My friend Rob has a mildly unusual last name. I’ve witnessed him being asked to spell it a few times, and he jokes that it’s spelled just the way it sounds, but with only two W’s.
I’ve never gotten much humor mileage from my name. Sometimes someone will say “Is that Greg with one or two G’s?” And I’ll joke, “Two G’s: One on each end!”
Now this right here is the difference between a good joke and a meh joke:
“Only two W’s” is pretty obviously a wisecrack (unless you’re Welsh or Czech and your name is something like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch or Nejnedoobhospodařovávatelnější).
On the other hand, if someone says “Is that Greg with one or two G’s?”, they’re asking you if your name is Greg or Gregg. And “It’s two G’s; one on each end!” isn’t funny; it’s just confusing.
Mom once told me I was named after Pope Gregory. When you grow up Catholic, being named after a Pope is considered quite an honor, and I was their only male child. There has, alas, never been a Pope Thing 1, Pope Thing 2 or Pope First Sister, so Pope Gregory it was.
I looked the dude up once and discovered the dude was dudes: There have been 16 Pope Gregorys (or is that Popes Gregory?). Some of them were were notably good Popes:
Pope Gregory I (590–604) was a chill dude who earned the nickname Gregory the Great; the Gregorian Chant was named after him. The Gregorian Calendar was named after Gregory XIII (1572–1585).
On the other hand, Gregory IX (1170–1241) revved up the Inquisition from the equivalent of a Congressional inquiry to the Inquisition we all know and love, with the seizing of property and torture and burning at the stake and all that fun stuff.
I once asked Mom and Dad which Pope Gregory I’m named after. Pope Gregory XVI died in 1846, so I assumed I wasn’t named after a Pope in recent memory. They were a little surprised that there have been 16 Pope(s) Gregory(s). Mom said she wasn’t sure which one, but they knew he was a most excellent and bodacious Pope and she’d look it up and let me know.
That was 48 years ago, so Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m still curious.
If my name was Rockefeller or Kennedy, I’d expect to be asked if I had Kennedy or Rockefeller kin. Being named after a Pope? Ain’t gonna happen. No one’s ever going to ask me if I’m related to one of the Pope(s) Gregory(s), or tell me I look just like the Pope.
I’ve been mistaken for other people, though.
Way back in 1986, my friend Stan and I drove up north of Chicago for a music festival, picking up his friend Blue1 in St. Louis on the way. The festival was held on a great big piece of rented farmland, like Woodstock, except Cornerstone was a Christian music festival, so we didn’t have folks running around naked or ignoring the warnings about the brown acid. As far as I know.
I was wandering around looking at the product tables of albums and T‑shirts and other music festival accoutrements, and someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I turned to see a pair of excited teen girls. When they saw me their smiles vanished; one of them said, “Sorry!” and they both slunk away.
This happened several more times in the next few hours; come dinnertime, my friend Stan and I were waiting in line to get some BBQ ribs before the big main stage concert, and someone tapped on my shoulder again. I turned to see a young guy holding an album and a Magic Marker; his crest instantly fell.2
“Sorry!” he said as he started to slink away. I said, “Hey, wait a sec. Did you think I was someone else?”
“Yeah,” he said, “you look like Darrell Mansfield.”
We got our ribs and found a place to sit and watch the big main concert, and lo, Darrell Mansfield entered from stage right.
My friend Stan stared at Darrell, then at me, then at Darrell, like Darrell and I were playing tennis.
Turns out Darrell Mansfield’s the best harmonica player3 I’ve ever seen, and he’s a heck of a nice guy.
My friend Stan later sent me a picture of Darrell and I when Darrell was signing autographs, which I promptly lost, so you’ll have to be content with one of Darrell’s album covers and a blurry photo of me my friend Stan also took during the festival. As you can see, Darrell’s about 10 years older than me, but if you squint you can see how I could sort of look similar to Darrell to someone who just lost his glasses and saw my back from 100 feet away at night.
Which no doubt explains why the people who wanted Darrell’s autograph looked so disappointed when I turned around and they realized I was just some miscellaneous guy with long hair and the appalling bad manners not to be anywhere near as talented or good-looking as Darrell Mansfield.
Best Half and I went to the same music festival a couple years later, and one night we bumped into Darrell taking his tube amp and other stuff over to one of the side stages.
He remembered me and made an “evil twin” joke when I introduced Best Half, and he invited us in the back door of the cattle auction barn where they were playing; we got to hang out with the rest of the band and watch the soundcheck and enjoy front row center seats.
Like I said, heckuva nice guy. He’s in his 70s now and had to stop performing a couple years ago due to dementia, the same demeaning, cruel way my dad was also robbed of his memories and cognition. But my dad was one of those sweet, gentle guys who just got sweeter as the dementia progressed. I bet Darrell’s just the same.
Okay! On that depressing note, being mistaken for Darrell was my only brush with celebrity, so let’s—
Wait; that’s not true. I’d almost forgotten this, but The Chowder just reminded me that 15 years ago, she thought I was unbearably cool for a couple of days because she thought I was Zaphod Beeblebrox.
This was for two reasons:
- Zaphod Beeblebrox was a character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the film version of which had just been released, and
- Zaphod, played by Sam Rockwell, wore a messy blond wig that also resembled my hair if glimpsed from a distance during a blizzard through cracked binoculars.
The Chowder was only 4 years old, so she still thought I was awesome (quite rightly of course, until Fake News disavowed her of that belief, for which I will never forgive them).
And now, the moment you haven’t been waiting for: It’s way past time for me to explain the title of this post, so let’s talk about My Three Sons.
My Three Sons was a sitcom that aired from 1960 to 1972. The plot was layered and complex, so you might want to take some notes:
My Three Sons—bear with me here—was about a guy who had three sons. Got all that?
The youngest of the titular sons was named Thompson. Ernest Thompson. Suspiciously, everyone else’s last name was Douglas. Even more suspicious: Ernie’s brothers (Robbie and Chip) and their dad (Steven) were all tall, handsome, talented, and confident, and they had studly, cool names while Ernie was a short, clumsy geek with a clumsy geek name. It’s almost like Steven Douglas wasn’t really Ernie Thompson’s dad at all.
Which of course was the truth: Ernie was adopted. And being around four tall studly guys who were far more handsome and talented and older than Ernie was no doubt an honest-to-Tony-Robbins confidence boost.4
And I get that; I really do. I bet every scrawny adolescent geek guy wishes he had a cool studly name: Steele Hawthorn or Ripley Edward Absalome (Ripped Abs, for short) or even just Cool Studly McStudlycool.
I was not an Ernie fan as a kid. I was vaguely aware of the sitcom and the character (played by Barry Livingston, which was itself a cooler name than mine).
That all changed when I was 15. I was a 9th-grader at Hayden High School, which was extremely Catholic. Dead serious Catholic. To quote Jim Gaffigan, it was a Shiite Catholic high school.
And like most geeks in Shiite Catholic school, I spent most of my time being stuffed into my locker, punctuated with the occasional wedgie or WTSNA.5
I did enjoy going to Campus Life every week, and I enjoyed going to their week-long camp thingy in the summer out in Quaker Ridge, Colorado. Most of the other attendees were geeks and nerds too, so it wasn’t so awkward socially. Kind of like it you were 4’ 11” tall but once a year you got to hang out with like-statured people in a convention titled Nobody Over 4‑Eleven.
Anyway, halfway through my freshman year, something very strange happened:
All the girls in Campus Life and at school started calling me Ernie. I still have no idea why.
One day at school, a girl in class said, “Hey, you look like Ernie!”
I wasn’t used to girls talking to me willingly, so I kept my reply simple:
“Huh? Like on Sesame Street?”
“No, Ernie!” she said. “Ernie, on My Three Sons! Doesn’t he look like Ernie?” she said, elbowing another girl in class, who agreed with alacrity.
By the end of the day, every girl in school was calling me Ernie.
I was befuddled. Hornswoggled, even. I wasn’t used to being popular, or even noticed. I’d worked hard to learn how to be invisible at school and I liked it that way.
This was in 1977, so instead of Googling My Three Sons and Ernie and Barry Livingston, I went to the library and pored over archived LIFE, Time and TV Guide magazines.
Ernie had thick black hair; I had thin blond hair. Ernie had a Freddy Mercury-style overbite; I didn’t. Ernie had a strong jaw with a well-kirkled chin;6 I had a shapeless mooshy chin that looked like an uncooked Pillsbury Dough Boy biscuit.
is irrefutable photographic evidence: Photos of me and Barry Livingston at various ages.
The “HI ERNIE!” hollers from across the room tapered off, to my relief. But then something even stranger began to happen:
The embarrassing spotlight faded out, replaced with casual, but genuine kindness and affection: So many people called me Ernie that the teachers at Hayden picked up on it, along with Campus Life staff. I remember having to ask teachers and coaches to correct report cards or other documents referring to me as Ernie.
The summer before my sophomore year, I went to the Campus Life camp thingy in Colorado yet again. And on the first day, two or three girls gave me a Campus Life T‑shirt with “ERNIE” ironed on the back.
It revved up the whole “Hey, there’s Ernie whose name isn’t really Ernie but I don’t remember his real name so HI ERNIE!” thing again. But this time I didn’t mind it so much. Public schools can be tough environments; Shiite Catholic schools can be even worse. Geeks and nerds like me learned to be invisible at school because being the object of attention usually means being bullied.
But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s okay to get a funny nickname or to be teased about one quirk or another. Not in a mean-spirited way, but in a welcome aboard, goofball-spirited way.
I still don’t know which Pope Gregory I’m named after, and I still have no idea why the girls at school started calling me Ernie.
But that’s okay. Just call me Pope Ernie. Or His Holiness Ernest the Oneth, if you’re a Shiite Catholic. I’ll answer to either of them.
- Blue’s parents were real-live hippies. Parents name their kids after relatives or people they admire or, as in my case, a Pope. Blue, on the other hand, was born around 1969 or 1970, so his hippy parents named him after a primary color. I wasn’t mean enough to ask him if his parents were tripping at the time or whatever.
- If crestfallen is a word, then it should be legal to conjugate the verb this way, right?
- Harmonicist? Harmonicaist?
- Eye roll.
- Wet Towel Snap to the Naked Ass.
- A kirkle is when you have a studly chin cleft like Kirk Douglas. Duh.