I was about five years old when I discovered that my name wasn’t actually Johnny. I didn’t say anything about it until I was eight. Then my OCD kicked in.
In the third grade, I decided to insist that I be called John. John was my name, and I should be called that.
This didn’t go over too well with my parents, especially my dad, who informed me that he could call me whatever he wanted.
He had a point, but my name wasn’t Johnny. It was John. He and my mom were the ones who had chosen that.
My grandparents were about as amenable to this idea as my parents were. My dad’s mom was also quite shocked to learn that my real name wasn’t Johnny.
But, I figured third grade was as good of a place as any to make my move. Since the new teachers all have your real name on the roll call, I knew that John would be what she called out. The first day of school is your opportunity to tell the teacher that you go by something other than your given name.
So, when Mrs. Morris called out, “John Moore,” I just said, “Present.” The decision had been made. From here on, I would be John.
Nicknames aren’t as common as they used to be. I’m not sure why that is. My friend Steve recently brought up a discussion he’d had with a buddy of his. He said he pointed out that, not so long ago, if you came into a town and asked where Slick, Cooter, Romeo, or Paco were, anyone you asked could tell you.
Nicknames can stick so firmly that if you asked those same people in town what Slick, Cooter, Romeo or Paco’s real names were, it is likely that they couldn’t tell you.
Some nicknames make sense. For example, Johnny is a logical extension of John. But other nicknames aren’t so logical.
The confusing thing is whether the person who originally assigned someone their nickname was serious or joking.
For example, a guy who receives the nickname Slick, could be the epitome of slickness or he could be more like Barney Fife.
Speaking of Barney, Bernard “Barney” P. Milton Oliver Fife was Barney’s full name, so Barney wasn’t his real name, either. So was the case with Sheriff Andy Taylor. His real name was Andrew Jackson Taylor.
Of course, these are TV characters, but even one of the actors on “The Andy Griffith Show” went by a nickname. Actor Jesse Donald Knotts played Barney, but of course, he went by Don Knotts.
Andy Samuel Griffith was Andy’s real name. I’m glad he stuck with that. “The Sammy Griffith Show” just wouldn’t have the same ring to it.
We had a guy in my hometown who went by Cooter. I always thought it referred to the freshwater turtle. Maybe he never got in a hurry when he was little, so someone started calling him Cooter? However, Cooter Brown is a nickname that can be applied to anyone who’s been overserved.
Romeo is self explanatory. Very few guys get that nickname unless they’re a complete failure with the ladies. “Way to go, Romeo,” wasn’t something you wanted to hear at midnight in the Pizza Hut parking lot in the 1970s.
We also had a Paco in my hometown. Paco is one of those guys whose nickname is so much a part of his identity, I don’t know what his real name is. I never really thought much about it until I sat down to write this. It wouldn’t matter. I don’t think I could remember to call him anything other than Paco, even if I tried.
Which brings me back to Johnny. Sometimes, neither time, nor space, nor distance, nor the insistence of a third grader, can change what people call you.
The morning after my latest birthday, I opened up my Facebook account and was responding to birthday wishes that had come in from friends after I’d gone to bed.
There was a wish from the cute girl who lived next door to me when I was in third grade.
“Happy Birthday, Johnny!”
I guess she didn’t get the memo.