I am a word person.
Those who know me know this.
I’m sure my dad has a lot to do with it. Say what you will about Maurice G. Whale. Say he could be grumpy and gruff. Say he intimidated kids with his deep voice and his monobrow. But let it also be said that he was endlessly inventive with words.
Perhaps my father’s facility with words was the product of his childhood in the New York City Borough of Queens, where he marinated in a rich broth of colorful expressions and accents.
He told me of an old Jewish man who lived in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. The man used to call dad’s little brother, my uncle Jim, “da schvimp.”
“Veh’s da schvimp?” he’d ask whenever dad showed up without little brother in tow.
Dad collected comic strips with funny sayings, dug Jimmy Durante, sang the patter songs of William S. Gilbert and a Durante tune called “G’wan Home, Your Mudder’s Calling” to us in the bathtub, recited Winston Churchillisms.
It all stuck with him. Same as it does with me.
Dad’s creativity definitely found an outlet in the names he bestowed on us, his children. We all had at least one such name. I know my sister, Carole, and my brother, Matt, had them — unfortunately, I have forgotten what they were.
While many of my oldest brother Jim’s friends called him “Pugsly,” a name some kid somewhere gave him from the Addams family, my dad usually called him “Whales.” Obvious one there. It seemed everyone pluralized the name Whale. Made us a pod. The name that sticks in my memory, however, was pure dad: he called Jim “Moby Duncan, the Great White Yo Yo.”
Dad called my brother, Jack, “Jae Bacon.” I asked him many times how he came up with that one, and never got a satisfactory answer. But Jae Bacon he is to this day.
My sister, Diane, came in for a few choice sobriquets. I think the first was the conventional “Pants.” Short for “Smarty Pants,” no doubt. Somewhere along the line, however, those five letters morphed into “Pantuniator.” Then with the salt and smack of time, it reached its final form as “Bratuniator.”
We still laugh about the day we picked her up in front of Auburn High School, shining with sweat and fragrant after volleyball practice. When dad got a snootful of the perspiration, he mock protested: “Hey, Bratuniators aren’t supposed to smell like Billy Goats!”
As for me? Well …
As a kid, my nickname was — oh, jeez, I hate to say it — “Goob.” Yep.
“Goob?” said the bemused father of a friend when he heard it. “Hmmmph! Sounds like something I squish between me toes!”
What nobody outside the Whale family knew was how I got that name. It came from the old man. Or what it started out as did. The name entered the world as “Roobus di Goobus di Flibbety Woobus,” a real mouthful, belying my bona-fide, pipsqueak credentials at the time. When the title entered the broader world, it got a trimming. So, Goob I became. I learned to live with it.
I suppose he got a bit of his own back when we started calling him “The Old Geezer.” He took it good naturedly. One day as he climbed out of his car after work, neighborhood kids hidden behind the house across the street joined their voices in announcing, “It’s the old Geezer!” He was amused.
I remember also when neighbor kids arrived at the Whale compound, he’d announce how “the punk factor” had just gone up.
All of these names were tokens of affection. They throw a spotlight on particular periods of our younger days. And the fact that we remember them with warmth says something about the guy who invented them. I carry the memory around like a warm coal. It cheers me when the world grows cold.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.