My central Pennsylvania hometown of Bigler in Clearfield County was built on the spines of abandoned underground clay mines. Behind my childhood home the woods were dotted with sinkholes where the ground had collapsed over those mines. My mother always warned us to stay out of them, citing the dangers, and I think my four siblings and I did—pretty much.
Ancient coal strip mines squatted on the hills around Bigler. In the middle of town sat the coal tipple and a small mountain range of fine, processed coal. The workers swung lunch pails and waved hello under black sooted faces. The dust from the plant and the coal piles settled over the town, blackening our bare feet and laundry hanging on clotheslines. Housewives carefully washed their homegrown vegetables. During the winter dust peppered the snow and we had to dig deep to find enough pure white to eat.
The coal plant and the brickyard that was just down the road handed paychecks to many local men, like Chester, Floyd, John, and Dwight. But folks in town only knew them as Cheese, Cobby, June, and Shorty. Truck drivers and heavy equipment operators shoved their Mom-given first names of Steward, Leo, Marvin, and Doyle under the seat and drove by the new handles of Ditty, Pookie, Snooks, and Spike. Welders named Harold, Arnold, and Clifford sparked Hootie, Shakey, and Bonehead.
Sometimes the names made sense, fitting the individual’s personality. Windy worked on the railroad, and yes, talked a lot. He’d argue with his Sunday School teacher on the proper road to heaven and he’s probably still arguing with God about how he got there. Who remembered his name was Raymond? Other times names seemed randomly assigned. Who knew how Turz ever grew from Irvin? Or cared?
The labor market has shifted from manual occupations providing fertile ground for face-to-face banter and verbal jousting to the more impersonal computer driven information sharing. We’ve moved away from some information that matters, contained in the sounds of the names of people we treasure. A popular TV sitcom from years back –“Cheers”– celebrated a bar where “everybody knows your name.” Nicknames carry rich connotations of a community consciousness, of a private story publicly shared that draws us closer together.
Now names are chosen to create an on-line identity for websites and blogs. Or they’re used to hide behind while posting on online articles. You can even search online for nickname ideas. Fewer are the names arising naturally or spontaneously from the creative minds and lips of close acquaintances and loved ones. Rich as the clay and coal veins the men labored in to support their families, those names were exchanged like currency and backed by the good will of neighbors and friends. If you needed to earn the trust of a stranger, you handed them a name. “Hunk Jones sent me.” Forget Harold!
Perhaps we need a few more nicknames, thoughtfully or spontaneously assigned, gratefully received and enjoyed by the community. Mom will always have her Lloyd, David, and Francis. Friends will enjoy the sound of Skinny, Knox, and Mutt.
When I left Clearfield County I eagerly shed my “given” name, a combo of first and middle, thinking it provincial and small-town sounding. But when old friends or family call me “Lora Jean” I sit back and feel the warmth that rises from its sound, the intimacy of memories it evokes. Recently a hometown buddy I hadn’t seen for years posted on my social networking newsfeed using that old name. I had to smile…my “secret” was out! Then I asked about her old nickname because she was using her “real” name online. “What do I call you now? Can I still call you ‘Punky?’” Her answer: “To the few I can and always will be, Punky!”
A Biblical perspective is, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). When I walk in my hometown’s cemetery I recognize the tombstones of old friends by their formal monikers. God and members of their earthly community remember and love them by their names.
This was first published by The Meadville Tribune July 31, 2013 on the editorial page and reprinted with permission.