Sunday, December 30, 2018

What's In A Name?

There is a list of things to do, the annual calendar letter needs finalized, a rating exists that must be completed, clothes need folding, and a bulb has gone dark, yet for some reason, tonight, I can only think of my Dad’s Dad, Orlando Davidson. A man who did what was right, not what was popular – my grandfather.
Other than the many grand stories passed down by family, to me he exists in two places, my single but unwavering memory of him, and my name. I’m proud of that more than ever. Although, it wasn’t always that way.
Nothing about my name was ever easy. First, it breaks many of the unspoken but subconsciously recognizable rules of flow, consonants vs vowels, and easy speech patterns. In short, it doesn’t flow off the tongue.
When you’re young, the name Richie is an invitation to a dozen childish jabs. It’s also greatly misunderstood. Everyone believes it’s either Ricky, short for Richard, or spelled wrong. Yes, people have told me I spell my name wrong. After all, who would name their kid, Richie?
Of course, there’s also the obvious point that Richie sounds like an eight year old. Several weeks ago, when checking into a hotel, the guy behind the desk, seeing the full spelling of my name, said, “Hey, you know, I know a Richie. He’s a buddy-o-mine, and you know, he’s actually pretty cool,” as if it was an anomaly. My response to him was, “Yeah, it’s kinda like a boy name Sue. You kinda have to be.” He thought about it, then with a loud laugh, he said, “HA. I guess that’s true, hu?” Thus, completely affirming what I had always believed.
For all these reasons and more, years ago I started going by, “Rich.” Right out of school it seemed more capable of hiding the reality of my age than my behavior, so I went with it. Unfortunately, Rich is also difficult off the lips – the sound, reminiscent of a German teaching behavior to a dog, is impossible to express with the smoothness of butta (sigh). Still, it seemed better than Richie, which actually is descended from the German name Ritchie. Hence, the accusations of incorrect spelling. Again, one reason why I continued to go with Rich.
However, there is one thing about my first name that I have always cherished. It is my mother’s maiden name. Despite all the pitfalls of Richie, not only did my parents bring me into the world, they managed to keep both families alive with me. For that, I am ever grateful, and regretful for shunning it.
Names really do have an effect on who you are. In my case, a strong sense of person comes from the Germans and my total distaste for bullshit from the Scots-Irish – Davidson. The latter being a tough brand of human who worked their way into the country, moved down the east coast, then inland, through the Cumberland Gap, to become some of the poorest yet most proudly self-sufficient people on the planet. These are my people. Well, wait. There is the Creek Indian part that I can’t talk about since my membership is not up to date, but I have always wondered if that’s why I’m so good at smelling the white man’s bull. However, I’ll save that for another page and paragraph.
Orlando and Nettie Davidson, my father’s parents, lived in the bottom of a deep valley acquired through trade. Elder family members exchanged a Kentucky Long Rifle, a hunting dog, and a fifth of whiskey for the acreage upon which their shack rested. There they had six children.
Orlando, known to family and friends as “Lando,” was, for the most part, your typical hard working dirt farmer and all around capable Appalachian man. Three things were important to him, his family, his land, and his people. Asking for nothing, except to be left to his resources and property, he planted row crops on the sunny side of a steep hill, terracing the land with a plow pulled by cows and mules. Below, in the shadows, was a typical Eastern Kentucky homestead by a creak. Everything you needed to survive the land offered. Then came the strip mines via broad form deed.
Crony Capitalism has always been a Kentucky specialty. The timber and coal industries perfected it. Buying politicians to cast aside those without power, these industries extorted, from the simple people of Appalachia, the minerals below their feet and the timber that gave them shelter. For some it was an annoyance; for many it was a nightmare; to others it was deadly.
Acting without malice, and with the permission of government, corporations who claimed ownership to the sediment below ripped landowners from their land. Adding insult to injury, this left shell-shocked families with no logical choice but to sell all the timber. After all, were it not sold it would be bulldozed and left to rot. Unsurprisingly, mine owned timber companies offered pennies on the dollar.
With the permission of government all the streams went dead, mountains were clear-cut of trees, and the mountain tops sheared off – the rubble pushed over the hills. More than once, boulders rolled onto homes below. More than once it was intentional.
Today most people know only the populist slogans pushed by politicians to stir up their base. Many believe coal has helped Appalachia. Kentucky has an “I support coal” license plate. However, the area has, on numerous occasions, qualified as the poorest area in the nation. It ranks high among the areas of drug use, low in the rankings of health and education, and no longer has the land that once rivaled any park in the nation. Put bluntly, it is “the hood” for white people - where folks were used up and spit out by government and corporations, taught no other options, and left with no ability to fight back.
Yes, you will find people made slave to the industry – people who always go back to the jobs. However, it is difficult to argue they are better off than their grandparents who had the same quality of life but they also had freedom. Today, those that depend on the mines sound more like proud subjects of the Kentucky king, coal. They live and die on the decisions of others. Moreover, as any good subject would do, they support their dealers (anagram for leaders).
My single memory of my grandfather, Lando, is of him and me sitting on a bench at the base of a shade tree, on a warm summer afternoon. Within a few seconds run, on a child’s legs, of a creek once full of life gurgled over rocks. By my side my Grandfather whittled.
I remember this moment because I felt, for the first time, the greatness in someone. He was a good man who loved his family, who knew wrong from right, and stood for it even when he was alone. His appearance was old but inside was something beyond time – a presence. I’d give anything to have what he was carving that day. In some ways I guess I do. I certainly got his name, "Lando."
Yes, my name has been problematic from the start. People have problems with my first name, although it’s simple. Some have even accused me of spelling it wrong. My last name gave me a spirit that doesn’t fit in the modern world and its spelling gets me confused with some old coot (and friend) who flies a Pitts and spells his name wrong. However, it is my middle name, Lando, which earns the biggest chuckle.
Many years ago, when I was trying to fly shrunken heads from the Amazon into the USA, I had to produce a birth certificate. When it arrived, I was shaken to my core. On the document was, LANDAU. Fortunately, since my core is little more than a tiny burned out ember, it really wasn’t much more than a curiosity until I learned the why behind the spelling - at my birth someone at the hospital spelled it wrong. HA!
When I was young people who didn't know me always assumed my middle name to be, Lee. I never mentioned it, only printing “L,” so they guessed the most likely country middle name and that’s what I got. The day after I finally told some friends who had been calling me, "Richie Lee," Stars Wars debuted. That didn’t help. The name was as alien to small town Kentucky as cars without giant bird decals on their hoods. And yet, today, every time I look at my work ID it pisses me off it’s spelled wrong.
I wish there was more about Lando remaining. I wish I had known him better. After decades of watching his beloved land and people struggle against the evils of government and corporate tyranny, he had a stroke. That day, a coal train blocked the only road to the hospital.

Knowing that ending you know Lando's son; my dad, Eldon. To know my dad, you know me.