What ever happened to nicknames? When I was a kid, I heard enough cool nicknames on TV and in the movies, it just seemed like everyone should have one. In my neighborhood, the only nickname I remember anyone having one was the kid everyone called ‘Porky’. He wasn’t an overly large individual, but one day during a cookie break courtesy of his mother, he was pounding them down and someone made the offhand comment, “Geez, you are packing them away like Porky Pig.” Why that stuck, one will never know for sure, but isn’t that how it goes with nicknames? The best nicknames are usually a spontaneous creation and those that are manufactured usually ring hollow. Of course, a manufactured nicknames can sometimes grow a life of their own.
When the Ontonagon Junior High students were still in the old high school building on Greenland Road, there were enough young teachers to mount a ‘grudge match’ basketball game against the eighth grade boys at the end of their regular season. One year, we decided to spice it up and ordered jerseys with a number of our own choosing (I took 27 for my birthday). When we put the article in the paper announcing the big game, we gave ourselves nicknames taken from popular NBA players at the time. The only one I remember nearly forty years later is mine: Tree.
The Atlanta Hawks had a seven foot plodder playing center named Wayne ‘Tree’ Rollins. Perhaps I could have taken him in a foot race, but spotting him a foot and 70 pounds, he could have knocked me right out of the building with one hip-check. Differences noted, for some reason his name was picked out of the blue and I was introduced as ‘Tree’ Raisanen. Perhaps it came from the unit I always taught about dendrology (the study of trees). For the rest of the year, the kids would call me ‘Tree’ and it made sense because they were there for the game. It was funny, but it got old.
After we moved the seventh and eighth grade up to the High School building in the fall of 1983, someone resurrected the name. This made no sense as this was well after the ‘name game’ that had started it all. The difference was the few kids who called me ‘Tree’ used it in a manner that rendered it more of a slur. I never took offense because I knew where it originated. The practice continued for a couple of years even after the class we played against in the original ‘Tree’ game had graduated. Kids would mockingly call me ‘Tree’ but couldn’t figure out why I would laugh about it. I finally punctured the balloon by using a tactic that ruins many a good urban legend: I gave them the facts. When it got tiresome, we happened to be doing our dendrology unit. I asked a simple question: “Who do you think gave me the nickname, ‘Tree’?” When no one could come up with a viable idea, it was kind of a shock to them that it had been coined by yours truly. “So all the time some of you have been trying to use it to make fun of me, I laughed because I knew that you had no idea where it came from or what it meant.” Poof. No more ‘Tree’ Raisanen. Not so for the original ‘Tree’; he hasn’t played an NBA game in decades but when his name comes up, very few people remember him as Wayne Rollins.
A few of my friends from high school gained nicknames that stuck. Wayne Nevala actually had two: ‘Wanye’ (think Kanye West) and ‘Numby’. ‘Wanye’ arrived when Wayne was playing on a city league basketball team and the jackets purchased by their sponsor were monogrammed. Wayne’s was misspelled ‘Wanye’ but he wore it anyway. Wayne was smart enough to get through medical school and become a doctor, so he was no dummy. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor and often claimed that all his mistakes in life came because he was “numb from the neck up”, hence, he alternately became known as ‘Numby’. There was also ‘Cosmo’ Gorski – Nick decided at some point that he wanted to be ‘Cosmo’ but that one never really caught on.
When my old drum section buddy Jim Soderberg sent me a birthday card last fall, he reminded me that we have now known each other for 54 years. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (well, in the halls of Marquette Senior High), Jim had a steady girlfriend named Debbie. She gained the nickname ‘The Hobbit’ because she was the right size and she got me interested in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Had she not started stashing her books and shoes in the drum cabinets behind our section in band, I may have never discovered Tolkien and she may never have gained the nickname. She must have gotten used to it because that is how she signed the note she wrote in my senior yearbook along with, “Hobbit tracks will haunt you forever,” which she added across the bottom of the page.
Jim, on the other hand, gained a nickname and I have absolutely no recollection of why we started using it. The first iteration was ‘Jimbo Elrod’ which was subsequently shortened to ‘Jim-Bob’, ‘J-Bob’ or just plain ‘J-B’. Anytime I hear someone referred to as ‘Jimbo’, it takes me right back to ‘Jimbo Elrod’ and I start wondering exactly where it came from. While I have occasionally written about us as being the ‘Dynamic Drum Duo’, we never referred to ourselves that way back then. We were simply the co-first chair drummers and did a pretty good job of delegating duties from there. Perhaps it was just being the ‘old guy’ in the section, but it was always kind of funny that some of the younger drummers would go to great lengths to wait until they could ask Jim things so they didn’t have to talk to me. I wasn’t trying to project an air of superiority, but then again, I did have my moments of being less tactful than some situations called for. If we were playing ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’, I guess I knew which part was mine.
Either way, Jim Bob and I had a great time in band and unlike those who disliked extra obligations like pep band, we felt like it was our duty to be the spark plugs and keep the level of enthusiasm up. We weren’t perhaps as spirited as the Michigan Tech or Northern pep bands, but we did our best to make sure the crowd knew we were there. The cheerleaders loved the drummers because we did our best to help them get the crowd fired up. A couple of them would always make it a point to talk to us before games to make sure we would add a little rhythm to some of their cheer routines. During my junior and senior years, the drummers got moved from the front row to the top row of the bleachers for basketball games. We weren’t keen on the relocation at first, but when the cheerleaders still came charging up the bleachers to see us before games, we thought it elevated our social status beyond being mere drummers in the pep band.
J-B and I went on many adventures. When I matriculated off to college, NMU wasn’t exactly far away, but schedules and jobs kept us from spending a lot of time together. When Jim left for Ann Arbor and the U of M in the fall of 1972, we kept in touch the best we could in the days of snail mail and no email. When Jim would get home for the summer, I would depart for my job at the Huron Mountain Club. We had some epic tennis matches when I would venture to town to catch up on civilization during my one day off per week. Jim was able to squeeze in one visit to the club during my last summer there so I planned a hike between my lunch and dinner shifts in the kitchen.. We drove over to Ive’s Lake to climb the similarly named Ive’s Mountain that rose up from the north shore. Naturally, we picked the hottest day of the year. We had run into John Case as he was descending the same mountain and we exchanged hiking info. John’s family owned a good chunk of the Ive’s Lake shoreline and we were casually acquainted from school. When Jim and I got back down to lake level, we had no choice but to strip down and take a quick dip to cool off. We thought we were far enough from any habitations that no one would be the wiser so I was a little surprised the next time I ran into John Case and he asked if we had enjoyed our skinny dip.
In the fall of 1973, we hatched a plan that another John (MacDonald) and I would drive down to Ann Arbor to visit Jim during our mid-term break in early November. Having never driven to A-squared before, we packed off knowing only enough about U of M to give J-B a call when we got to campus. We stashed my truck and got the guided tour. We weren’t there ten minutes when we ran into another old classmate, Paul Bush (whom I didn’t recognize sporting shoulder length hair). Jim reminded us that his dorm was full of football players and should we encounter one particularly beefy tight end in the communal bathrooms down the hall, to make sure we didn’t laugh if he talked to us. This made no sense at all until we met this small mountain of a Wolverine. He was very friendly, but when he opened his mouth to say ‘hello’, his voice fell somewhere between Mike Tyson and Pee Wee Herman. We successfully made it back to Jim’s room before busting up. It wouldn’t be our last adventure involving U of M football players.
Near the end of the summer of 1976, Jim asked me to drive him back to Ann Arbor so we could transport some furniture he needed for his new apartment. This was my third trip to the Michigan’s deep south so I planned on spending a few days knocking around town before heading in the other direction to start work in Ontonagon. We squeezed in a round of golf at the U of M course (located near the football stadium) and renewed our tennis series. Jim had friends in the athletic department, we got to use the locker room and sauna facilities after playing tennis. There we encountered several benches of beefy football players relaxing after practice. Jim said, “Watch this” as he poured a dipper full of water on the hot rocks on the sauna stove. The football players all started for the door, whining and complaining that were were trying to boil them. The temperature on the wall thermometer read a paltry 130 degrees so we were barely breaking a sweat. These guys were obviously steam room posers and not true Scandanavian sauna takers. Jim chuckled, “Works every time.”
When we found time off during the summers after college and our new careers, we managed to squeeze in a few more adventures. One of our favorite two rut road trips was across the Triple – A Road from the Big Bay area to our family camp on Huron Bay. We would always make it a point to fire up the sauna when we got there and recall the ‘boiling football players’ story from Ann Arbor. On one such trip, we got involved making dinner and totally forgot about checking the sauna fire. Jim said, “I will take a look” and came back white as a sheet. “The side of the stove is glowing red!” he exclaimed. I grabbed a wet dish cloth and ventured far enough in to damper down the stove. We were relieved to see the circle of glowing red hot steel on the side of the stove begin to fade. “Burning down the sauna would have been a poor way to end this trip,” Jim said. I reminded him that the sauna was close enough to the tar paper walls of the camp that we probably would have gotten a two-fer deal and burned it down as well.
J-B and I were almost classmates in school. He is only five months younger than I am but my folks decided it would be fine for me to start school at ‘four soon to be five’ rather than ‘five soon to be six’. Who knows if we would have been friends who became as close as brothers had we been in the same grade. One of our running jokes revolves around the fact that when J-B’s birthday rolls around in February, we are finally the ‘same age’. This year will be special because not only will we be the same age, but we will both be retired when June arrives. Okay, I have a little head start in that department, but knowing J-B, he won’t have any trouble catching up with this old guy’s retirement adventures.
Top Piece Video: I picked this 1972 live version of Chuck Berry’s School Days in honor of J-B’s high school graduation year.