seemed to use nicknames to be courteous, to respect the dignity and privacy of even a boy.

I can’t say for sure how it was in Odessa. I only got up there once, for the Ector County Fair. Randolph Scott was making a personal appearance, the first movie star I had ever seen. I didn’t see any Randys or Scotties, though.

February, 2001


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle