How Muskie Came To Be

January 29, 2012

I’m not sure how common this is, but I am known to different groups of people by different names. This may recall that old comedy routine by Raymond J. Johnson (”You can call me Ray or you can call me Jay…”), but in my case it’s true. My immediate family calls me Bud. People I knew from the Peace Corps or coaching call me Don, and those who know me from my teaching days call me Donald. Then there is Muskie. Yes, Muskie.

How I came to be called Muskie is a rather roundabout story, one that I thought about today because of a load of wash I did. Let me explain…

I had just finished that load of wash — jeans — and caught in the lint trap were several tightly compressed wads of paper. I knew exactly what they were without even attempting to unwad them. They were the remnants of lists left  in the pockets of my Levi’s. Forgotten lists of things to do, things to buy, things to think about. This is not an uncommon occurrence. These lists are all over the place.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I began my obsession with lists. I think it has its roots in a psychasthenic condition that I first became aware of my freshman year of college, though its actual genesis was probably long before that somewhere in my screwy childhood.

I wasn’t actually familiar with the term psychasthenia before then. It is defined by Webster as “a neurotic state characterized especially by phobias, obsessions, or compulsions that one knows are irrational.” My college roommate Tony applied the label after a few months of living with me in the dorm and observing my actions. Each night before climbing up to the top bunk (Tony, who was on the heavy side and thus occupied the bottom bunk, would be gone from the room doing who-knows-what), I would fastidiously attend to my desktop. I would cross off the date just finished on the desk blotter calendar and neatly arrange the items that had been in my pocket on top of it: plastic comb parallel to pens in one corner, wallet aligned similarly with handkerchief in another, books for tomorrow’s classes piled precisely in the center. Anyone who has seen my desk lately would be amazed.

Tony, along with Bob, another guy from down the hall (more about him later), would take great pleasure in suddenly running in, scrambling up the items, and dashing out again knowing full well that I’d have to hop down and rearrange them. Sometimes they would return a short time later, and the whole process would be repeated. If they really wanted to get to me, they would cross off the next few days on the calendar, an act tantamount to war in my book. Pretty crazy, I know. I think they,  in what passed for good naturedness in the mind of a college freshman, were trying to change my weird ways, so I didn’t hold it against them. Much.

This became the first part of my initial college nickname: Psychasthenic. Since I was immersed in a period of spiritual flux (lasting the better part of the next forty years, as it turns out) which stood out somewhat prominently in my Catholic school setting, Agnostic was the second part. The third was an expletive common to all freshman college boys (and everyone else these days, so it seems) which I do not feel the need to specify. So there it was. Psychasthenic Agnostic Fool.

In a rare act of good sense, Bob decided this was not the best of nicknames. Not because of the expletive. That part he actually liked. No, it was something else…too long, not quite the right cachet, too many Latin derivatives. One day Bob had a flash of inspiration. A connoisseur of great literature, he drew upon his stock of references and came up with my new nickname: Muskie.

Muskie? What kind of literary reference is that, you ask? Well, The Deputy Dawg Show, of course. The time-honored Saturday morning cartoon created by that titan of TV animation, Ralph Bakshi, who later (I suppose I should be thankful) was responsible for Fritz the Cat. Now, I was only vaguely aware of the show, so when he came up with this idea, I asked him to explain. The setting of the show was Mississippi (I was from Jersey and Bob from Brooklyn), the characters were animals (including Moley Mole, Pig Newton, Ty Coon, and Vincent van Gopher) (again, I should be thankful), and the plot (what there was of it, anyway) involved petty crimes committed by these critters. None of this seemed relevant. At least P.A.F. made some logical sense.

“Why?” Bob retorted. “Because you look like Muskie Muskrat!” Of course. How could I have been so dense.

This was seemingly following a disturbing pattern. My previous nickname which had followed me all the way through elementary and junior high school and only began to wear off in high school was Mousie. Was I destined to remain entrenched in the realm of Rodentia? I remember when I was in Scouts, one of my adult leaders, the father of one of the perpetrators of the Mousie tag, reprimanded his son and the others. “I know you think it’s funny now, but these names have a habit of sticking.” Prophetic words, indeed.

Muskie, which I hoped would eventually fade as Mousie did, has lasted until this day. My college friends still call me Muskie. My wife met me as Muskie (though she now only refers to me by it), and members of her family all call me Muskie (except for her Aunt Rosie, who couldn’t remember it and called me Wolfie). My niece and nephew, now twenty-one and eighteen, call me Uncle Muskie as do the now-adult children of my college friends. My buddy Frank’s numerous phone messages always raucously begin, “Hey, Musk!” I’m sure it will pop up in a eulogy eventually.

But again, I should be thankful. It beats the original P.A.F. and the possible alternatives like Moley or Fritz. And besides, I don’t really mind. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  Bob didn’t say that. Some guy named Will did. William. The Bard. Well, you know.


One comment

  1. Maybe I should start calling you that! I can’t get used to Donald.

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