WHAT’S IN A (NICK)NAME?

A nickname is a familiar or humorous name given to a person instead of or as well as one’s real name. A nickname often is considered desirable, symbolizing a form of acceptance, but sometimes it can be a method of ridicule.

Nicknames typically are earned and not self-awarded. Anyone, any day can decide they want to be called something, but a name given by someone else has much more meaning behind it! Not only does a nickname say a lot about the individual person, but usually there’s some kind of story behind it that many don’t know about. Have you ever been given a nickname or chosen one for yourself?

Shortly after I graduated from the University of Notre Dame a few friends referred to me as “The Lep,” short for Leprechaun, the university’s mascot. That nickname didn’t stick very long.

But when I was a senior in high school, I was given two nicknames. The first one occurred when I was assigned the first chair in the trumpet section of the Central Catholic High School Band. My fellow band members began referring to me as “Big Vince.” The nickname stuck – even though I was and still am only about 5 feet 8 inches tall — and was part of my identification in the yearbook. Some thought it also suited my Italian ancestry.

Holding the first-chair trumpet position in the band came with two privileges or duties, if you will. One was to play reveille every morning over the public address system that was heard in all the classrooms. The principal, when I was there in the late ‘50s — the late Monsignor William A. Lester — would recite an opening morning prayer in his office and signal me with a head nod when he was finished. I was standing two open offices away from the microphone so I didn’t blast everyone by being too loud.

The first few times I played the “wake up” call and returned to my homeroom, some of my classmates asked me why I didn’t play the last note. I knew I had sounded all the notes but soon discovered the beloved Monsignor, who always was anxious to finish one thing and move on to the next, turned off the mic early in anticipation of my being finished playing, thus often cutting off my last note or two. I never would have dreamed of saying anything to him about it. I just hurried a bit at the end to make sure all the notes would be heard.

Some 40 years later when I again reported to Monsignor Lester as the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, I jokingly told him that he had cut off my last notes a couple of times when I used to play reveille. He said, “Oh Vince, why didn’t you tell me?” He was such a benevolent person!

The next nickname I was given was secretive, as far as I was concerned, but actually was more of an honor. Again, as part of the privilege of sitting first chair in the trumpet section, it was my honor to often play taps at the burial of a military service veteran. Taps is the somber 24-note melody played at military funerals and at the end of day.

Usually on a late morning or early afternoon, a couple members of the seven-man rifle corps from an American Legion Post would pick me up at school and drive me to the cemetery for the burial service, and then bring me back to school. Not only was it an honor, of course, but I was thrilled to get out of classes for a couple of hours.

On a few occasions the riflemen would stop at the Legion Hall for a couple of beers. I was underage, of course, and the first time they stopped for a drink one of them asked, “Hey, what are we going to do with the boy here?” Another one said, “I know, he can sit in the family room and eat crackers!” And a nickname was born! From then on, I was called “Crackers,” but only by those vets on the rifle team. I never told anyone, especially back at school. “Big Vince” and “Crackers” just didn’t seem to go together.

Bugles Across America (BAA) was founded in 2000 when Congress passed legislation stating veterans had a right to at least two uniformed military personnel to fold the flag and play taps on a CD player, often housed in a bugle resembling the real instrument that anyone could “play” simply by pushing a button. BAA was begun to take the legislation a step further. In recognition of the service veterans provided their country, BAA feels every veteran deserves a live rendition of taps on a real instrument!

As a member of BAA, occasionally I am asked to play taps at the funeral or burial site for a veteran. I also play taps on Memorial Day at the flag in front of our home. It’s still both a privilege and an honor! And if I think about it ahead of time, I carry a package of crackers to snack on afterward – just to remember!

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer