Smoke Signals

Proper names



This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

— Henry Reed, “Naming of Parts”

It was disorienting in the extreme to walk into the Sluice Box Drinking Emporium and see someone sitting in the interior murkiness reading a book other than Gary Regan’s “Bartenders’ Bible,” a Sluice staple mainly used for academic research purposes on those rare occasions when a tourist offers to buy one of the regulars a drink (the regular wanting, of course, to take advantage of the offer by ordering up something fancier than the normal draw of PBR). The fact that it was my buddy Milt holding the tome (and right-side-up, at that!) caused my personal earth to tilt off its axis just a bit. When I tentatively ventured close enough to identify the obviously very lost title, my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. It was “The Complete Book of Baby Names,” by Lesley Bolton. “Uh, Milt, queried I, “didn’t the court-ordered vasectomy hold?” He grunted a bit, placed the book, which was open to the “A” section (meaning Milt had not progressed very far) (Adolph sprang off the page for some weird reason) onto the bar and looked me directly in the eye in a way that he had not done since four years ago, when he asked me if I would be the best man at his divorce from his third wife, June. “Pard,” said Milt, “it’s time for a big change.”

At that exact moment, I understood that Milt was not foraging for baby names for the usual reasons most people do; he was, rather, looking for something less easy to fully grasp. I was one of the few people who knew that Milt was not Milt’s given name. Some indeterminate numbers of years prior, for reasons no one was privy to (it is very impolite to ask after such matters in these remote, altitudinous parts, even with one of your best amigos), Milt had engaged in some nomenclatural revisionist history. He did inform me one fine day that his favorite poem was “Paradise Lost,” which, given the fast-growing resort-area setting for our multi-year friendship, was appropriate. One day, while walking alongside a once-lovely stand of aspens that had recently been mowed down to make room for a subdivision called, of all things, “Aspen Grove,” it dawned on me from where the name Milt had come.

It had been a long, hard winter for Milt. He had broken his ankle pretty badly in November, of all things, getting his foot hung up in the lower rungs of a barstool while attempting a dignified dismount at last call. His recovery had gone more slowly than expected, a circumstance that resulted in negative fiscal impacts, since, with a big cast, he could not navigate his truck, Bud Girl, well enough to plow snow, which is how he made his living forever. That it had been an extremely snowy, and therefore potentially profitable, winter did not help matters on the psychological front. Milt had to borrow money to make rent a few times. After the guffaws about the nature of his accident dissipated, we all realized the light had gone out of Milt’s eyes. One night, this sleazy little weasel who had been hanging out at the Sluice for a few weeks, said to Milt after asking what happened to his ankle, “Hell, if’d been me, I would have sued the bar owners for a million dollars for having a poorly designed barstool.” Not only did no one laugh, but Milt, almost family to the bar owners, stood up, placed his full weight on that bad ankle and proceeded to take a full-wind-up swing at that sleazy little weasel, but, given his limited mobility, he only made cursory contact with the guy’s pointy little chin. “I’m not you, asshole!” Milt bellowed, sans mirth, as the gent fled post haste. For the next half-hour, Milt stared into this beer mug, and it was obvious at that point he no longer knew just exactly who or what he was.


A couple weeks back, I received an email from an old friend I had not heard from or about in quarter-century. She was a bit miffed about something-or-another I had written and wanted to express her displeasure via an internet communiqué. Which is fine and dandy, but I had to take a forced march down memory lane just to remember who she was. After cranking up my rusty mental centrifuge, the lightbulb of recognition finally lit up. My confusion was not caused by synapses that don’t fire as predictably or accurately as they once did; rather, it stemmed from the fact that this wonderful woman had changed her name (once again) since I last saw her.

That marked the third time in the prior few months I had caught news of compadres who no longer went by the name they went by the whole time I knew them. The friend who emailed me at least said I was perfectly welcome to refer to her by her previous name; the other two people apparently will not even acknowledge their erstwhile appellations, which, if memory serves, were already new from whatever their names before that were.

This can get confusing.

But it’s OK.

I mean, it’s not as though any of us had any choice whatsoever in the matter of our own naming. My first name was the ill-considered result of a drunken-buddy agreement between my dad and his then-best friend, a man who dropped off the family radar shortly thereafter: My dad apparently slurred words to the effect that, if he ever had a son, he would name him after his best bud, and his bud slurred vice-versa. To this day, it stuns me that dear old dad not only remembered, but lived up to, his end of the deal. And, thus, I got a first name that I hated since birth, a name that has never “fit me” (whatever that means). And I suspect I am not the only one who looks at his or her driver’s license and wonders aloud what on earth his or her parents were thinking. It’s not just a matter of bad names; it’s also a matter of names that are not right. I once knew a couple, both members of which had renamed themselves somewhere along the line (I believe it was Rosebud and Piñon, with, weirdly enough, Rosebud being the man), who had a child, and they did not name that child. Month after month, this child was called nothing more than “he.” The explanation was they did not want to lay something as important on their offspring as name without getting to know the little bugger first. It didn’t dawn on me till years later to wonder about what appeared on the kid’s birth certificate. “Nameless”? “No Name”? “Blank?” “John Doe?” For all I know, they still haven’t named him, or, if they did, they just said the hell with it and went with Bob or Joe. Man, I wonder how that kid turned out. Probably just fine. That, or he’s now a green-haired goth snowboarder with pierced eyeballs or, worse, a clean-cut accountant with a split-level house in the ’burbs.

Up until the seventh grade, I went by my official first name, and I never once felt comfortable in my own skin. Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not (and I know how melodramatic this sounds), I was a felon-in-training. When I hear people talk about what troublemakers they were as children — disrupting classes with spitballs and toilet-papering trees and stealing candy bars and such —  I snicker. I was a criminal whose various specialties included, but were not limited to, burglary, assault, thievery, arson and general “Clockwork-Orange”-like recreational mayhem. The first time I visited the back of a police car, I was six. Two of my closest friends during the sixth and seventh grades eventually went to prison … for murder. I was in constant hot water with law enforcement, school administrators, parents and neighbors. I was suspended for egregious misbehavior for entire academic year … in elementary school.

My justifiably perpetually pissed and distraught mother and stepfather rationally decided that something monster-big had to change. They decided we had to move to a completely different state, a decision for which I will be eternally grateful. As we were heading east in a U-Haul truck, I came to a decision that was remarkably enlightened for such a borderline psychopath: When we arrived in the mosquito-ingested swamps of eastern Virginia — my stepfather’s home turf — I would no longer go by my first name. It was then that I became John (and later M. John, mostly to keep some semblance of peace with my father, who was understandably angry that I had summarily jettisoned his best friend’s name).

It was then than my life metamorphosed. This is not say that I instantly became a saint, but it is to say that I stopped being a criminal. Did the name-changing decision have anything to do with me being able to pull that life change off? Maybe not. But maybe. It could have simply been the change of scenery resulting from the move to Virginia. But we had moved a couple times before, and my old droogie self had always followed me wherever we went. When I finally detached myself from the name I should never have had bestowed upon me in the first place, it did not. I had finally out-witted my dim-witted self by essentially changing the rules of the game. A personal-transformation Kobayashi Maru.

I told that story to a young writer one time. He scoffed and said that such premeditated personality transformations are not possible, that maybe all I had done when I moved to Virginia and began going by my middle name was to subvert the real me well enough that I only appeared to be reborn. And maybe he was right. You watch movies like “A History of Violence,” and you wonder about such things.



Milt’s small intimations to me over the years indicated that, when he changed his name, everything else also changed in his life, though, given his surly demeanor, tendency to regularly over-indulge in everything he indulges in and three divorces (that I know of), I kind of wonder what life was like before he changed. Maybe he was an altar boy who opted to re-define himself downward.

Back in the ’70s, lots of people in these parts opted to punt their old names in favor of such sun-shiny hippie-ish sobriquets as Cinnamon and Apple Blossom. I have known a Sweet Medicine, an Uncle River, a Feather, a Two Crow, an Elk Heart, a Windsong, a Gandalf and numerous variations on Wolf. But the renaming of self, along with the naming of cars and domiciles, seemingly died out, or at least lost momentum, during the sober darkness of the ’80s. I even knew a few people who had previously changed their name to things like Moonbeam, who went back to things like Stuart and Bernice when Reagan was President. But, it seems like perhaps there is a self-renaming resurgence afoot.

The West has always been Ground Zero for all manner of renamings: aliases, AKAs, descriptive nicknames, noms de guerre and noms de plume. Part of that, of course, stems from the undeniable reality that this is a part of the country that has long attracted ne’er-do-wells whose legal circumstances required some identity modifications. Butch Cassidy as not born Butch Cassidy.

The most-famous recent example of such nomenclatural modification transpired in the idyllic ski town Crested Butte, Colorado, where a man named Neil Murdoch lived for 30 years. Then, one day, seemingly out of the blue, the feds descended upon Crested Butte looking for a man named Richard Gordon Bannister, who had been wanted ever since he jumped bail in 1973. U.S. Customs agents had seized from the trunk of his car four hand-carved wooden statues sent from Bolivia to Bannister in Taos, New Mexico. In the hollowed-out core of those statues was found 26 pounds of cocaine. He was freed on $20,000 bond, and that was the last time members of the judicial system saw him again until 2001, when he was finally arrested back in Taos using yet another alias, Grafton Mailer.

Bannister, who had already served time in the 1960s after a drug conviction in Pennsylvania, first arrived in Crested Butte in 1974. At that juncture, no one in this funky mountain hamlet so much as batted an eye when yet another dropout from the real world showed up somewhat lacking in a plausible life-history story.

Unlike many people who would have hidden in the shadows for the rest of their natural lives, Bannister, who was 34 at the time, quickly became a big, boisterous part of Crested Butte’s social geology. He played a pivotal role in giving birth to an entire new sport: mountain biking. In the mid-1970s, he started attaching cannibalized parts to battered Schwinn frames and test-driving them on trails around town. Before he knew it, he’d become a fat-tire forefather. His shop, Bicycles Etcetera, is now generally considered to have been the second mountain-bike-oriented shop in the entire world. In 1982, Murdoch helped launch Crested Butte’s annual Fat Tire Bike Week, now one of the largest mountain-bike festivals in the country. He was even inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

After 24 years, however, Bannister’s charade began to unravel. Showing once again how it is almost impossible to completely drop out of society, Bannister had been unable to make it through his life on the lam without having a Social Security number. so, he stole one from a man who, coincidentally or not, owned a bicycle shop in Pennsylvania. As a result of a routine credit check in spring 2008, the man came to suspect someone else was using his Social Security number. The Pennsylvania man contacted the Social Security Administration and an agent hunted the number down and drove to Crested Butte, where he interviewed Bannister at the local police department. Bannister was fingerprinted, photographed and then released, at least partially because the local police chief vociferously vouched for him.

When the Social Security Administration agent returned to Denver, he ran Bannister’s fingerprints, and — voila! — he got a hit on the outstanding warrant issued after Bannister jumped bail in 1973. Bannister knew that his cover was blown. He handed his keys to his roommate and bid her adios, saying she would never see him again. He had a friend drive him to the Four Corners Monument with only his trusty mountain bike and a small stash of clothing. He then asked his friend to drive away so that he couldn’t tell police which way Bannister had pedaled off into the metaphoric sunset, destination known only to him.

When agents from the U.S. Marshal’s Office arrived in Crested Butte the very next day, they had missed Bannister by less than an hour. He had managed to disappear again. Bannister’s next nomenclatural self-redefinition lasted only a couple of years, during which time he hid in plain sight in Taos — another haven for societal drop-outs — the very town in which the original warrant for his arrest had been issued. Acting on a tip from a suspicious local business owner, federal agents arrested Bannister-Murdoch-Mailer in 2001. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, to be followed by three years of probation.

The people in Crested Butte justifiably reacted weirdly to the Bannister saga. Most folks defended him. An ex-mayor was quoted as saying, “Neil Murdoch had a spotless record for a quarter century. Yeah, he made some big mistakes. But this is one of those rare cases where a criminal has rehabilitated himself.” Bannister was presented in absentia with a lifetime achievement award in acting by the Crested Butte Town Theater for playing the role of Murdoch for 24 years.

I have long wanted to ask Bannister if, during all those years in Crested Butte, if he actually became Murdoch, or if he remained Bannister with a different name, if, as his lifetime achievement award from the town theater would indicate, he was only pretending to be a character named Murdoch. It’s my guess that Richard Bannister was a man long dead, and by the time Mailer was busted in Taos, Bannister had been buried twice.

How long does it take those in witness protection to respond to their new names the same way they responded to their old names? When I decided in the seventh grade that, from then on, I would go by my middle name, it took me more than a year to reflexively answer to John. Now, when I find myself in the presence of those few people left who still call me by my first name, I find myself reacting with bewilderment when they address me, because, in actuality, they are not addressing me. I don’t care what that young writer said: It’s not just that I no longer go by that name. It’s that, as a result, I am no longer the same person I was before I became John, then M. John. Names are important. They have big-time juju.

All this might sound a tad foo-foo. But it is a theme that has been well explored by noted writers. Ursula La Guin, in her “Earthsea Trilogy,” which many people consider on par (at least) with Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” spent considerable verbiage on the subject of names. Each of her characters sported given names, the names by which they were referred to and their secret names, the latter of which were only known to their closest confidants, because, Le Guin wrote, those who know your secret name have power over you.

This was a theme well explored in Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” where the main character, Paul Atriedes, did not become his true destined self (read: crazy-assed, drug-addicted, bloodthirsty, revenge-fueled conqueror of the known universe) until he adopted the name public Muad’Dib and, simultaneously, had bestowed upon him by his Freman clan the secret name Usul, which gave him his considerable might.



My mother told me a few years before her death that it had been her desire to name me Ian, which is a Gaelic version of John. I mentally wore that name for a while and it fit like a glove. How can such a thing be? I looked on the internet to see how hard it is to legally change your name. It’s bothersome, but doable, so long as you’re not trying to evade the law or some sort of debt situation. It’s my guess that Milt had never legally changed his name to match that of the man who penned “Paradise Lost.”


The closest situation I know of where people can just bestow upon themselves a new name of their choosing and build and match a character to that name is on the Appalachian Trail, where “trail handles” are commonplace. Things like “Dimples,” “Firefly” and “Bearclaw.” My trail handle was, in full, “Jumpin’ Jack, the Hallucinogenic Hiker,” which was usually shortened to “Jumpin’ Jack.” I had not thought about that for decades. But a couple years ago, I ran into a lady I dated right after I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1980. During that time, I had foolishly tried to take my trail handle and, by extension, my trail persona, with me out of the woods and out of its context and back into civilization, even using it for a while as a byline in my college paper. It was a disaster. “You still Jumpin’ Jack?” my ex-flame asked my now-grizzled and grey-haired self. “No,” I understated. “But I sure wish I was.” She smiled semi-coyly and walked away with nary another word.


One of my biggest problems with the people who are now moving to the Mountain Time Zone is that they are not thinking in terms of re-creation and rebirth the way they used to. They come here and resolutely try to remain who they were, most times with just enough success to fuck things up all around them. Maybe we should rename ourselves every time we move. Anyone who either can’t or won’t take that leap is sent back to where their old name still has meaning.


I left Milt to his baby-name research and went into the back room to shoot pool with Big Del. When I returned to the bar section, Milt was gone. Just like that. None of us have seen or heard from him since. We learned later that the sleazy little weasel he had hit on the chin had pressed charges and initiated a lawsuit. So Milt was now a fugitive from justice. Probably not for the first time. Probably not for the last time.

Milt had left “The Complete Book of Baby Names” on the bar with a beer-stained coaster marking the A-section, like he was leaving us all some sort of hint. For many weeks after he left, I looked through Adam and Arthur and Abraham, trying to pick one that would stick to Milt. Milt had left his truck Bud Girl parked in front of the old cabin he had rented for 11 years. That cabin was recently sold, and word on the street is that it will soon be torn down to make room for yet another soulless new condo complex. I walked by just as they were towing Bud Girl off. It was then that I remembered, when Milt walked out of the Sluice Box for possibly the very last time, Arlo Gurthrie’s version of Kris Kristofferson’s “City of New Orleans” was playing. The A-section now made sense, and I knew where to look for my old friend if ever inclination pointed me in the direction of the Crescent City. Which it won’t, because, were I to run into his lumbering self down in the Quarter or the Ninth Ward, I would likely no longer recognize the man I drank with all those blustery nights up in the Colorado High Country, for he would no longer be Milt.

Milt is dead and buried somewhere out in a gator-infested bayou.


Postscript: A few weeks ago, we all learned that the ski area had purchased the building in which the Sluice Box Drinking Emporium was located. After 30 years, the Sluice was to be closed down, renovated and rebirthed. In a press release, the ski area said, with the exception of a new name, “nothing would change at the Sluice Box.”

Typical marketing dogshit penned by word whores lacking so much as an iota of heart.

With a new name, everything changes. Everything.