For some reason, Southerners — more than people in any other region — love nicknames. It’s really a show of affection when we care enough to bestow a nickname rather than call a person by his Christian name.
I know people who are called Hog, Frosty, Tater, Bug, Tackle Box, Tractor and Hoss. Stripes is so named for the time long ago he spent on the chain gang and once, when I was a teenager, we named sweet Jimmy “Big Star” because that was the name of the grocery store where he worked. He’s now grown into a respectable adult with children, but those of us who knew him then still call him “Big Star.” He always laughs because it takes him back to a sweet moment in time, and I always laugh because I can hear the sweet voices of our youth chiming, “Hey, Big Star.”
To be honest with you, a nickname well-given in the South is a badge of honor.
Just up the road from us lives a man with one arm. Often, I have remarked on him as we drove past because he impresses me. He’s always working. Mowing grass. Washing the car. Cleaning the yard. He used to work at the small grocery nearby as a bagger. He’d always offer to take my groceries to the car but I’d, in turn, assure him that I’d be fine doing it myself.
“You shore? Be glad to help.”
That neat, well-kept house where he lives has become a landmark of sorts. When I’m giving directions to Tink or such, I’ll often say, “You know where the one-armed man lives?”
Sometimes I forget that my husband is an extremely well-mannered, well-raised Yankee. But I certainly remember when I mention the one-armed man because he will rile up and say, “Baby! That’s not nice. Don’t call him that.” He’s also from Los Angeles, where they tend to adhere to perfect political correctness to the point of being boring and dry. I don’t know a single person in L.A. who has a nickname.
When he chides me for things such as this, I always give him a look of absolute, exaggerated bafflement.
“That is not nice.”
This happened several times, to the point that I almost stopped referring to him that way lest I have to go through the chastisement and the expended energy of the exaggerated bafflement. One morning, I was running and called out “hello” to him as he stood at the edge of his yard smoking a cigarette and, no doubt, contemplating dummies who run when there are, surely, better things to do.
“Good day to run, ain’t it?” he asked.
That question began a conversation so I stopped to talk. I realized that through the years of seeing and speaking to him that we didn’t know each other’s names. I told him mine. He nodded and exhaled a puff of smoke. He told me his.
“Oh. Nice to meet you, Warren,” I said.
“No.” He shook his head furiously. “Not Warren. One Arm.”
It had to register.
“One Arm?” I repeated.
“Yeah. One Arm.”
He rolled his armless shoulder toward me as if to say “Idiot.”
“My real name’s Randall. Ain’t nobody ever called me that. Always been called One Arm. Always.”
It is fair to say that I ran home much faster than I ran away from home. Boy, I couldn’t wait to put my chastising husband in his place. I was in the kitchen when he returned from an errand.
“Hey, come here,” I called out in smile-cloaked voice. “I’ve got something to tell you. Remember the one-armed man?”
I held up my hand to stop him. “Before you chastise me, hear my story.”
He couldn’t believe it. Then, he laughed.
“You Southerners sure are good sports.”
Yeah, that’s right. We are. Unless, of course, you’re an outsider calling us names. Then, we’re not so nice about it.
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