Legally, my name is Brian, but my father called me Ben as far back as I remember. I can only presume my legal name was one of the few arguments he ever lost with my Mother. Losing the argument didn’t seem to have much affect on him since he called me the name he wanted anyway. With that said, giving me two names was the first step (45 years removed) of creating a somewhat Caribbean bond within me.
One thing I noticed while living the better part of a decade in the islands, was just about every island man and boy had more than one nickname to go along with his given name. In Anguilla I was pretty much called by my first name, which most of them pronounced, Bry-Ahnn, with the emphasis on both syllables. But in St Kitts, it was a different story.
Yes, they called me Bry-Ahnn, too. But I also had a few other names to go along with it and a story to go with each name. There’s always a story to go along with a new name in the islands.
The first name I was given shortly after arriving in St Kitts to be the Project Manager in charge of rebuilding a Catholic School was, “Missionary.” If you instantly presumed that the name was a sort of compliment associated with the project I was working on, you were wrong. The fact of the matter was, a local guy who had a bit of a reputation for being a boisterous troublemaker met me on the steps of the church one weekday morning. In the midst of our conversation, where he seemed to be working hard to maintain his reputation, he asked me if I were a Missionary, doing God’s work. I cleared up any confusion without hesitation and told him that I was a well-paid employee of the church. I suspected there were enough issues between God and I, without me trying to take credit for work that real missionaries do. From that day forward, every time this gentleman saw me- without exception- he would wave and yell to me. “Missionary!” And the louder he could yell and the more attention he could bring to me, the more satisfied he seemed to be.
If I saw him in the store or in the bank, he would call out, just loud enough for all the other customers to hear, “Missionary,” in a polite, respectful voice, with just a tinge of sarcasm. He and I both knew the name was a lie. If I acknowledged the name, I had to take credit for something that wasn’t true. If I corrected him, then I had to explain in front of a crowd of strangers that I was not a missionary and I was taking money from God’s people to rebuild their school. It was a lose/lose scenario and he knew it. If I was across the street, he would call it out a bit louder. “Missionary!!” And if I were all the way across the town square? Well, he was in his glory when he yelled out, “Missionary!!!” A few more people picked up the name as time went by and it stuck for the remainder of the project.
My next name was simple and much less colorful. I typically wore a straw hat when I walked around the project. One hot sunny afternoon, one of the high school students called me “Cowboy” when I walked past. It didn’t catch on as much as “Missionary”, but it still came out on a regular basis for the remainder of my time in St Kitts.
Last and certainly not least, a six-year-old island girl who was in Kindergarten at the school where I worked gave my favorite name to me. I was walking past a crowd of people standing outside the courthouse only a few yards from the school. There was a lot of chatter that I paid no attention to as I read whatever document I had in my hand. A couple people mumbled “Hello” or “Hey, hey” as I passed and I mumbled back and continued. As I strolled along, I vaguely noticed a small voice calling out from the crowd of big people. I didn’t pay much attention to it, but I kind of knew it was there. But as I walked and read, I heard the voice getting louder and more excited until finally I realized she was calling out to me.
“Hey! White guy!” I turned to see a tiny island girl, grinning from ear to ear, excited that she saw the white guy that worked at her school. She said it without malice or prejudice or contempt. She was simply describing me as she saw me. “Hey! White Guy!” she repeatedly called out until I turned and waved back at her. It was probably the first time she had ever seen me off the school grounds and she was pretty excited to let everyone in front of the courthouse know that she knew the white guy that was walking by.
Later that day, I foolishly shared the story with Belinda, the school bookkeeper. After that day, when I walked through the town square it was a pretty safe bet that someone was going to call out, “Missionary!” or “Hey! White Guy!” with an occasional “Cowboy!” thrown in for good measure.
By the way, Belinda has three brothers. Jason is the youngest and we knew him for a year or two before meeting the other two, who were introduced to us as Puss and Boots. (I don’t know what the story is that goes with those two names). My wife instantly named Jason, “Kitty Litter”, to go with Puss and Boots. Four years after leaving St Kitts, we still call him Kitty Litter and just like every other island guy, he’s got another name to go along with whatever other names he already has.
With a little luck, I just might be back in the islands for another extended stay some day. Who knows, maybe they’ll call out, “Old White Guy!” on the next island.