Metamorphosis of a Name

Bonnie and I are both mourning the passing of Wally and Eddie’s friend Lumpy of Leave it to Beaver. To me, he was the perfect third musketeer of that trio. Lumpy. What a name. However, I’d take it any day over what his dad called him–Clarence.

My parents named me Clarence, too. It didn’t bother me through my elementary school years since everyone called me Butch. I loved being Butch, especially when I got into trouble. Lectures beginning with “Butch” just lost some of their sting.

Until around my twelfth birthday, I almost forgot what was lurking on my birth certificate, awaiting its appointed time and place to rise up and wreak havoc in my life. Then one Sunday in the Methodist Church in Tippecanoe, Dad used the dreaded C-name from the pulpit. Eyebrows raised, including mine. We all wondered whom the preacher was talking about. Maybe it was a little-known character tucked away in one of the minor prophets. But some Bible scholar must have pointed me out; heads full of sympathetic eyes turned in my direction.

I could no longer remain entrenched in my comfortable state of denial. That mortifying soap commercial–one I had scrubbed out of my consciousness–came flooding back in. It was the one in which a professor-like kid with thick, round glasses sat soaking in the tub. His mom entered the bathroom, her sing-song voice announcing, “Clarence! I have a surprise for you! A nice, hot bath in Dial soap!” Now people would know I was that kid. I could almost feel the burn of the hexachlorophene that permeated the suds on his cheeks.

Hope reentered my life the day I heard we would be moving to a different city. The congregation in Tippecanoe must have soured on a minister who would call his son Clarence. I bet they would have been fine with Abednego or Hezekiah. I might have been, too.

Moving day arrived. The moment the movers pulled my bike out of the moving van in Hopewell, I began riding around town introducing myself . . . as Bill. After all, my middle name is William. I was excited to make a new start in a different town with a fresh identity.

My plan encountered a roadblock when Dad and Mom got wind of it. Bill was unmasked. When Dad introduced the family in church the first Sunday, he put special emphasis on his oldest son’s name. Disgusted eyes zeroed in on me, eyes that said, “We knew you weren’t really a Bill.”

After the worship service, the Sunday School teacher compounded my pain. In front of my peers (who just hours before were calling me the Bill-Meister), he said, “Clarence, huh? Clarence Spencer. We’ll call you Clencer!” I decided I would check with Dad after we got home to see if he could fire Sunday School staff. He was usually in a good mood after church.

After finding out that the teacher would stay, but maybe get a talking-to, I asked Dad an even more important question: “Why can’t I be Bill?” He smiled and said that I should be proud to be named after my grandfather. I didn’t have the quick verbal skills at the time to explain that I loved Grandpa, I just hated the name. How could I besmirch the name of my father’s father? That was the day I admitted defeat and started becoming a Clarence.

We moved to Jewett in 1965. As a sophomore, I was terrified the first day of school. Not because I was new. Not even because I was the preacher’s kid. No, it was because someone might see the new movie Clarence the Cross-eyed Lion. My only hope to avoid being associated with the clumsy cat was that Dad would decide to preach on the evil of the movies coming out of Hollywood. He didn’t, and I had a new nickname for the duration of the movie’s run and the TV series, Daktari, that it inspired.

I got a reprieve in college when the guys began calling me “Squid”; in chapel services I did a great hand imitation of the cephalopod propelling itself swiftly through the air. The name wasn’t bad. However, as I spent more than the normal four years getting my degree, it morphed: first to Squooge, then to Squarence. I could see where it was going. It was time to graduate and move on.

Staying with the squid theme, I went into teaching middle school biology where I became Mr. Spencer. Things went well until one day on the way home after a particularly grueling afternoon, a student mockingly yelled “Hi, Clarence!” from the sidewalk. I thought of stopping the car and creating a scene. Maybe I could do for the name Clarence what Arnold did for his. Nobody laughs at Arnold. However, wisdom prevailed and I ignored the familiarity of the student. I took comfort, though, in the thought that I would “be back” the next day to pile on the homework.

Some people continue to call me Clarence. I still dislike the name, but it isn’t as bad now. I’ve come to the place where I almost smile when my name is dissed. Like when Ellen said, “People in pioneer days worked all day and didn’t have time to think up names for their kids, so they named them Clarence, or Gertrude, or . . .” I like Ellen, but not quite as much now. Gary Larson drew a cartoon with the caption “Unfair Animal Names.” The illustrations showed a platypus, a sapsucker, a tsetse fly, and a really oafish-looking Clarence. I like comics, but a little less after seeing that.

I don’t know exactly when I found out that Grandpa went by CW most of his life. Dad forgot to tell me that. In recent years I have started a CW campaign. Though people from my pre-CW years have varying degrees of difficulty switching my moniker, new friends catch on easily. My Buckeye Trail name has even become ClockWise. Its origin had nothing to do with my initials, but what a perfect fit. I think I’m finally onto something–that is, if this blog doesn’t cause another glitch in the metamorphosis.

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2 Responses

  1. louiseb130
    May 1, 2013
    • CW Spencer
      May 1, 2013

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