My mother calls me William
And my father calls me Will,
The teacher calls me Billy,
But the "fellas" call me Bill.*
His second grade teacher, however, one day called loudly over the classroom, not "Billy," but, "William! Come up front right now and spit out that gum!" Promptly, all five Williams rose to deposit their offending gum in the wastebasket. He liked to tell that story.
Only one person called him "Willy." A self-described "unclaimed blessing," Betty was a devoted family friend. After forty years of calling him Willy, she brought, among other gifts to his new-born granddaughter, a simple brown teddy bear, that came with one stipulation: that it be named "Willy." So it was. When that little girl began to call things by name, she created a generic reference that we all used thereafter for all stuffed animals: They were all "willies."
And that little girl called him Grandpa. Through playtimes, he teased her, calling her "knucklehead" and she flung the same name back at him. Out of that grew her a lasting greeting to him: "Hi, Knuckles!"
Only I called him Daddy.
What's in a name? At birth only a hopeful tag pinned to a wordless cry.
A penny postcard dated November 22, 1910, one day past his birth, was sent to his father, middle-named William, but called Will. It read, "Dear Will, Heard the good news this forenoon. I hope he grows up to be as curly-haired and jolly as his father." Little William did grow up that way, first with blond wavy hair, then black, then gray. And he grew up with humor pulsing along with the blood in his veins, as necessary to his life as was breathing the air in and out.
"When I was a little tyke, I found a brown toad in the park one day. Well, I touched that toad and it jumped, and I squealed. So I touched it again, and it jumped again. And on and on across the whole block of that city park, I touched that toad and laughed until the poor toad couldn't jump any more, and my fun ran out."
Even when the strength to chase a toad had run out of his life, across the carpet in front his Lazy-Boy his haughty Siamese cat would slink. Bill would stay perfectly still until the cat was just by his foot. One quick move of his toe on the carpet would, of course, cause the cat to mount a two-foot vertical leap, followed by Bill's hearty laugh and the cat's indignant retreat to glare at him from under the piano.
He brought home from his work days no complaints or tired talk; he put aside the empty lunch pail and dirty clothes and sat down to dinner with a new knock-knock joke or elephant joke or Polish joke. (The ones just for the "fellas" never made it to the table.) Sometimes it was the story of a prank. A carpenter's workday was often outside. One hot summer day he and his partner were making outside repairs at the home of a single lady. The lady was gone for a while, and the house was not open to get to the bathroom if need be. For his partner, Simon, the need arose. Bill offered to step around the side of the house to spot any on-lookers while Simon relieved himself. Just at the right moment, Bill, from around that corner, raised his voice to a high falsetto, calling out, "Would you boys like some lemonade?" Simon believed.
Evenings were for tuning in the popular radio personalities: George Burns and Gracie Allen, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, or Jack Benny and Rochester. Bill, along with the rest of America, laughed equally hard every time Fibber McGee opened his closet door. In the l950's television kept his evenings supplied with similar comedy. He loved Groucho Marx, and riveted on the slapstick antics of Red Skelton or Jerry Lewis or, best of all, the craziness of "I Love Lucy." Tossing this head back, he'd close his eyes, and belt a hefty laugh. Like a time-release factor, recalling the episode could recreate a laugh or a smile. No need at all for Excedrin or valium.
Bill looked forward to the funny papers on Sunday and the Reader's Digest jokes every month. He and I might fight over who got to read them first. In any case we inhaled them together, which was the point anyway.
Having been a WW II Navy man, he always enjoyed the joke from Reader's Digest about the Admiral in sick bay, who was lying prone on a table having his temperature taken. A young orderly passed the door, looked in, and snickered at him. The admiral withheld his displeasure until he passed by and laughed for the third time, whereupon he shouted, "What's the matter with you? Haven't you seen anyone getting their temperature taken before?" "But with a daisy, sir?" he replied.
Later I would come to treasure a "Peanuts" comic strip in which Charlie Brown and Linus are looking up at someone out of sight on a construction site. Charlie Brown asks, "How do you know how high to build a house?" The voice from above answers, "Well, first you count to see how many nails you have."" Charlie Brown turns to Linus and says, "Never banter with an old carpenter!"
Bill used fun to buffer me from the pains of my childhood. As a toddler, I had played in poison ivy, which among other places had settled in my eyes. Tiny and temporarily blind as I was, I knew the bottle of bad-tasting pink stuff, (the Benadryl I was supposed to take every day) was kept sitting on top of the old refrigerator. But I had refused to take it. However, as my sight improved, I saw that the level of pink stuff in the bottle was going down. So I asked my daddy how that could be. "I'm taking it to make you well," he said, with a broad grin. And I bought it. But I'd also never been allowed so many bottles of orange pop in my young life.
When I found myself sobbing from a fall down the basement stairs, Bill picked me up, carried me upstairs to the living room couch. Frightened more than hurt, I could not stop crying, so my dad resorted to something more dramatic. He climbed up on top of the upright piano, whereupon my mother, in all seriousness, handed him a dustcloth to clean the picture above the piano while he was up there. Of course, my hurt disappeared into laughter.
What's in a name? Johnny Jumpup was the name of a game Bill created for the two of us when I found myself spending lots of time sick in bed during my early grade school years. He was Johnny Jumpup, a thick-headed student in a classroom where I was the teacher. We improvised teacher-pupil scenarios, usually a math lesson, during which I finally called on him by his full name and he would, true to his name, jump right up from his chair. Every time he did, I laughed, laughed hard. Our game seemed so rambunctious that Mother worried I was "exerting" myself. "Bill, don't you think that's enough?" she'd say. But his medicine was the best of all, and certainly the most memorable. He may have enjoyed the game more than I did.
At my first stages of gullibility, I bought his explanation that it was a little man named "Yahooti" who turned off the light when I closed the refrigerator door and who took the picture inside the camera. The story he loved to tell on me came from the time when I had first learned to use the telephone on my own. He was waiting for a call to come pick up my mother and me from downtown. Full of my own importance, I made the call. The voice at the other end answered with "Duffy's Tap." The voice sounded right, but, perplexed, I hung up the phone without a word. When I tried again, he could hardly speak for laughing.
It never occurred to me that his need for laughter was sometimes medicine for himself--an escape, a buffer against thorns. I remember many days in winters, sometimes weeks, when I went to school, but he stayed home--without work. Although we never ate any less than well, I learned years later of the local grocer who let Bill incur heavy debt for our groceries. On another matter, however, I was aware that he seemed to bear the brunt of criticism from family over his mother "running through a fortune in sanitariums and doctors." Later a great distance grew and remained between Bill and his only brother over his mother's small remaining estate after her death.
On the day he himself was too ill to drive and go with my Mother to admit her to a distant hospital, I took the wheel and the authority. Upon my return, I sat across from him and delivered news I hated to report. "Daddy, the doctors say she needs electrotherapy again." Before I left that day, however, he was seeking the laughter that keeps one from crying. I found myself falling naturally into another role reversal: I was now the one dealing out as much humor medicine as I could for him to breathe in through the times when most words won't do.
What's in a name? Bill's all time favorite comedy routine was Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" Just as we knew his only flavor was chocolate and the only carpenter to be was union, so we knew "Who's on First?" was top on his list. It had the speed and exhilaration of a roller coaster ride, and he loved the fast confusion of the names.
Costello: Now look, I'm the head of the sports department, I gotta know the baseball players' names. Do you know the guys' names?
Abbott: Now let's see. We have on the bags--we have Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.
C: That's what I wanna find out.
A: I say Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.
C: You know the fellows' names?
C: Well then who's on first?
C: I mean the fellow's name?
C: The guy on first.
C: The first baseman.
And so on.
In the last years of his life, when Bill's breaths came in short takes, his good humor was in equally short supply. Each day was an exercise in oxygen cords and endurance; the strength to be jolly had slipped away long before he did. Just as we tried to provide all possible physical easements, we attempted to keep his spirits rather up, distracting him with TV, local goings on, and anything to cause him to smile.
And one day I hit the jackpot! The best possible fun to share with my dad, thanks to Bernie Lincicome, sports writer for the Chicago Tribune. In February of 1989 he wrote a column about the new president of the National League, a black man named White, a sparkling parody of "Who's on First?" with the extra coincidence of a white man named Brown as president of the American League. Masterfully, Lincicome had played the color and confusion. Like a child again, I could hardly wait to read this to him.
That very night after work and dinner, I put aside my schoolwork and paid a visit. I addressed my parents' household needs first, including changing the basement furnace filters with my dad's labored and detailed directions freshly in my ears. When he was satisfied his house was in order, I sat facing him and smiled.
"Daddy, I want you to listen to this. You remember "Who's on First?"
I began: "Hey, Abbott, I understand the National League has hired a black to be its new president."
"That's right, Lou, he's White."
"White? I thought he was black."
"Yes, he is."
"That's correct. He's White."
I read on and on, indeed, performed the piece, watching him as I proceeded. His eyes, fixed on me, became bright and steady; the corners of his mouth turned up. He was inhaling this. We were on the roller coaster together.
Just a few hours later, his breath was all gone.
What's in a name? No, What's on second.
Who is in a name.
*This writer's memory of Bill's recitation, which likely came originally from Eugene Field's "Jest 'Fore Christmas."