When I read last week about the death of the man who was the original voice for Gumby on television, a little piece of me died, too. You see, I used to be Gumby.
I wasn’t Gumby as much as Dick Beals was. He gave the voice to the green clay boy who had a horse friend named Pokey when The Gumby Show aired in the late 1950s. He also was Speedy Alka-Seltzer and many other voices for commercials, and he was 85 when he died Tuesday.
No, I was Gumby for a year because of boredom.
Military life gets boring sometimes on a remote base, so we played a lot of cards – poker, hearts, spades – to pass the hours. As sailors went to work or got off a shift, players in the never-ending game changed.
I’ve never been good at strategy games. One day, as the guys waited for me to throw down a card, one said: “Come on, hurry up. Don’t be so pokey.”
Another player spoke up: “Pokey. Gumby! Your new name is Gumby.”
I laughed it off, but from that moment, everyone called me that. For my 21st birthday, two girls I knew gave me those claylike Gumby figures. I received mail addressed to “Gum B. Moore.” People I didn’t know hailed me by that name across the room.
If you’ve ever been stuck with a nickname, you know there’s no real way to fight it. You just go along with it.
What’s a nickname, anyway, but an extra name? The word started out as “ekename,” which meant “an additional name.” By a process known as misdivision, people converted “an ekename” to “a nekename.”
The same thing happened to other words. “An ewt” became “a newt,” and “a nadder” became “an adder.” Conversely, “a numpire” became “an umpire,” while “a napron” turned into “an apron.”
All that aside, being Gumby was better than who I was in high school. One day in Spanish class, I innocently asked the teacher, “Señor Mavity, what does jugamos mean?”
My classmates erupted in laughter. They somehow knew that jugamos (“we play”) is pronounced hoo-GAH-mose, not, as I had said it, HOO-ga-mose.
My classmates started calling me that, pronounced my wrong way, of course. It spread to other classes, and in my junior yearbook can be found notes addressed: “Dear Jugamos.”
The next year, I became Joe. My English teacher was a very sweet lady who had had a long career, and the previous year had taught a student named Joe Moore. One day she told me:
“Joe, would you read the next passage from Shakespeare for us?”
I knew Joe had graduated the year before, but I also realized everyone was looking at me. I took the easiest route and began reading from Hamlet.
After that, I was Joe Moore. We would be discussing a topic and a classmate would tell the teacher, “I think Joe made a good point, ma’am.”
Now, tell me about your nickname.