The Guy Who Lost His Name

Robert had disappeared and my name was Butch. Butch was who I was. You don't question things like that.

If you phoned up my family home in Philadelphia and asked to speak to Robert, the person who answered would tell you that you had the wrong number. And if you shook me awake in the middle of the night screaming, "Rob, get out! There's a fire," I'd think, "Who the hell is Rob?" Nonetheless, most of the people I will speak with or do business with today will know me only as Rob. You see, I'm a guy who's lost his name. And I'm not at all happy about it.

So what is my true name, you may ask. And a fine question it is, which allows me to tell the following story, as related to me on a fairly regular basis throughout my childhood by my mother and her two sisters, Aunt Elaine and Aunt Guinevere (my grandfather had a thing for Tennyson). The story was not told to me by my father because he was not around at the time I was named, being otherwise engaged in Army Air Corp service overseas. Here's what happened.

There was a trolley strike in Philadelphia that hot August night when my mother went into labor and, since my father was, as I mentioned, elsewhere and my aunts didn't drive, there was no way to get to the hospital. After a few frantic hours, a cab was located and the three sisters arrived at Mt. Sinai Hospital with only moments to spare before I plopped on out—a ruddy, screaming baby boy who the receiving nurse could barely handle. "My god, he's a big one," she said. My mother, probably still in shock and exhausted, gladly let the attending nurses whisk me away to be cleaned and weighed and whatever else is done to newborns. When they brought me back, the nurses were laughing. "What's the big joke?" my mother asked, in no mood for frivolity.

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"He weighs eleven and a half pounds," the nurse said. "A new record here." I imagine my mother groaned and held out her arms anyway, resigned to her heavy burden. "The other girls are calling him Butch," the nurse told Mom. "You know, because he's so chubby and all."

"I've named him Robert," my mother, a formidable woman, stated. "He is not a Butch." But Aunt Gen and Aunt Elaine were standing right there and they must have thought Butch had a certain cachet, because by the time Mom and I left Mt. Sinai a few days later, Robert had disappeared. My name was Butch.

And it stayed Butch throughout all my school years, on into college and beyond. Sure, every once in a while, a teacher would slip and call me Robert as was noted on her student roster, but the laughter of the rest of the students would quickly bring her to scratch out the given name and write in my now permanent nickname.

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I should mention here that I didn't continue on in life as a big and burly sort of guy. And I wasn't tough or mean or a schoolyard bully (well, there was that one incident with Gary Erlbaum, but that was hardly worthy of a Butch or a Spike or even an Archie). Despite any connotations, I liked the name. It was mine. Butch was who I was. You don't question things like that.

It was when I started teaching that things went south. Of course, students called me Mr. Freedman, so that wasn't a problem. But my fellow faculty members? Well, somehow I decided that they had expectations of me—the new young teacher—that I had to live up to. How appropriate would it be to hold out my hand and introduce myself as Butch Freedman?

"Butch?" I thought they'd say, recoiling in horror. "A teacher can hardly be a Butch. Are you mad?"

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So I caved in and told everyone my name was Rob. Robert was too stuffy, I reasoned. And I would never want to be a Bob or Bobby. Rob struck just the right note—friendly, but still professional. My colleagues seemed to accept it. The name stuck. Dammit all to hell. I became a Rob.

A number of times over the years, I've tried to reclaim my name. But it never seemed to take. Once you've crossed over into the straight name world, it's hard to turn back. Sure, my family still calls me Butch and old school friends do also—and the occasional intimate acquaintance would, when I asked, use it in the bedroom. I liked that. Still I wanted more. I wanted to be myself.

So, I'm trying again now. I'm too old to be bothered by other people's expectations, and not at all concerned about being judged. Come to think of it, did anyone other than myself, ever actually judge me about my name. I now seriously doubt it. Still, it's been rough going. Even my sweet wife, who first met me as a Rob, finds it hard to remember to call me Butch. Though when she does, I think we both feel closer.

Other friends and acquaintances are harder. If I want them to address me correctly, I would have to keep reminding them to do so, and I don't have the heart or patience for that. So I let it go and don't take offense. I'm getting much better at that whole thing too, the "not getting upset when you don't get what you want" thing. Most of the time, I'm grateful just to be getting out of bed in the morning.

Not too long ago, I returned to Philadelphia for my 50th high school reunion. I had a much better time than I thought I would and mostly recognized all my aged classmates. To me, they oddly looked not all that different than they did when we walked down the aisle at graduation. We had a great time reminiscing and catching up, and dancing to Chubby Checker and Danny and The Juniors, but, best of all, for me, every single one of those fine old friends called me Butch—as if I'd never had any other name.

Tags: memoirs