People Who Weren’t Really There

Questions not asked – answers not learned.

Are nicknames still ‘a thing’?  They were in small-town Ontario, in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.  I knew a bunch of people by names other than the ones they were given.  Many of them, I never knew their real name.

In the 20 years I knew him, there was a grocer who my parents always referred to as ‘Pro’ Montgomery.  Did he have a Quaker mother who named him Prophet?  Or a Greek one who called him Prometheus?  As a grocer, did he sell produce?  Or was he just a professional proprietor??!  These, and many other worthless conjectures, are free with the price of admission to this post.

For some years, my Father worked with a man he only called Pru.  Again, thoughts of names like Prudent came to mind.  Years later, I discovered that it is the French(-Canadian) surname Proulx, whose spelling and pronunciation so confound many English-speakers, that I have seen it spelled Prolux.

Hubbie Masterson’s real name was Bill.  He was an aggressive Banty-rooster of a man who showed no signs of being hen-pecked.  His friend, another Bill, was known as Biscuit.  He was a Real Estate Broker whose office was right beside the town bakery, but I’m pretty sure that I heard him called ‘Biscuit,’ before he moved in.

The taxi owner’s son/driver became known as Chink, or Chinky, after the town got a Chinese restaurant, and he was seen there several times a week for meals and snacks.  I once knew his real name, but not 65 years later.  At least twice, my brother being one of them, young men got called Boomer.  Not nuclear-sub commanders, this name is applied to those whose level of conversation is just consistently too loud.  “Okay, boomer” now carries a different connotation.   😯

One of my schoolmates acquired the name Tack, one he still carries today.  It started as ‘Whack-A-Tack,’ because he seemed to have such a fixation on sex, and so little social control that he might be caught masturbating in public.

The town had a Ma Keyes.  This might not seem too unusual….except that there was no Pa Keyes, or any little Keyes kids running around, that she could be a Ma to.  One young fellow became Cobbie simply because one of his friends(?) felt that he needed a nickname, and mangled his last name of McCauley.  The same sort of thing happened when unfortunate Alec, became Ackie.  They tried to attach the nickname Smitty to me, but there wasn’t enough personality to hang it on.

There were two Shular families in town, unrelated to each other.  They each had a boy born in the same year, one, an only child, the other, the fifth of seven children.  They each named their son, Doug.  To keep them straight, we called the only child Boo, though to this day, I don’t know why.

One friend was one of a pair of identical twins, who quickly became un-identical as soon as they were born.  My buddy, Robert, became the bright, outgoing, social, rowdy, daredevil, soon named Butch – by his Mother, and everyone else.  It was so ingrained that I heard a teacher address him as Robert one day, and didn’t know who she was talking to.

Bud Helwig was the flower of his Mother’s eye, who probably had the same first name as his father, David, but if so, I never heard it.  I always knew the adult son next door as Mack.  It might actually have been Mack.  That is an acceptable name, but I’ve often wondered whether it was just Mac, because a Scottish mother gave him a Scottish maiden name – like MacTavish, or MacDougall – for a given name.

Wilfred, the harbor-master, was neither Will, nor Fred, but rather, Wiff.  Although, with his proximity to the fishing boats, perhaps it was Whiff.  My red-headed Scottish uncle became Rusty, even after he’d turned white, rather than the given name, Melvin, which he hated.

Another uncle was named Elmer.  He had 3 daughters, and 6 sons, one of whom he named Elmer also.  Both he and his namesake had the same pronunciation problem.  They could not enunciate the M in the word ‘I’m.’  Rather, they would say, ‘I’n (eye’n) goin’ downtown.’ So they each became known as Iney.  Another cousin with a childhood speech defect pronounced the word snort’, as H-f-nort, and became Nort Brown for the rest of his life.

Three families at the edge of town constantly bred back and forth, cousin to cousin, until the average IQ dropped to about 90.  When my Father came to town, the dim-witted, oldest (boy) of one family was known as Mooney.  By the time I was old enough to encounter them, the Mooney title had passed to the youngest son, and his now 6’-6” oldest brother, with size 14 shoes (Strong like ox – almost as smart) was known as Boots.

Walter Rogers drove me to and from my summer job at a plywood plant every day.  Of course, he wasn’t known as Walter, or Walt, or Wally, but as Watt.  There was a co-worker at that plant who I had known as Seven Hearn for as long as I’d been aware of him – not Sven, mind you, but Seven.  Apparently he came to work on the short bus.

I asked Watt if he knew why everyone called him Seven.  Some years back, in the lunchroom one day, unprovoked, he suddenly declared that he was number seven to own/run this plant.  His reasoning (?) was – there was the General Manager, and the Assistant Manager, the Office Manager, the Plant Manager, the Department Foreman, and the line Lead Hand.  If all of them died in a van crash on their way to a curling bonspiel, as number seven, he’d be the ‘Big Boss’.   🙄

Our school bus driver in 1958/59 was nicknamed Kaw-Liga, after the 1953 Hank Williams song about a cigar-store wooden Indian.  He didn’t object much, because he was one of several males at that time named Beverly.  I don’t know if girls named Carolyn, Marilyn, and Jennifer, who became Cardi, Marnie, and Jeff, count.

One family in town was somewhat poorer than most.  Because of this, there were many things that they did not possess, things like – Protestant Work Ethic, regular employment and income, as well as respect for laws and others’ property rights.  The son, Carl, became quite famous…. For finding things before they were lost, and getting five-finger discounts at many of the local stores.  The kindly townsfolk felt so badly for Carl, that they finally gave him something – the nickname ‘Hooker,’ which, at that time meant, shoplifter, petty thief.

Getting A Real Education

When I was going to school, I never thought about the teachers.  That is, I never thought about where they had come from, or just how they ended up where they were.  In public school, grades 1 to 8, they just were.  Some were nicer. Some were more inspiring, but generally, they just were, a necessary evil.  As I proceeded through high school, I started to wonder about some of the idiosyncrasies.  It wasn’t till I became more adult, that I could look back on those who had helped mold me, and understand what had molded them.

When each class graduates from a teachers’ college, the ones at the top of the class get to pick where they will teach.  It might be in a big city, with a bigger pay, or their home town, or where a husband or wife already has a job.  The ones at the bottom of the list wind up in increasingly remote, undesirable locations.  My high school wasn’t exactly the restaurant at the end of the universe, there was another 100 Kilometers to the top of the Bruce Peninsula, but we got some “interesting” instructors.

Because of the size of the school, most teachers had to teach more than one subject.  Sometimes the juxtaposition was laughable.  The same single male teacher who taught Chemistry, Physics, Botany and Zoology, had to teach boys’ Phys-ed.  Called Chick, or Chicky, but never to his face, he was five foot three, and was never seen without a suit and tie.  He taught me what little gymnastics I could absorb.  The high-bar that the jocks could just reach up and grab, he had to jump for, but where they couldn’t get on it, he wound himself up like a little monkey.  It was fascinating, watching him whirl around, with his rule-violating street-shoes going one way, and his tie streaming in another.  When he wasn’t busy teaching, he was busy drinking and going to dance-halls to try to pick up the same teenage girls he had just taught in class.

Another of our male teachers had to teach English to grades nine and ten, and Mathematics to eleven and twelve.  He had a speech impediment, and it was all we could do, not to laugh when he talked about turdy-tree and a turd.  I don’t know how much of his own English education he slept through.  He taught us the story of the Daedalus and Icarus, who made wings and escaped by flying away, only, he pronounced them Duh-lawd-us and Iraq-us.  I told him one time, that his humor was very intrinsic, and the English teacher smiled and thanked me.

He used to sit on the right corner of his desk, cross his legs and swing the top one in and out, and invariably kick over the waste-basket.  Clang, clang, clang.  He’d pick up the mess, put the pail right back where it had been, cross his legs, and kick it over again.  I sat at the back of his class.  One day, he was droning on, and I picked a spot on the ceiling and stared at it.  Took a minute or two, but suddenly he asked me a question.  Without a second’s hesitation, I gave him the right answer, never taking my eyes off the spot.  Now he had to wander back, while lecturing, and stare up where I was looking, making the whole class wonder what in Hell was up there.

One year, the theme for the senior prom was Carousel, a soft pretty idea.  The movie, based on the play, had been released a few years earlier.  On a bulletin board across from the office, the notice went up.  Just as the Principal walked by, I loudly exclaimed, “Oh look, the theme for the prom is carousal”, an apt name, meaning mobile Bacchanalia.  Sure enough, the Principal’s morning’s announcements included one about the upcoming carousal.  Only about half the students *got it*, but my work had been done.  I wasn’t a shit-disturber in school, really I wasn’t.

The shop teacher was like every shop teacher, only, maybe a little more.  He was five-foot four….in any direction.  He was a little pig of a man, but I kinda liked him, even if a lot of the guys didn’t.  His vocabulary included phrases like, “It was darker than the inside of a pig’s ass”, and, in referring to the embarrassment he had inflicted on some poor student, “He turned as red as ten bottles of ketchup.”  I don’t know why he thought ten bottles, or even two, would be any redder than one.

He owned the standard shop-coat and, judging from the food stains on it, it was older than any of us.  He liked to put it on at the beginning of the first class, stuff his hands in the pockets like Napoleon, playing with himself, and strut around self-importantly.  One of the students was a farm-boy whose parents raised ducks.  He brought in two duck-eggs, half-filled the pockets with sawdust from the circular saw, dropped an egg in each pocket, and tapped them with a hammer.  Try not to laugh, go ahead, just try not to.

In the winter, he liked to hang the shop-coat on a peg right above the hot air register.  That way it was nice and warm to put on in the morning.  We had the last shop class of the week.  He wandered over and hung the coat up, and one devious classmate held his attention while his conspirator friend put a piece of Limburger cheese in each pocket.  Perhaps one of them was the humiliated kid with the ketchup, or maybe they were just little assholes.  We were told that the stench, Monday morning, was impressive.  The windows were open to the winter, all day.  He went without Old Faithful for a day, and came in the next day with a new coat.

I learned to be an educated, responsible, mature adult from these role-models, I assure you I did!