I pulled the old Model A onto Pigeon Ridge, where I realized that every passenger in that old car had a nickname. My baby sister, Bingo, sitting beside me should have been known as “Ivory,” because she could play her namesake tune when she could barely see the tops of the piano keys. To give her better “zishun,” Mama used the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary we got with S&H Green stamps. Bing gave concerts to amazed neighbors.
She enjoyed bird funerals, too, where I served as grave digger, Bennett gave the eulogy, and Bingo sang them to their heavenly home with “Open the Door, Richard.” I gave her the nickname years later, after she and big sister Bennett found a new pasttime, having forsaken Old Maid cards to play poker. And she loved to ride in the car.
She got her nickname at home. The rest of the names surely originated at Polkton School, which was the first landmark we saw during our maiden voyage.
I got my first nickname from an ancestor who smote gold, silver or iron, and might have been been named “smiter,” had not the language dictated “smith.” The derivation of my second nickname is more involved.
Mama and Daddy never knew why my older brother, Tommy, died; he was dead when they first saw him, 10 years before I was born. So all they could do was hold him and cry, then have a service for him and bury him in Bennett Cemetery, under a tiny grave stone which bore a little white lamb. Because they lost him, they were always afraid that I would die, too. I guess that’s how I learned to beware of threats to my health.
Swamp provided such a threat at the fountain in the second-floor hallway when we were in the fifth grade. He breezed by for a drink of water, and sloshed me as he swerved away.
“Now I’m gonna get sick,” I proclaimed, wiping the droplets off my shirt.
“Naw, you ain’t, Professor Froggy,” Swamp chuckled. “That little bit of water ain’t gon’ hurt you.” Then savoring his coinage, he shook his head, then repeated the words as he walked away. I didn’t care for the name — perhaps because it fit too well — but thankfully, no one else was around to hear him say it, and I never heard anyone but Swamp use it again.
In the truck bed, which had once been a cooter shell, Red Dog sat, fair-skinned and freckled, having taken half of his nickname from his very red hair, now waving in the breeze. Stockier and built lower to the ground than the rest of the male riders, he was as tenacious and tough as his second name. But he possessed a ready smile and loved to sing. Lyrics like “Water–boo …Water-boo, when will you meet your Water-boo?” He sang it until the Country Song Roundup came out and Outlaw told us Stonewall Jackson was singing “Waterloo.”
Outlaw, sitting beside Dog in the back of the Model A, dangled his long skinny legs over the spot where the license plate should have been. Out was tall and skinny, and looked malnourished, though he never went without plenty to eat. He liked to sing, too, with his black Harmony guitar which he learning to play and I learned to pick out “Crazy Arms” in the unheated living room of Daddy’s house. He sang it on the stage of that school building. It was the first song we ever played together. I thought he sang it well.
The two of us were standing near the front of the school building, when I noticed he was forging his Daddy’s name on his report card.
“You don’t have to do that, Out,” I said.
“Yes I do,” he replied. “Doc Holladay would tear my skinny tail up if he ever saw these “Ds.”
“Why don’t you make him some good grades, then?”
“You don’t think I can?”
“I think you can, Out” I said. “But why don’t you prove it — when the next report card comes out? “
“Too much work,” he answered, sliding the document into his back pocket. But six weeks later he came up, waving that same yellow card.
“I might even show this to the old man,” he grinned as he handed it to me.
I looked his report card over — inside and back. He had not autographed it yet, and every grade I saw was an “A,” even in conduct. I turned to the front side of the card to make sure it was his.
“Good for you, Out,” I said. “You ought to keep this up.”
“Naw,” he said. “Ain’t’ no need to,” he said, and walked away.
In shotgun position beside Bingo, Benny sat, tall and wiry like Outlaw, but muscled up more, and perhaps the calmest, gentlest kid in the school. Benny liked drumming, which he did with both palms and finger tips any time he heard music playing.
Benny liked stories, too, especially the one about Rocky the Dog, who made solo trips from Pigeon Ridge to town to get Pepsis and nabs for his master. As far as names go, he had been known as “Herbert,” and later “Long Tom,” but he got that nickname changed during the great rock fight.
The rock slinging started one afternoon after the last bus drove off. On the way to the slab of asphalt that served as a basketball court, someone picked up a piece of blue slate then lobbed it backward over his head at the ones following behind. Pretty soon, basketball was forgotten as two teams of slingers formed. When some of the lobs turned into line drives, it looked like Benny had chosen the losing side. But he kept lobbing until someone hit him on the shoulder, hard.
“Oh,” he said. The volley of stones turned into a flurry, which he dodged and ducked as long as he could. Then he simply strode over to the other side.
“Wait a minute,” Chevro hollered, then split the air with a two-finger whistle, holding his other stocky arm high. “Wait a minute.” He whistled again.
“Long Tom left me and changed sides,” he explained after the din subsided. “Why ‘d you do that to me … Herbert?” he asked as he got in the face of his former ally.
“I never hit anybody,” Tom grinned. “I just got tired of getting hit myself.”
“You don’t leave your friend and change sides in the middle of a rock fight,” Chevro explained, rubbing his leg. “That’s treason.” He paused. “You know what they call a man who commits treason?”
“A treasoner?” said Tom.
“No,” said Chevro. “You call him a traitor … a … a …”
Chevro struggled to bring up the name he wanted. It was “Ben–something.” Not “Abou ben Adam.” Not “Ben Franklin.” No. . It was … it was…
“ … Benedict Arnold, “ he shouted. “You Benedict Arnold,” he said and stomped away.
“You hear that, Tom?” Dog hollered to his cousin. “You a Benedict Arnold,” he laughed. “That sounds about right. Ben- e -dict.”
Just then, Outlaw spotted a stocky middle-aged man coming out the front of the school.
“Drop your rocks,” Out said in a loud whisper. “Mole’s coming.”
All combatants complied before the principal strode up.
”What are you boys up to?” he accused. “School’s out,” Mr. Mole explained, not giving them time to answer. “Either get on the court or get on home.”
Mr. Mole waited with hands on hips as the crowd dispersed, some thinking of where they would like to put a rock, but none leaving a thing they didn’t come with — except Tom. It was six weeks before his new burden was shortened to “Benny.” But he bore his new name with a smile.
I smiled, too, at the memories Potchie brought back in the first 250 feet of the glorious ride.
As we putted past the schoolhouse, I put on brakes and slowed down.
“What we stopping for?” Dog and Out yelled.
“I got to stop this thing to get it in low gear,” I answered. “She won’t make it up this hill in second.”
So I stopped Potchie and downshifted, hoping we might struggle up the hill by the softball field, attain its height, then gain a view of Benny’s and Dog’s houses.
I’ll tell you if we made it, next time.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.