It’s strange how they originate and how they’re kept, often for a lifetime. The nicknames we’re given in childhood and long afterward, whether they’re meant to hurt or honor us, have a long shelf life. I’ve been thinking of a few that have been with me for many years, for good or ill.
Apparently, I kicked a lot in the crib, making a lot of racket. I’m not sure why I was eager to get my tiny legs moving so early, since I had no idea where to go. But my noisy activity earned me the title of “Thumper,” drawn from Walt Disney’s “Bambi,” which came along about the same time I did. Thumper was Bambi’s rabbit friend, so I later gained a few related labels like “Rabbit” and “Ears.” Those were bequeathed to me by my childhood friends and my brothers, much to their delight. They were harmless, since we all had names other than the ones on our birth certificates.
But other ways of addressing me, especially in high school, weren’t as innocent. Because of my small stature, I was called “Shorty” by many classmates in those years we all have to endure as we search for our identity and self-worth. That stings to this day, although it motivated me to work on my physique. I suppose my rationale was something like, “If I can’t be tall, at least I can be strong.” So I built my muscles to the point where I could stand my ground and hold my own in any setting.
Other tags that I collected during those years were variations of my surname, “Clarky” and “Clarko.” Another one that I couldn’t figure out then and still can’t was, “Fudgie.” I was told it was given to me because I was “so sweet,” but I’ve always suspected a far more sinister reason.
As life moved on, I picked up another moniker, “Russo,” from my father. I don’t know why Dad decided that was “just right” for his eldest son, but I suspect it was suggested by other kinfolk who were tired of having to say, “Russ Junior,” since I inherited my father’s given name. Of course, “Russie” was the way I was identified by Mom and my aunts and uncles on both sides. I’ve always held my head high when I remember the term of endearment that my father chose. Long after that, a couple of close friends began using “Russo” to identify me, and I was honored. But it never matched the bond between generations that the name initially represented.
Then came the hard years of military service, and at Officer Candidate School I was called just about every name in the book. We all were. We dared not take offense; that was simply the Marines’ way of breaking us down and remolding us into their image. And those crude epithets never penetrated the defensive perimeter we were building around our emotions. Some of us still surround ourselves with those walls, fifty years later.
Later in the Marine Corps, I built my muscles and fortified my body in every way possible, so when I was released from active duty to enter theological school, I was in the best shape of my life. My classmates thought I had something akin to a “barrel chest,” so they decided to call me “Puller,” after General Lewis (Chesty) Puller, one of the most decorated officers in the history of the Corps. Photos of him bear witness to his thick pectoral area that earned him his nickname.
What a tribute and a gratifying stroke to my ego to be seen by my peers as a “reincarnation” of the General! And even today, I’ll have old classmates e-mail me with the greeting, “Hi Puller!” I consider it a mark of acclaim and admiration. Always will.
I’ve traced this naming through several decades and have failed to mention the customary professional titles of “Reverend,” “Pastor,” “Preacher,” “Brother Russell,” “Doctor,” and a few others, depending on the setting where I was serving at the time. I continue to feel a strange amalgam of pride and humility whenever I hear these words, almost always spoken with respect. I was privileged to be a spiritual leader to hundreds and later thousands of some of the best people who ever walked this earth, and yet I often was overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness when I realized that my parishioners truly regarded me as God’s representative.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Among all the sobriquets I’ve heard to describe me, I value none higher than what I’ll hear at a reunion of my Marine unit later this year. That’s the word, “Skipper.” It was what rifle companies called their commander, and I had the high privilege of once serving in that capacity in Vietnam. Of course, since the Marines are officially under the aegis of the Department of the Navy, we “soldiers of the sea” adopted much of the language of sailors. The “skipper” was always the captain of the vessel, and we appropriated it to recognize a ground commander. When I said a final farewell to one of my officers several months ago, his last words to me were, “You’ll always be my Skipper.” Thank you for that gift, Jack.
And so it goes. Any of us could compile a similar list and write a brief autobiography based on the words that have been used to describe us through the years and decades. I invite you to do just that.