Don’t Call Me Gerald

My father's name was Floyd, which I never much cared for. I didn't like my first name, either, and in third grade I went around asking everyone to call me Buck, but nobody did. Cecil Ferguson said, "If I'm stuck with mine, you're stuck with yours."

There were a lot of Shirleys and Deannas back then, all because of the movie stars Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin. About the time I was christened Gerald, so were a load of other boys; I've long wondered who the Gerald was I have to thank for it. I've discovered no actor or sports hero who would account for it. The only Gerald I can recall on the national scene at that time was Gerald L. K. Smith, a radio rabble-rouser who certainly had his fans, but if you were a thoughtful person, you did not want to be one of them.

My mother was quite a rabble-rouser herself, but the only radio programs she listened to were the "Telephone Hour" and a soap called "The Story of Mary Marlin." If I had been consulted, I would have chosen Marlin over Gerald. It's a little better, although not much.

As quickly as the fashion for Gerald came, it went. There was an occasional Gerald in the movies, but he always turned out to be a tender and crusty father, like Thomas Mitchell in Gone With the Wind, or a butler played by old Melville Cooper. Try to imagine John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or any other western hero being called Gerald. Impossible. It was always Nathan or Jess or Big Jake (Jacob is second only to Michael in baby-boy name popularity at the moment) or The Man From Nowhere, a name I would have dearly loved back in the days when I wanted to be called Buck.

Most Geralds start being Jerry somewhere along the line, but while Gerald seems ponderous, Jerry seems light and a bit fey. Today I'm Jerry to everyone except my brother Carl (he tried Karl briefly), for whom old habits die hard.

The only other people who refer to me as Gerald are men with deep, confident voices. They usually call around dinnertime.

"Gerald? This is Conrad. How are you tonight?"

"Not good."

"This will only take two minutes. Do you have two minutes to secure your financial future?"

"I'm dying."

"Gerald, I have a proposal that will change your life."

"How did you get to be called Conrad?"

Caught off guard, Conrad fights for conversational control, loses and hangs up. But I truly want to know.

For many years Mort (Addison Morton) Walker and I wrote the comic strip Hi and Lois, which Dik (Hagar the Horrible) Browne drew. One day, watching Dik ink a strip, I asked, "Why'd you take the "c" out of Dick, Dik?"

"Just to be different," Dik answered forthrightly.

Another popular cartoonist, Bil Keane, dropped either the first or second "l" from his name — I've never been sure which. And he didn't stop there. Giving a speech one evening, he said, "Hello, I'm Bil Cartoonist Keane. That's a little idea I picked up from Francis Cardinal Spellman."

Sometimes I think we should all go back to names like that — names that describe ourselves. Baldy the Blacksmith. Richard the Lion Hearted. Ethelred the Unready. But then I recall how my little schoolmates, heartless and callous, would cheerfully mispronounce my last name — Gerald the Dumas.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.