What's In a Name? Footprints...
[exerpt from a 6/99 letter to a friend, who asked me about my name]
As for my name, I got it where most folks got theirs: my momma did it. Just kidding (what respectable mother would name her son "Spider?") Actually, I owe it to a tough guy named Lonnie Moyers. You asked, so here it is.
I grew up in Lubbock, near Lubbock High School, in the shadow of a giant water tower upon whose silver-painted steel, seemingly indestrucible surface I scratched my name, thinking it would stay forever. That monolith is now gone, along with Lonnie Moyers, yet my name survives.
Public education, especially junior high, provides far more than the Three R's because it throws together young people with incipient raging hormones, the main cause of all of life's troubles, and my experience was no exception. I lived on the edge of the O. L. Slaton school district, a fairly tough school, and learned what it was like to have to fight some other testosterone-manufacturer just to hang onto my lunch money, among other equally insipid reasons. Found out about girls, too-but that's another story.
I got to where I defended myself with such ferocious abandon (because I hated fighting) that I earned the respect of most of the tough guys, although I was a "smart guy" and took honors courses and so forth, yet I (and everyone else) always deferred, politely as possible, to the toughest guy anyone could imagine: Lonnie Moyers. He was first of all a very large fellow, probably at least a couple of years older than the rest of us, and his features inspired awe and fear at first glance. The Native American in his blood showed up in his pronounced cheekbones, which lent extra dimension to a commanding face. His confident, familiar manner belied the juggernaut strength and brutality he was capable of to the degree that he rarely had to demonstrate the latter. He so much didn't have to defend or prove himself that he assumed an important role at school: that of peacekeeper.
It was fascinating, even at the time, watching him work. If he found anyone fighting (his intelligence network was pretty effective), he would grab each yokel by the scruff of his neck, shake them a bit and ask, "Now what are you fellers disagreein' about?", and the fight would be over, the boys would shake hands and that was that. If he even heard there was going to be a fight after school, he would confront the gladiators, one at a time, in the cafeteria, sit down next to them and patiently explain why they shouldn't settle their differences with fisticuffs, punctuating his persuasion with implied mayhem at his enormous, deadly hands. It always worked, as far as I could tell. Of course, there were fights he couldn't prevent, because that's the will of nascent testosterone and he couldn't be everywhere at once. But in a time and place where fighting was, for me and others, an unpleasant distraction from the preferable pursuit of studies and girls, his influence was certainly noticable and helpful.
One year, Lonnie was in my P.E. class, and he noticed my long skinny frame shinnying up the gym rope faster than anyone else (I was strong enough to use only my arms; still can today), arms pumping and legs flailing, like a spider, and he announced in that big, unabashed voice, "You're just like a spider; I believe I'm gonna call you 'Spider' from now on," and Spider became my name. Lonnie bestowed nicknames on those he liked, and believe me, no only did the name stick because he was the tough guy, my name was thankfully one of the least pejorative ones he dispensed. So, among a small group of my peers, I was then known as "Spider," a name which, even in those confusing years of adolescent oblivion, I liked and was proud of.
Lonnie's fate was familiar, like many of those from "his" part of town: star-crossed by family conflict, not enough money and a sub-cultural belief in hard luck. He wasn't as good a student as he was a diplomat, so he dropped out by the time he reached his junior year in high school and tried to join the army, but was rejected for some reason or another. So, he went off to work in various menial jobs here and there. I would run into him from time to time in Lubbock, and he was always friendly, glad to see me and would have a funny story to tell, although the look in the edges of his eyes revealed hints of failure. And in time, I came to know that look, a look that's everywhere, a look that shows more than anything the betrayal of potential, the fallen dreams that, even to adolescents, are as real and possible and available as the innocent air we breathed, and yet can wither so quickly, particularly under the inertia of self-doubt, hard luck and loathing. And then, when I was about 23 or 24 (and he was 26), I heard he was killed by a group of drunks at a nightclub where he worked as a bouncer, a situation where his size and diplomacy didn't matter much, knifed to death as he played out his last scene in his role as peacekeeper.
Although that small group of close pals knew me as Spider, I didn't make myself known by it until after Lonnie's death. Like most of life's ornaments, a person's name didn't seem that important to me before then. But then the idea of twenty-something year-old friends dying didn't occur to me as right, either. Folks were supposed to die when they were old, and Lonnie wasn't old. So I got to thinking about that name. Before long, I began introducing myself as Spider Johnson and, surprisingly, people come to know you by the name you tell them.
Johnson is the second most common English name in the Western world, Smith being first and Jones being third. Named for my grandfather, James and David both, while respectable, are not particularly distinctive. But combine "Spider" with "Johnson" and you have an unforgettable name that rolls off the tongue easily and pleasurably. It has served me well, in so many far-reaching and adventurous ways that I couldn't imagine what my life would have been like with any other name.
So, it's a simple little question, "where did you get your name," that inspired this tribute to a man who probably never imagined the contribution he made to my life through just being who he was. And to whatever degree his life might be tragic, mine has been anything but, and largely due to that nomenclative act of whim on his part. Therefore, every time I sign my name, it honors the memory of Lonnie Moyers and the gift, through me, through my art, to the world that Lonnie never got to completely fulfill while he was around. Although I mourned his passing at the time of his death, now I have only gratitude for him and gratitude for the incredibly rich, fulfilling life I get to experience one eternal day after another...
Lonnie Moyers is gone, the water tower is gone, my childhood is gone, yet my name survives them all, as names will. Like his, mine will acquire a certain type of immortality; history will decide on how much. Lonnie did pretty well after all, Don't you think?
There is an epilogue to this story, one which merits more than the short attention I'm giving it here at this time. I plan to expand this into a much longer story.
In the fall of 2001, I received the following email from a young woman:
I am Leah Hxxxxxxx. Lonnie was my stepfather and married to my mom when he was murdered. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day he died. Today I was just playing around to see if there were any old articles about his death and came across your tribute and am sending it to my mom. He was the love of her life and this will mean a lot to her.
Thank you SO much for sharing this story. It's going to bless her tremendously.
I responded to her email stating my delight in learning about a surviving vestige of my experience with Lonnie so many years ago. She in turn sent me this email:
Here's a little background. Also I sent my mom your website and email so you will probably hear from her as well. My brother and I were her children from her first marriage. We never knew our real dad and don't remember as much about Lonnie but he adopted us and took us as his own. My sister was born December 31 and he died right before she was 1. I would think my mom was about 23 or 24 when this all happened and she did see him murdered.
She did have a hard time. She was a young single mom of 3 young kids and didn't have a lot of education or resources. But she worked hard and we all turned out well.
She is now the director of a daycare and a grandmother.
I am sure she has much more to share and would love to do so. In way it might be excellent therapy for her to tell you more. She was completely shocked by your article. I read it to her on the phone. I just couldn't wait.
And you're right - his life is an important lesson. My mom is Marcia Moyers and her email is xxxxxxxxxxxx.
Thank you so much for responding. Your essay really was a blessing. We have thought for years of how to find a way to bless my mom at this time of year and we couldn't really cause we don't remember enough about him. But in such a short time you have changed her outlook. That's wonderful in and of itself.
Later that same day, I heard from Lonnie's widow:
Wow all I can say is what a day you gave me today.
And yes Leah is partly right, I have had a hard time in December for these many years and your gift today was a wondorus thing.
I cried, I laughed and cried again.
Seeing Lonnie through your eyes was amazing because it seems you saw many things I did too.
Lonnie was indeed a special man, he took my two children from a previous marriage and adopted them to be his. He was a wonderful father and husband and I regret that the children never got to know him.
I have so much swirling through my mind right not I am almost unable to put a coherent sentence together.
If youd like to keep in touch to ask the questions you mentioned and talk about things, I am open to that.
My biggest thank you is that after these many years I pictures the cheeks that I loved, the way his hair fell on his forehead, his large rugged gentle hands. But I could not merge them together to a complete picture. I found it so sad to lose thos special memories and unable to hold on to a picture of him in my mind.
Your writing touched me so much I can now close my eyes and see him in a reality I feel I can almost touch. Thank you for giving that back to me!!!
Warmly, Marcia Moyers
Needless to say, I was deeply touched in ways I do not completely understand. One lesson among many that stands out for me as a result of the essay I wrote about Lonnie is this: the footprints we leave on others just may end up making a big difference. Lonnie's footprint on me was my name; mine was to return that honor to his family. Make footprints.
-Spider Johnson, May 2002