From Roodhouse we have Skippy, Eagle Beak, Pinky, Blackie, Dumpy, Barbed Wire, Carpy Snowball, Pug, Moonshine, Pee Wee, Popeye, Weenie, Thirty Gallon, Scrubby, Humpy, Sleepy, Tinker, Alley Rat, Mooch, Dummy, Fireball, Bones, and Half-Pound Donuts. Just a few of the printable nicknames from that raucous little community just south of Jacksonville. Last year I was honored to write a play about the town’s history and these are some of the names that have meaning to that little Greene County community. Half-Pound Donuts? Oh well. There were also a scattering of names defining the nationalities that peopled this little village but in this politically correct world I’ll omit them.
I’d written a similar show about New Berlin’s history and just east of Jacksonville we would have once run into Goatie, Punk, Flop, Toad, Digger, Muleskinner, Polecat, Boob, Curly, Skinny, Lollipop, Flutter, The Claw, Bootle, Scull, The Little General, Red Dog, Shacklebolt, Boss Hogg, Beezel, Wormy, Sparky, Mouse, Fog, Uncle Dummy and Hollywood. And oh yeah. … Wagonmaster. Lots of folks seem to remember Wagonmaster.
Nicknames. You gotta love ‘em. My dad’s best friend was called Horse. He has no idea why and perhaps Horse didn’t either except for the fact that he may not have liked the name Maro. I had an uncle Hane who called me “You know,” because every time he’d ask me my name I’d say, “You know.”
Academians who actually study these things tell us that a nickname is usually bestowed upon a person by the dominant personality in the group . … a teacher, a coach, a grandfather, the playground bully, whatever. In any case, hardly ever does a person get to choose his or her own nickname. It’s a title and we have to be knighted with it by someone else.
Triopia’s legendary coach, Don Kemp, would nickname entire families. If your name was Hendricker then you became Henry, along with your children and grandchildren. Frankly, with Kemp we were happy when he came close. If your name was more than three syllables you simply became, “Smith.”
And of course individuals aren’t the only entities tagged with nicknames. Sometimes entire groups of people get to labor under a label not of their own choosing. Back when the Routt-Triopia rivalry was at its hottest, the Trojans called the Rockets a name that pertained to their Lenten eating habits while the Routt folks gave us an amphibious name designed to indicate the shape of a certain football coach.
I suppose that some nicknames are a bother. There’s hardly a redhead among us who doesn’t tire of being called Red. Dad was telling me about a guy named Tubb. When I asked him why they’d give him such a terrible nickname, Dad said, “I guess because his real name was Winfred and that was worse.” One of Jacksonville’s liveliest ladies and a landmark at the old Gustine’s store was Skinny Wilson. I think that she loved the name. In fact, Skinny took joy in just about everything.
Every male member of my family is called “Brad” when you cross the Illinois River. As soon as a little male Bradbury is born he’s unofficially christened as “Brad,” no matter what name his parents may give him.
The interesting matter though is at what point a title sticks as a nickname. Some schools of psychological thought say that once you tag a person with a nickname you have asserted dominance over him or her, and the only way to make the nickname eternal is by repeating it. I don’t buy this theory. Too many exceptions. And I regret the fact that nicknames are neither as plentiful nor as colorful as in the past, whether it’s the U of I giving Chief Illini the boot (or moccasin) or the Cleveland Indians removing Chief Wahoo from their players’ uniforms. No, I’m not advocating that we in any way belittle the Native American symbols, but I fear that too many lawsuits will some day rid us of one of our most fascinating traditions: the nickname. Think it’ll some day be grounds for legal action if you call a redhead Red? I hope not. I’d love spending an afternoon chatting with Alley Rat and Dopey about how Wagonmaster got his name, and it’d be a real treat to spend an evening in the company of Digger, Polecat, and Boob discussing what caused Pinky, Wormy and Uncle Dummy to get such nicknames slapped on them. And who knows? By the end of the night we might actually find the origin of Half-Pound Donuts.