My mom, who was pregnant at the time with my soon to be brother, enjoyed that story, and being a lover of nicknames too, agreed that I was the noble “Clubius”. Her original nickname for me was actually “Zuper”, a combination of “Zale”, my last name, and “Super”, her take on, or at least wish for, my capabilities. Sometimes when you don’t say anything while appearing to be thoughtfully listening and responding nonverbally, it convinces other people that you are intelligent, whether that is in fact the case or not.
My given name was “Jonathan”, which my mom had suggested and my dad had gone along with. She thought it was a dignified name for a future scholar, or lawyer, or even president. But most other people circa 1955, the year I was born, were not inclined to call a little infant or toddler by that three syllable grownup sounding name. So instead it was “little Johnny” or some such diminutive, which didn’t bother my dad but pushed my mom’s buttons bigtime. Her two years younger brother was named John, and all her life she had had a difficult relationship with him. So there was no way in hell that she was going to let people call me “Johnny”.
But my mom and dad struggled to call me Jonathan as well, given they both loved nicknames, and were constantly coming up with new ones for me. Many played off “Zuper”, like “Booper”, “Trooper”, “Duper”, and so on. One of that list of names they cycled through was “Cooper”, which along with being a surname, seemed an actual acceptable nickname, not silly sounding. It also shortened nicely to “Coop”, sounding to my dad like a sports star, he being a former sports reporter.
In the runup to my third birthday, I finally started to speak. At dinner that night, sitting around the little table in our kitchen, my mom asked me if I was looking forward to my upcoming birthday party, expecting perhaps a smile and an enthusiastic nod. She got that, but I decided that I also wanted to speak.
“I am”, I replied, “I will be three years old!” Like that was some sort of threshold to start speaking. Then revealing my real motivator, said, “I like opening my presents”, wanting to make sure they understood that that was a crucial part of the birthday ritual, as I understood it, that I was really looking forward to. It had been my last birthday and Christmas when I had gotten presents, which were mainly toys. Lincoln logs, plastic soldiers, a baseball bat and glove. I loved toys, and particularly the anticipation that I was about to get some. For Christmas they had been wrapped and under the tree for several days and I got hours of enjoyment just looking at the wrapped boxes and imagining what was inside each. My mom swore that the ones tagged from “Santa Claus” really were. Given that they were going to be my toys, I was plenty willing to accept this mysterious benefactor beyond my mom and dad.
Surprised to hear me speak, the two of them looked at each other, tried to keep from laughing, but finally failed. Though I could see the relief and pride in their eyes, who were they to be laughing at my first spoken sentences. So I pushed forward with a spoken question when I would have been silent before, “Why are you laughing at me?”
Hearing it they fell silent, chastened. My mom looked at my dad again and then said, with a sad look on her face, “Oh my god Jonathan, we are so sorry we laughed. We were just so surprised and thrilled that you”, and she paused momentarily struggling with how to frame it, “Spoke your mind”. It was that rare occasion when I heard them use my given name. In this case to assure me, that in all seriousness they were not laughing at me, just at the situation.
I nodded, thoughtfully silent again. Her explanation had some logic to it, but I was still skeptical. As I was coming more into my own consciousness, I was discovering that these adults were unpredictable. The other people like me, children, I understood. We had obvious desires that mostly were easily satisfied. We told each other what we liked and did not like. But these adults that towered above us were another thing entirely. Sure they would throw a ball with you, even pitch it so you could try to hit it, or take you over to the park and sit and read while you played. But half the time I did not understand what they were up to or why. Particularly my mom, who seemed to often be doing things she did not want to do, being concerned about people she and my dad knew, or going on about things that might happen some day, things like that.
My dad made a bit more sense, though he seemed to feel one way and pretend that he felt another way. He liked to read and write and sat down in his “office” in the basement with his shelves of books and read them, and wrote things on his typewriter. He loved eating donuts, sweet rolls, and ice cream, as much or even more so than I did. He wanted the Michigan football team to win and was mad when they lost. Other things made him unhappy and frustrated but I did not know what they were or felt comfortable asking him.
After dinner, as was our nightly routine, he filled the bathtub for me. All five of my plastic boats were there in their bin, including the two three-masted ones. Also a handful of two-inch plastic soldiers, green Americans and gray Germans, plus a golf ball sized wiffle ball. I got in the tub and continued the story I had started several nights back, inspired by being read Treasure Island by my dad, but weaving in a bunch of my own ideas to accommodate the available toys I had and the venue of our bathtub. The pirate ship was in the hidden cove behind my body in the back of the tub. It was shooting at the other four ships in the front part of the tub. My body was the land in between that hid the pirate ship from the other ships and allowed it to continue its murderous onslaught.
To simulate each shot of the pirate ship’s big cannon, I would throw the little wiffle ball high in the air so it would land randomly somewhere in the tub in front of me. As each shot fell, the crew of each of the four ships in front would engage in a heated exchange with each other, trying to figure out what to do. Were they helpless sitting ducks to the cannon fire? There was no apparent way to get around the mass of land that separated them from the pirate ship to challenge it directly. When the thrown ball actually hit one of the boats in front then there would be the whole drama of the boat being damaged and sailors being wounded or even killed. The damage report would be broadcast to the other ships including what parts of the ship and counts of the sailors wounded and killed. The consternation of all the ship captains would increase, something must be done about the pirates.
As the cannon shells rained death and destruction down from the sky, the captains were in disarray, afraid. They finally decided they had no choice but to come up with some kind of plan, no matter how unlikely it was to be successful. All the dead and wounded sailors were transferred to the most heavily damaged ship which sailed to the front corner of the bathtub and began the arduous process of taking all those sailors to shore, the shore being the upper rim of the tub. Another ship put sailors on to the land mass between them and the pirate ship (my body sitting in the tub) and tried to scale my chest to get to my shoulders to at least sight the renegade ship. Several sailors fell trying to ascend the cliffs and were badly injured. Finally the leader of that effort, after weighing the pros and cons, decided it was too dangerous to proceed and the sailors were withdrawn to a ship. All this as the cannon shells from the pirate ship continued to fall.
The sailors who had attempted to scale the steep land mass were acknowledged as heroes, particularly the ones who had been badly injured in the fall. They were taken to shore while the captains conferred with each other, using signal flags, on what to try next. The captain who was supervising getting the wounded up the cliff to the top rim of the tub signaled the others that there was a path that looked like it might lead to the hidden cove where the pirate ship was probably hiding. It would be a very dangerous mission, but the only other choice was to abandon all four ships to complete destruction. If a group of brave sailors could make their way to the cove they could assess the situation and maybe come up with a plan to attack the pirate ship.
It had been about twenty minutes, though when I was deep in this sort of imagination play I lost all sense of time. My dad peeked in the bathroom door to check on me. He saw the boats and the soldiers on the edge of the tub. He saw the look of consternation on my face.
“Five more minutes.” It was half way between a statement and a question. I nodded without looking at him directly, engrossed in my narrative. He withdrew.
The group of sailors set out on their dangerous journey to try to reach the cove where they thought the pirate ship might be. They had to walk single file along a narrow path with a steep cliff on either side. Since all the captains needed to be on their ships the leader was a particularly brave young sailor who had inspired the others. As I slowly moved five green soldiers along the top rim of the tub towards the back, one slid off and fell to the floor outside the tub. “Oh my god, he has fallen and is probably dead or dying, but there is nothing we can do for him now! We must continue or all will be lost!”
Finally the remaining four brave sailors made it around my body to the back part of the tub. I adjusted my body to face backwards to focus on this new venue, the pirate’s cove. The pirate ship bobbed in the waves created by my movement. I set up six of the German soldiers, pirates in this scenario, on the back corner of the tub rim. They saw the approaching sailors and started shooting their muskets. The sailors were sitting ducks and one of them was hit and fell from the cliff into the water of the cove. He was injured but he managed to swim to my folded legs, a bit of shore that he crawled up on, bleeding. He hid in the shallow water between my thighs. Up on the cliff the remaining three sailors had to fall to the ground to keep from getting picked off by the pirate’s muskets. They fired their own muskets and hit one of the pirates in the leg.
The injured pirate and his five comrades lay down as well and continued to shoot at the sailors on the cliff across the cove from them. It was now a standoff. The young sailor leading his now two comrades told one to work his way back to the others and tell them that the pirate ship was in the cove as suspected and that he needed the good guy’s warship to fire its cannon into the cove. They were unlikely to hit the pirate ship but at least it would cause a distraction.
My dad peeked in the bathroom door again. “Hey Clubius, I have to grade some papers so if you want me to read you a story you need to wash yourself including your hair and get out!”
I pondered the situation in my narrative. From the books my dad had read me, I knew these complicated stories were told in chapters. I would remember where everything was when this chapter ended and start the next one tomorrow night. So I spoke again.
“Okay, I’ll wash up and get out!”
My dad grinned, still not used to me talking. “Do you need help washing your hair?”
I shook my head animatedly and said, “No!”
I cupped water in my hands and poured it over my head as my dad had showed me. Then rubbed the soap in my hair until it got bubbly and slippery on my scalp. Again cupping my hands I dumped handfuls of water on my head. All the boats quivered in the strong waves. Night had fallen in my story and all the boats were buffeted by high waves. The most damaged of the good guy’s boats sank. Luckily all the sailors but one were able to escape with their lives. I now took the bar of soap and rubbed it all over my body including the parts of me that were under the water. The now jostled water got cloudy and I imagined the stormy sea full of foam. Now all rinsed off I picked up each toy ship, examined it closely and put it back in the bin just outside the tub. I knocked the remaining green sailor into the bin and then grabbed all the grey ones to finish the job. I rose out of the tub like some giant sea monster and used my foot to flip the drain lever and heard the water start to glug glug out of the tub. I towelled off and then walked naked back into my bedroom, wet spots on the wood floor where my feet fell. Finally, I put on my pajamas and got into bed under my covers.
“I’m ready!” I called out. I was getting used to this talking thing.
My dad came into my room grinning, a hardcover book cradled in his right hand.
“So the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, chapter 17?”
I nodded but also said, “Yes!”
He sat in the plain wooden chair across from my bed and immediately started in reading. In a previous chapter, Tom and Huck had snuck away to Jackson Island and everyone thought they had drown in the river. In this chapter everyone in town was sad thinking that the two boys had died and prepared for their funeral. But Tom and Huck had snuck back into town and were hiding and surprised everybody by showing up in the middle of their own funeral! I had enjoyed the story so far, and I liked this part because I liked surprising people like I did today when I talked to my parents. It was an interesting tactic surprise. I would incorporate that into my bathtub tale tomorrow.
He finished the chapter, closed the book, looked at the cover thoughtfully and put it on his lap. He was wearing just a white t-shirt and boxer shorts.
“So what shall we sing?” He was looking for a specific song but I thought I would surprise him.
I said, “Everything!” and he laughed! Then he quieted and looked at me and said, “I’m not laughing at you, you just said something funny.”
“I know”, and I nodded.
One of my favorite things was to listen to my dad sing to me. It wasn’t just the songs or his voice but his whole routine I liked. He looked up at the ceiling, his eyes lost in thought, presumably trying to decide what to sing first. Then he nodded and smiled, having picked out a song. He raised his head again, opened his mouth, took a deep breath and sang. His voice would tremble a little but sounded good. He loved the college songs about being faithful to your school and its sports teams and disparaging your rival schools. But also sillier ones making fun of college life. He started out with one of my favorites, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan”…
I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
Back to Joe’s and the Orient
And back to some of the money I spent
I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
I want to go back
I got to go back
Mother and father pay all the bills
And we have all the fun
In the friendly rivalry of college life
But we have to think of a hell of a lot
To tell what we have done
With the coin we blew in dear old Michigan
There was a subtext of privilege in the song that I could not yet fathom, of elite young men sowing wild oats while well-heeled parents paid the tab for their indulgences and profligacy, knowing this was part of the rite of passage to connections to power. It was a gentle indoctrination and passing of the torch of privilege to the next generation, with the expectation that I too would be privy in my own young adulthood. I liked that the character singing, someone more like me I imagined, seemed one step ahead of his parents.
He sang three more college songs, including a disparaging version of the Indiana fight song, a football rival of Michigan, with the words substituted.
The real words were…
Indiana, oh Indiana
Indiana, we’re all for you…
At the altar, you never falter
From the battle, you’re tried and true
Indiana, oh Indiana
Indiana, the hell with you…
At the altar, you always falter
From the battle, you’re black and blue
I like the way the original words were changed just enough to completely change the meaning. As he sang his version he would wink at me and I got the nuance that this was all in friendly rivalry and competition, they didn’t really hate each other. Friendly rivalry, between the four captains. An interesting concept to explore in my own play perhaps!
After singing the four songs (I kept count) he announced, “Just one more!”
I knew what I wanted to hear.
“Don’t fence me in.”
He nodded, but I could see his thoughts were straying to something else and not the song. But he sang it and I got to hear the longing in his voice…
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon ‘til I lose my senses
Don’t like hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in
That song made sense. He didn’t want anything to stop him from having an adventure. There was no wink from my dad like with the Indiana song. This was serious stuff, at least to my dad.
Our final bedtime ritual was around saying goodnight. He would get up, come over to the foot of my bed, feel around to find one of my big toes and wiggle it, saying, “Sweet dreams kiddo!” Lately sometimes I would play a little game with him and move my feet around so it was hard for him to find one of those big toes, but tonight I didn’t make it difficult.
A couple minutes after he left my mom came in.
She looked at me with her big warm eyes and shook her head and frowned. “I wish I could sing like your dad!”
She came around to the head of my bed and kissed me on the cheek.
“Night night sweet Zuper!”
Instead of just nodding I said, “Night night mom.”
She looked at me and grinned, and touched my cheek again with her fingers and left the room.