His Name Was Joe

I’ve changed the names and the nicknames because it’s about a real person. He is long gone now but he was very real and very large and anyone from my town will know instantly who I am talking about, despite the name changes.

He was a feature in our town when I was a child and a teenager. An apparently strident, angry old man who seemed to be constantly at odds with everybody and every thing. People called him ‘Lockjaw’ because his face was constantly set in a rigid military grimace and his posture and gait was always painfully and exaggeratedly of the parade ground. Arms swinging, jaw set, he was the very model of a military man. If you wanted an image of him, he used to remind me a little of Fulton MacCay in the old TV series, ‘Porridge’

And lots of people mocked him for it. Not so much out of pure badness, I think, but for another specific reason.

Because he always reacted to it.

People would shout his nickname at him. “Hey Lockjaw!” or “How’s it Going, Lockjaw?” and he would stop what he had been doing, usually directing traffic, and he would shout angrily at the people in a hyperactive show of belligerence. He was one of those characters that every town has and he wasn’t always treated well by some of the people of his town.

I never shouted at him or taunted him, and I was never comfortable seeing it being done, but I never did anything about it either. It was just another fact of life in the town and it was something that would never change. I did tend to avoid him though, because I found his jerky rants uncomfortable and a bit bewildering. I just stayed out of his way. I was told that he was apparently caught up irrevocably in his wartime experiences and, in his mind, the war was still going on and discipline and respect were things which needed to be maintained at all costs. 

Before the day that my Father explained things to me, I only ever encountered Lockjaw close up on one occasion. We were teenagers of about fifteen or sixteen and we had spent a late evening at a friend’s house down close to the river. The house itself had always had some historical connotations and the laneway out of the grounds was dark and winding. On the way up the lane, Lockjaw stepped out from behind a wall and accosted us in a rather dictatorial fashion.”

“You lads are on the move late. What barracks are you out of?”

My friend Shane took the lead. He answered respectfully. “We’re out of Finner Camp, Sir, we’re just heading back now.” Shane was young but he always had leanings towards the army life and having being rejected by the Irish Reserve on account of colour-blindness, he is now a very high ranking officer in an International Force. Well done, Shane, I’m proud of you mate.

Lockjaw looked Shane up and down and considered him. Eventually he responded.

“Right. Good lad. Be on your way now before they lock you out for the night.”

We left him there in the lane, in the dark. I think he was standing guard on the big house. The moon hung full and bright in the clear sky and that may or may not have played a part in his being there.

We didn’t laugh or joke at the man’s expense as we made our way home that night. We just spoke a little about how sad it was that he was out there in the night, guarding against a long dead foe.

The turning point in my slender relationship with the man they called ‘Lockjaw’ came one day when I was coming out of the local hospital with my Dad. We had been visiting someone, I can’t remember who, and as we made out way out to the car park, we came upon ‘Lockjaw’ striding in. He always had a sticking plaster on his cheek. Whether there was a wound behind it, I never knew. Perhaps he was coming in to the ward to get it dressed.

We rather got in each other’s way, my Dad and Lockjaw and me, and he seemed to be getting flustered and annoyed. Before that could escalate, my Father spoke to him in a normal everyday tone. My Dad had been the Council Rent Man for many years and he knew a thing or doing about dealing well with people.

“Hello Joe,” he said, “how are you doing?”

Lockjaw looked at him and his angry eyes cleared.

“Hello, Eddie,” he replied, “I’m not too bad, how are you?”

We passed on. That was the full extent of the exchange but it was one that coloured the rest of my life and changed instantly how I try to deal with the people I meet.

“That was Lock-“ I started to say but Dad interrupted me.

“His name is Joe,” he said, “Joe Canavaun. If you talk to him nicely, he’ll talk back to you the same way.”

Every time I met Joe after that I called him by his name and, regardless of how annoyed or distracted he was, he would return the greeting gently, perhaps wondering who this slightly familiar young fellow was.

Is there a point to this reminiscing or is that all it is to it, an old story. Maybe there is a very small point. Something along these lines perhaps. We should deal with others as we would like to be dealt with ourselves. It’s not a new thought but I think it’s a true one.

There is also some gentle magic in knowing a person’s name and, more importantly, in using that knowledge kindly. 

I wish you a Happy Christmas and a fun and exciting 2016. 


Jim Murdoch said...

There are plenty of articles online about how important it is to use someone’s name. But not too much, Ken. To use it too much, Ken, devalues it. Don’t you think, Ken? And one school of thought, Ken, is that “a person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person,” Ken. I was named after my dad but not my paternal grandfather—he was a John—and although I would’ve probably called my son ‘James’ I’m not sure that would’ve been the wisest of moves. As I write in the new book:

“Giving your son your name is a big no-no. Likely the first in a long line of things you’ll wish you’d done differently but probably the one you’ll come to rue the most. If a child bears your name it’s never completely his. He doesn’t own it. It makes it impossible to think about himself without comparing who he is with how he views his father. When he looked in the mirror Jim saw his father, at least he saw his father’s ears. He hated those ears. No scars however. At least no visible scars.”

I’ve always been rather jealous of people whose name uniquely identifies them. When you mention the name ‘Kafka’ no one says, “D’ya mean Fred Kafka, the butcher?” There’s a Fred Kafka at the University of California. And there’s a Fred Kafka who plays for Barcelona FC.

The last time my daughter’s partner came over and wanted to get my attention he called me ‘Jimmy’ and I remember feeling a little irked when he did. I hadn’t given him permission to call me ‘Jimmy’. Family call me ‘Jimmy’—and he’s not technically family yet—and people who knew me as a kid; maybe you were a Wee Kenny growing up. Mostly I answer to ‘Jim’ these days. Some of the teachers at the academy called me ‘James’ and one girl continued to use ‘James’ even once we’d grown up which I quite liked; she was called Kim but I never thought to call her Kimberly back. A friend of my parents insisted on calling me ‘Jamie’; I hated that. And I do not like being called ‘Jimbo’ even if it is meant affectionately so be warned.

This is where nicknames are good. There was a boy at school—in the year above me—called ‘Chips’ at least that’s what I always knew him by. I even heard a teacher call him ‘Chips’ once.

seoirse mac enri said...

Hi Ken, I remember him well, reportedly used to cycle to Finner in his younger days
sadly the figure of what you could describe as generational abuse, kids just shouted at him, cos their people before them did, to 'get a rise' out of him. In his later years he was less visible, I often met him while attending clinics with my parents,a quieter man when given respect as your Dad pointed out everyone deserves it. An ironic
fact ,some years after his death, many locals clubbed together to erect a headstone for Joe and maintain his grave, a noble deed, sadly recognised as a person in death
more than he was in life. Be Good Ken enjoy the Christmas