More than any other region, Southerners 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 named for the time long ago that he spent on the chain gang.
Once, when I was a teenager, we named sweet Jimmy “Big Star,” because it 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. I always laugh because I can hear the sweet voices of our youth chiming, “Hey, Big Star.”
To be honest with you, a well-given nickname in the South is a badge of honor.
Up the road from us lives a man with one arm. Often, I have remarked on him as we drive past because he impresses me. He’s always working, mowing grass, washing the car and 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, assured him 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 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.”
Tink’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. “What?”
“That is not nice.”
This happened several times to the point I almost stopped referring to the one-armed man that way lest I have to go through the chastisement and 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. No doubt he was 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 through the years of seeing and speaking to him 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 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?”
“Baby ... ”
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.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com/ronda.