A Shocking Rerun

In October of 1951, the beloved sit com I love Lucy aired for the first time and, according to the most extensive research I could accomplish in five minutes, became the first television show to air as reruns. Now nearly seventy years later, you can still probably catch them from time to time. And that’s good, because even a little dated, they’re still pretty funny.lucy

So to show my appreciation for the innovative thinking of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and maybe also a little because it’s still November and I am not yet finished with my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal, I am going to participate in the noble tradition of the rerun.

Originally posted on November 20, 2013, this is my favorite practical history post about Thanksgiving. A fair number of readers have discovered this little corner of the blogosphere over the last four years, so for many of you this will be brand new old material. And those who have read and possibly vaguely remember it, will hopefully still enjoy a chuckle or two. Just no spoilers!

A Shocking Turkey Recipe

The holiday season is nearly upon us, beginning here in the US with Thanksgiving next week. And if, like us, you’re hosting family for the big day that means it’s time to make plans for your turkey. We tend to prefer the Alton Brown brine method at our house, but I bet a fair few hosts are thinking of getting up at the crack of dawn to continually check and baste their birds until they are roasted to golden brown perfection. Other more adventurous sorts may be considering rigging up a deep fryer and spending the holiday at the hospital being treated for third degree burns.

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Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.

But history suggests there may be an even better (and possibly more dangerous) way.
In 1750, before he famously tied a key to a kite string and invented the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin hosted a Christmas dinner party. Interested as he was with exploring the properties of electricity, Franklin decided to educate and entertain as well as feed his guests. His theory was that by electrocuting his roasting turkey, he could produce a more tender meat.

And he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his discovery is still important to the meat industry today, but it did come at a the expense of some personal pain and humiliation. As he was setting up an electrical jack he had designed specifically to meet all of his poultry electrocution needs, the plucky inventor received a pretty good shock himself. The gathering of witnesses to the experiment-gone-wrong reported a flash of light and a loud crack.

Whereas I would have tried to pretend the incident never happened and certainly would never mention it again (Okay that’s not true. I’d totally blog about it), Franklin wrote about the failure to his brother just two days later. In the letter he describes in detail how the event made him feel, which was more or less bad. Numb in his arms and on the back of his neck until the next morning and still achy a couple days later, Franklin seems to have decided that electricity, though hilarious, is not necessarily something to trifle with (chalk up one more important discovery for Franklin). He makes no mention as to whether or not he felt tenderized by the experience.

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Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.

Now I can hear the objections already: “But, Sarah, that can’t be right. Benjamin Franklin was a friend to the turkey. He had great respect for it and even fought for its adoption as the symbol of the United States of America.” I hear you, Dear Reader. And I understand your concern. I, like many of you, was an American school child so I am familiar with that story. If you don’t wish to have your image of Benjamin Franklin as the great turkey advocate shattered, then feel free to stop reading at this point and assume that I’m just full of it.

But for those of you who want to know what’s what, I’m going to share the real story with you. Even though Benjamin Franklin was a part of the original committee charged with choosing a design for the Great Seal of the United States, he recommended a rattlesnake to represent the young nation. Not once did he suggest a turkey.

Proposedseal
Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!

The idea that he did comes from an unrelated letter to his daughter written some years later when he was serving as an American envoy in Paris. To give some perspective, this was two years after the official adoption of the Great Seal, and six years after Franklin had served on the committee, again, making no mention of the turkey. He wrote the letter in response to his daughter’s question as to his opinion of the newly forming Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity of officers of the Continental Army.

The society, founded in May of 1783, adopted for its symbol a bald eagle, claimed by some to look somewhat more like a turkey. Though Franklin didn’t oppose the society and eventually accepted an honorary membership in it, what he did not approve was the desire of some to make membership hereditary. This, he claimed, established an “order of hereditary knights,” which contradicted the ideals set forward by the newly formed republic.

But to openly mock or question the intentions of the brave men whose leadership had won the United States its freedom was simply not Benjamin Franklin’s style. Instead he focused on the turkey-eagle:

I am…not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.

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I’m kind of partial to the bald eagle myself. photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

I have to assume that despite his reference to the farmyard, Franklin would not wish the symbol of our nation or its high ranking officers to be the comically large-breasted domesticated flightless bird that graces our Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps he meant to suggest wild turkey, which is a full flavored, barrel-aged, American original that tends to give one courage. Or perhaps he meant the wild turkey, which hunters suggest is a slippery foe, difficult to sneak up on and evidently tricky to electrocute.

Whatever his true intentions, I think it is clear that though Benjamin Franklin was certainly a great American who helped to shape the United States and provide all of its half-blind citizens with bifocals, he could also, at times, be a bit of a turkey.

 

I hope you enjoyed this encore performance! Since next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the US, I will be engaging in another grand tradition borrowed from the television industry and preempting my blog post for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. See you just in time for the December sweeps! That’s a thing, right?

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Skinny Pants and Cupcakes: Everything a Young Republic Needs

By 1796 the United States of America had a Constitution, fifteen states, a snappy flag, and a growing political divide. It certainly wasn’t everything a young republic would need, but it was a start and the gaps would be recognized and filled in over the next many years by an industrious, inventive, and fiercely determined population. Perhaps more than anything else, what a new nation needs is an identity, the building blocks of a shared, unique culture.

And also cupcakes.

American cookery
What every young republic needs to have on its shelf. By Amelia Simmons, Hudson & Goodwin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It would be another thirty-two years before Noah Webster’s thoroughly American dictionary made its way into the world to assert ‘Merican standards over an inherited language, but before that, in 1796, another American stepped up to fill in an important cultural gap.

That’s when Amelia Simmons, about whom little is known beyond her self-identification as “an American orphan,” compiled and published what’s believed to be the first American cookbook. Up until that point, cooks in the US with access to unique local ingredients like maize, turkey, and “pompkin,” had to settle for English cookbooks full of English recipes for pies and puddings that sadly aren’t at all what their names imply to the modern American palate.

In her book, American Cookery (plus a subtitle that’s almost longer than the book) Simmons includes many traditional English dishes and cooking methods.  She also includes several with an American twist, like squash and pumpkin puddings, Indian slapjacks, corn cakes, roasted turkey with cranberries, and “A nice Indian Pudding.”

And also cupcakes.

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A picture of chocolate cupcakes that was not taken by me, in honor of National Chocolate Cupcake Day, which is totally a thing. photo credit: jamieanne Chocolate Cupcakes With Fudge Frosting via photopin (license)

Though she didn’t coin the term (that didn’t happen until 1828 in a cookbook compiled by Eliza Leslie), Simmons did include recipes for both “soft cakes in little pans,” and “a light cake to bake in a little pan,” possibly the earliest written references to the cupcake.

I bring up the cupcakes because yesterday was National Chocolate Cupcake Day here in the US. If you forgot to celebrate, don’t worry.  National (plain ol’) Cupcake Day is still coming up on December 15. I actually didn’t celebrate, or at least not in the traditional way, which I assume is to eat a chocolate cupcake.

It’s not that I don’t like chocolate cupcakes. I think if you’ve read this blog for very long, you’ve probably seen plenty of evidence that I do. Still, when I saw the “holiday” was coming up, I began to wonder if a cupcake is itself really a thing to celebrate. I suppose I always thought of this compact little treat as celebratory rather than celebration-worthy.

Cupcakes are for birthdays and baby showers and blogiversaries. They express congratulations when someone wins the lottery, or snags first place in the national juggling championship, or finally lands that book deal. At this point in our history there are entire cookbooks containing nothing but cupcake recipes and bakeries dedicated to making nothing but these most celebratory little cakes. And if you have a few staple ingredients in your pantry, a coffee cup, and a microwave, the Internet will be happy to tell you how to solve that late night cupcake craving without changing out of your pajamas.

coffee mugs
Finally this non-coffee drinker has a use for all of these, but not until the next time I need to celebrate in my pajamas.

Cupcakes are for just about anything, really, which makes a day for celebrating them seem a little over-the-top to me, and a day dedicated to just one flavor of them downright silly.

So what I decided to do instead is to make National Chocolate Cupcake Day a holiday in which I don’t eat a cupcake. I spent the day remembering the time when this dessert was an occasional treat that meant something truly special, and even served to fill a cultural gap in a burgeoning nation. I reflected back on a time when a great cupcake was a little harder to come by and I could fit into my skinny pants.

It was a good day. In fact, I’m thinking I may abstain from eating cupcakes for a while, at least until I can fit into those skinny pants again. Or I get a book deal. Then I’d really have something to celebrate.

It’s Kind of a Big Deal

First of all, I have mixed feelings about writing this post. Secondly, today, October 12th, is the 525th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas, representing the most influential event in the “Age of Discovery” and the irreversible beginning of arguably the largest population and cultural shift to ever alter the dynamics of human history.

It’s kind of a big deal.

In 1792 on the 300th anniversary of that day, the city of Baltimore erected what it claims is the oldest American monument to the famous Italian explorer. A couple of months ago the monument was defaced as part of an anti-racism demonstration you can view on YouTube if you want.

Columbus Day has been celebrated in various forms since around the time that monument went up, but Colorado became the first state to adopt the official holiday in 1905. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12th a federal holiday in honor of Columbus, a day that eventually came to be observed on the second Monday in October to better accommodate long weekend big deal furniture sales.

Today, that Monday is recognized not only by low, low prices and zero percent financing on five-piece living room sets, but also with large parades, closed banks, and empty mailboxes, because frankly we can all use a break from the furniture store advertisements.

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No more slip covers required. Thanks to Columbus Day. photo credit: Mário Tomé 2013 living room via photopin (license)

But in the last few years, the day has also been marked by protest. In cities across the nation, the debate rages about the value of historical monuments that commemorate any kind of messy history and Baltimore’s is not the only Columbus monument to meet up with vandals.

And this brings me to my mixed feelings about writing this post. I have made no secret about the fact that I don’t want this to be another space of controversy on the Internet. I really don’t. There’s enough negativity out there and it would be nice if there are a few places where we can take a break from all that.

Still, this is a history blog (kind of), and more than that, it’s a blog that claims history as mostly story, directed by a few verifiable facts and a little made up nonsense. So I’ve decided it’s time to explore this highly contentious issue.

Because there can be no argument (well, I’m sure there could be, but to the best of my knowledge no one has made it yet) that upon meeting the natives of the Americas for the first time, Christopher Columbus wrote of them in his journal  that they seemed to be pretty nice folks who would make wonderful slaves.

I sincerely hope that makes all of us feel morally icky.

Christopher Columbus Statue
Christopher Columbus, shifting history and pointing out all the people he hoped to enslave. By Kenneth C. Zirkel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I also have no problem with states like Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, North Dakota, and Oregon choosing not to recognize the holiday or to use the day instead to honor Native Americans or whatever feels appropriate to them. In fact, I applaud efforts to re-evaluate the way we view and interpret historical events. I think we learn a lot about ourselves and ultimately become better people when we do that.

But I’m also in favor of furniture sales and of the large celebrations of Italian heritage and patriotism for which many American cities use Columbus Day. Even though our school district does not take the day off, it doesn’t bother me that many still do. Again, Columbus’s voyages ushered in a gigantic shift in the course of world history. It was kind of a big deal.

I think that’s what these monuments that people get so upset about really honor. I think they remind us of the shifts, of those moments in history when the world changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways not.  That’s the thing about stories. They can be told and viewed from different angles and even the ugly ones often contain nuggets of beauty.

Actually I would argue that all of our history contains some ugliness, but much like an individual may look back at past mistakes and be grateful for the way he or she has been changed by them, those big deal moments have also led to a great deal of beauty as the world has moved through and looked back at them.

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That’s better. Beauty and a big deal. photo credit: mattwalker69 Contemporary Rugs Rowsyn Multicolor via photopin (license)

I hope as a society we continue to have conversations about how we view and discuss the stories from our past. It’s probably healthy to re-evaluate the ways we honor or remember or criticize the figures that represent moments of great shifts. And I hope we don’t spend so much time angrily tearing apart our history that we lose our ability to view it from different perspectives.

Instead, I hope we remember to look at all of it, and to take the time to sit down together on our new bargain living room sofas to discuss and consider both the beautiful and the ugly, even if we have mixed feelings about it.

Copper Clues, Rubber Stamps, and Fancy Pants Treasure

In 1947 in the West Bank, not far from the site of the ancient city of Jericho, some teenage shepherds made an exciting discovery while tending their flocks and maybe also behaving a little like teenagers. One of these young men tossed a rock into an opening on the side of a cliff and heard a suspicious crashing sound. When the young man and his companions investigated, they discovered a collection of large clay jars, at least one of which contained the teenager’s rock, and seven of which contained the first texts discovered in the collection that came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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Even without gold and silver, that’s a pretty fancy find. By Abraham Meir Habermann, 1901–1980 – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The discovery sparked a race of both Bedouins and archaeologists to scour the area for more, and eventually eleven nearby caves yielded hundreds of ancient texts that include portions of nearly every book in the Old Testament (and a complete copy of Isaiah), additional prophecies, descriptions of sectarian rules, military strategy, and poems of thanksgiving, among numerous other writings that have kept archaeologists geeking out for the last 65 years.

That’s all pretty great stuff, but I think the most intriguing discovery is what’s known as the Copper Scroll, found in March of 1952. It’s appropriately named because while all the other manuscripts found in the caves are written on parchment, this one is etched into copper sheeting. Its contents are pretty different from the other scrolls, too, because this one describes the world’s greatest treasure hunt, claiming to lead to what some estimate is over a billion dollars in silver and gold.

If you happen to be a first century Middle Easterner, familiar with the area, the clues are pretty simple. Each includes a general whereabouts (on the island that can only found by those who already know where it is), a specific spot (in the cupboard under the stairs), a depth for digging (as specified on a medallion last seen in a tavern in Nepal), and the treasure to be found (your body weight in gold, assuming you weigh the same as a duck). If you are a fluent reader of ancient Hebrew sprinkled with a little bit of Greek and a few typos, you might find they resemble a list of modern day letterbox clues.

In case you’re unfamiliar with letterboxing, it’s a treasure hunting hobby, in which people hide small, waterproof containers planted in clever outdoor (mostly) hiding spots and post clues online to help others find them. The containers each include a unique hand-crafted rubber stamp and a log book. When the seeker finds it, they stamp a personal book with the find and mark the box’s log book with their trail name signature stamp. Then they record the find online where they also warn the next letterboxer of the nearby nest of rattle snakes.

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Letterboxing has become a world wide hobby, but I imagine it will take me some time just to hunt down all of these. Protonk at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A friend of mine introduced me and my boys to the hobby last spring. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, but if you happen to speak letterbox, you’ll probably have an easier time. I’ve found about ten boxes, and failed to find several more. Most of my successes have come when my friend is with me because having planted many herself, she knows the lingo and has hiked most of the trails already, not to mention she possesses a significantly sharper sense of direction than I do.

Some of the clues are straight forward (once you learn some of the basics, like that SPOR is an acronym for Suspicious Pile of Rocks); others consist of word puzzles or are written in Elvish. Some clues are visible only to those who’ve logged a certain number of finds or who are personally acquainted with the planter and have been given a code word. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some clues were even etched into copper and hidden in a cave somewhere in the West Bank.

golden eagle
A pretty fancy pants find.

I’m sure I hike past five or six for every one I discover. But I have a good time, and though I’ve never found a duck’s weight in gold, I did once find a particularly fancy pants eagle stamp with a gold ink pad.

And I’ve had way more success than those who have attempted to find the Copper Scroll treasures. Despite plenty of expeditions and a few unverified claims, no one has found any of the treasure yet. There’s debate among scholars about whether or not the treasure truly exists, and if it does, who planted it, and maybe even whether it can be found at all by someone who doesn’t already know where it is. But if anyone ever does find this fanciest of treasures, I bet the finder will be a letterboxer.

Saving the World’s Clay Pigeon Population in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri

My family and I took advantage of the recent long holiday weekend to spend some quality time together making fun of each other. At least they made fun of me. Or as my husband likes to say, I made the fun. They just pointed it out.

We took a warm sunny day to pile into the old family truckster and drive out to a shooting range in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri to go trap shooting, a first for me and my sons. It was a fun afternoon, and I can see how people could get really into the sport.

William Carver certainly did when he moved out West in 1872 to practice dentistry in Nebraska, a profession he didn’t stick with for long but that lent him the nickname “Doc.” Instead, he took up trap shooting, and soon discovered he could make a pretty good living at it if he were good enough.

And he was good. Like really good. He toured the country and by 1879 even set sail for Europe where, according to biographer Raymond Thorp, he showed off his exceptional skills to the Prince of Wales and many wealthy patrons during an extended engagement at the Crystal Palace.

doc carver
Doc Carver: a man who did his best to decimate the clay pigeon population and a pretty darn good shot. By A.H. Arnold, Omaha (Heritage Auctions) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Referred to in the New York Times as “the man who can put a bullet through a silver quarter while the coin is flying through the air,” Doc Carver could have plausibly claimed the title of greatest shooter in the world, but one challenge remained. Because there was one shooter who might have been said to be better. And allegedly, the up-and-comer Carver had a hard time convincing champion Captain Adam Henry Bogardus (who was both a pretty darn good shooter and the perfector of the glass ball and trap that had been serving to save the world’s passenger pigeon population from the sport) to accept a match.

In 1883, Bogardus finally did accept and the two faced off with a shoot in Louisville, Kentucky. Doc Carver won by one bird in front of a crowd of 1000. But as disappointing as the loss may have been to Bogardus, the match-up had its advantages.  Soon both shooters received a hefty endorsement deal from George Ligowsky, inventor of the clay pigeon and trap that would serve to save the world’s glass ball population from the sport, and a lot of innocent fields from being littered with shards of broken glass.

What Ligowsky proposed, and paid handsomely for, was a series of 25 matches throughout the United States between the two champions, using the new clay pigeons. Doc Carver won nineteen of the matches, sealing his claim that he was good at the sport. Like pretty darn good. I guess it makes sense, this desire to prove oneself against someone else of great skill. It’s what drives a lot of athletes toward success and continues to push sport accomplishments to greater and greater levels.

What I can’t figure out is why it would be important to prove oneself against a person who has no particular interest or who has never demonstrated skill in a sport. Before this past weekend I had never been trap shooting in my life. Neither had my sons, but they were kind of excited about the idea when my husband (who has been trapshooting before) suggested we give it a try.

At first I was thinking this would be a great guys’ day out and I would have the house to myself so I could read a good book. Like a really good one. But then my youngest started to get a little nervous, suggesting he didn’t think he’d be very good at it, and maybe he shouldn’t go.

So, I sighed and did what moms do. I set aside my really good book, piled in the car with the family to head out to a gun range in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri, and I literally gave it my best shot. In fact I gave it a lot of my best shots. I even tried really hard to follow my sons’ very helpful advice and aim. I didn’t hit a single clay pigeon.

clay pigeons
You might think that would mean they’d be easy to break, but it turns out you still have to manage to hit them.

Not even one.

But I was an encourager. As my boys struggled (a lot less than I did) and then started to hit their targets more often than not, I cheered them on and became the butt of the jokes. Because I’m good at that.

As far as trap shooting goes, my sons are pretty good. My husband is really good (though maybe not yet to the level of pretty darn good). And, well, I’m not bad at releasing the clay pigeons.

All That and a Bag of Chips

Today marks the anniversary of a legend. It was on August 24, 1853 at an upscale resort in Saratoga Springs when the resort’s chef had had enough. One especially picky customer kept sending his French-fried potatoes back, insisting that they had been cut too thick. After several attempts to please the customer, George Crum decided to get a little passive aggressive. He sliced the potatoes razor thin, fried them, and then seasoned them with extra salt and probably a little bit of attitude.

As so often happens when we take the passive aggressive approach, it turned out the customer didn’t really receive the message. He loved Crum’s crispy potato chips and raved about them so that soon other customers requested them as well.

George_Crum_and_'Aunt_Kate'_Weeks
Maybe not the first person to ever make a potato chip, but probably the first to make passive aggressive potato chips, which is even better in my book. George Crum (aka George Speck) with his sister-in-law. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are similar recipes from cookbooks in the early 1800’s so Crum’s probably wasn’t the first potato chip in history, but he has become a part of an invention legend that may even be a little bit true, if perhaps embellished somewhat over the years.  The dish was a hit and a few years later, Crum had opened his own restaurant, which featured a basket of salty chips on every table.

I love stories like this, the ones that tell of the accidental discovery of something great. Potato chips of course swept the nation, becoming one of America’s favorite snack foods. And by the 1980s, people were using the phrase “all that and a bag of chips” to describe something that was great, plus even a little bit better.

Potato chips have been on my mind lately because my kids have been back in school for about a week now. With that comes the early morning scramble to get everyone out the door breakfasted, clothed (in vaguely weather-appropriate clothing, not necessarily matching because if they aren’t going to take the time to care then I’m certainly not), tooth brushed, and with a packed backpack, signed homework planner, water bottle, snack, and lunch that yes, often includes a bag of chips. Don’t judge.

One week in, the morning school routine has gone really well so far, which is especially great because we’ve added a new complication into the mix. For the first time in a long time, I have started teaching an English class at a local college and so I also have to get out the door breakfasted, clothed (so far my choices have pretty much matched), tooth brushed, and with a pack full of books, lesson plans, a water bottle, and maybe the occasional bag of chips. Don’t judge.

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I do understand that these aren’t good for me, but when the mood strikes for a super thin and crispy, salty and delicious snack, nothing else will do. And they come in super handy bags. Don’t judge. strikesphoto credit: Leonard J Matthews potato chips via photopin (license)

I realize there are a lot of families that live this reality every day of the week, but since I have spent the last few years only staying home to write, it’s new for us. And at least so far, I kind of love it. I am enjoying being back in a classroom and among interesting colleagues talking about thinky kinds of things. I don’t know my students well yet, but so far most of them have managed to get out the door, dressed (hopefully also breakfasted and tooth brushed) and to class on time ready to learn, which is all I ask at this early point in the semester. I have high hopes that at least a few of them might learn a thing or two.

Since this is my first semester back in the classroom after a long absence, I am taking my time and only teaching one section. That also gives me a chance to reestablish my writing routine that has slipped into near nonexistence over the course of the summer. So far that’s working pretty well. It’s the best of both worlds, really. It might even be all that and a bag of chips.

Because No One Wants to Be William the Goat Face

My youngest son has had a kind of juvenile sounding nickname since he was itty bitty. That’s partly because he was itty bitty, but also because he shares a first name with one of my cousins and it didn’t seem fair to call him “Li’l___” all the time. Not that I hesitate to call my cousin “Big ___,” because he loves it. Probably.

I always assumed that my son would eventually opt to be called by a more grown-up sounding version of his name, but even though a fair number of people just go ahead and use it anyway, he’s always been adamant that he prefers the juvenile nickname.

Until now. In the last couple of weeks, my highly imaginative, incredibly funny, ukulele-playing, ten-year-old son has told me multiple times that if I want to call him by his grown-up name, I can.

The Ukulele Kid
I suggested we could call him “The Ukulele Kid.” He didn’t go for it.

The problem with that of course is that I don’t really want to. And even more importantly, I can’t really tell if he actually wants me to. He’s kind of inconsistent about the whole thing, like the change isn’t so much his idea, but just a bending to the expectations of the people around him.

I suppose that’s often how we get the names people use for us anyway. The fresh faced outlaw, possibly named William Henry McCarty (though even that is under some dispute among historians), who decided to call himself William H. Bonney when he first entered his life of crime, had little to say about it when he soon became known as Billy the Kid.

My favorite tall tale of the way it happened involves a blacksmith by the name of Frank Cahill who’d had too much to drink and didn’t like the look of William when he moseyed into the saloon. The older man allegedly began to mock the younger, saying something like, “You look like a scared li’l ol’ Billy goat. That’s what I’m gonna call you. Billy the Kid Goat.” Obviously Billy shot the drunken bully, but because horrible nicknames have a way of sticking, the rest is made up history.

Billykid
It turns out that in real life Billy the Kid may have resembled a goat more than he resembled Emilio Estevez. By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s a good story, the kind that makes for great Western lore, but it’s far more likely Billy the Kid was assigned his nickname by J. H. Koogler, publisher of the Las Vegas Gazette, who printed the name for the first time on December 3, 1880, probably just because Bonney was so young.

There’s no real indication whether or not the youthful criminal appreciated his nickname. But he probably did not give it to himself. And despite what you may have learned from those most excellent time travelers Bill and Ted, it’s not likely he expected anyone to call him Mr. The Kid.

Billy’s career as a hardened criminal, though depicted in at least 50 Hollywood films (in which it should be noted he more closely resembles Emilio Estevez than he does a goat), lasted only about four years. His birthdate is a little disputed, but most accounts place him at about 21 when he was shot and killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett. Of course, much like Elvis, he may also have lived to be an old man under an assumed name.

And maybe he did. Because I suppose nobody can carry around a name like “The Kid” forever and if he hadn’t taken control of the situation, he might have eventually become known as William the Goat Face. So if my son means it and really wants to transition his name into something that can grow with him a little better, I’ll be glad to help him do so.