Words in a Row

Spelling and grammer and all that stuff--supposibly its like, real important!

Pope Ernie

My friend Rob has a mild­ly unusu­al last name. I wit­nessed him being asked to spell it a few times, and he would joke that it was spelled just the way it sound­ed, 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.

Pope Gre­go­ry the Somethingth.

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 if some­one who just lost his glass­es saw my back from 100 feet away at night.

Change my mind.

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.

My Pre­vi­ous 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 My Pre­vi­ous 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.

Zaphod is far more attrac­tive than me, but he’s also a clue­less doof, so I can under­stand the confusion.

This was for two reasons:

  1. Zaphod Bee­ble­brox was a char­ac­ter in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the film ver­sion of which had just been released, and
  2. 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 ado­les­cent scrawny geek guy wish­es he had a cool studly name: Steele Hawthorn or Rip­ley Edward Absa­lome (Ripped Abs, for short) or even just Cool Studly.

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.

You stay out of this!

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.

Left: Ernie. Right: Not even a lit­tle bit Ernie.

Here’s some 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 my 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.

  1. 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.
  2. If crest­fall­en is a word, then it should be legal to con­ju­gate the verb this way, right?
  3. Har­moni­cist? Harmonicaist?
  4. Eye roll.
  5. Wet Tow­el Snap to the Naked Ass.
  6. A kirkle is when you have a studly chin cleft like Kirk Dou­glas. Duh.

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