The Proper Use of Names
Down in Bush Country ...
This piece is going nowhere in particular, just so youll know. It comes to mind
because we have recently been awarded a president who lived in west Texas for
some of his childhood. As a possible result of this, he gives everybody nicknames
whether they like it or not. Most of them at least manage to act as if they do.
George W. Bush was a two-year-old when his parents moved from New Haven to
Odessa, Texas, in 1948. I was just short of sixteen when I arrived a year later,
also from Connecticut. I spent a night in Odessa, passing through, but wound up
53 miles farther south in a tiny town called McCamey.
It was in the high desert: tough, hot, dry country. The only place you could have
cooled off after work was the small public swimming pool, but a polio scare had
closed it indefinitely. People said there hadnt been a drop of rain in McCamey
for three years previous.
Maybe so. It certainly didnt rain all the time I was there. Now and then you
might see a small cloud high in the blazing sky, with kind of a gray veil
below it that might have intended to be rain. But whatever it was, it
never reached the ground.
My boss said the country was great for men and horses, but hell on women and
dogs. On the other hand, he also said a man didnt really live in west Texas, he
just resisted. So maybe it wasnt so great for men, either.
I worked as a roustabout--an oil field all-purpose laborer. We cleaned out the sludge that
settled on the bottoms of storage tanks, dug ditches, painted, ran pipelines, and
serviced those angular contraptions you see all over the oil patch, the ones with
walking beams that bob up and down like huge toy birds as they pump up the crude.
I wasnt much use--didnt have the habit of work yet, and didnt have any
experience with tools--but everybody put up with me and helped me along. From the
very first, they called me Slim.
All of them went by nicknames, too. The nicknames werent friendly or
belittling--just descriptive. They were along the lines of Heavy, Shorty, Slim,
Blackie, Whitey, Red, or Stretch, which covered the major flavors that humans came
in. (Blackie and Whitey referred to hair, not skin; back then, the oil fields were
for whites only.)
It didnt occur to me at first that this business of nicknames had any particular
point to it. But one day while we were eating lunch somebody asked me, Slim,
whats your name, anyway?
And somebody else jumped right on top of him. Why, you goddamned old
fool, the second man said, it aint none of your business what that
boys name is. If hed have wanted you to know, hed have told
So thats what was going on, at least in McCamey. Grown-ups seemed to use
nicknames to be courteous, to respect the dignity and privacy of even a boy.
I cant say for sure how it was in Odessa. I only got up there once, for the
Ector County Fair. Randolph Scott was making a personal appearance, the first
movie star I had ever seen. I didnt see any Randys or Scotties, though.