[Originally ran in the June 2015 issue of The Village.]
I’ve never gone in for nicknames. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been sports-minded, and it seems the sports world is where most nicknames are forged. (Well, there and nuclear fusion laboratories.) Or maybe because nicknames defeat the purpose of given names, which were given for a reason.
I learned of my aversion to nicknames while in college, where I went out of my way to call classmates by their given names while 99 percent of the student body apparently had no problem addressing a fellow human being as Weege or Tuck or Flounder or Tri-pod. And perhaps it was because I never used a nickname that I never got stuck with one. And for that I am forever grateful.
There was one exception, and that was my friend John, whom I met at Kennebunk High School back when Carter was president and the Knack was the hottest band around. With a last name that begged to be abbreviated – Heffernan – it was no surprise that many called him Heff, especially when he was playing basketball or baseball. There may have been other Johns on those teams, but there was no doubt who was being cheered when “All right, Heff!” was yelled at embarrassing volumes.
I would occasionally call him Heff, maybe 50 percent of the time, but as we grew into adulthood it tapered off. While he often still signs cards and notes with his nickname (perhaps in a bid to get me to stop calling him John), I rarely use it. Though that may change. I may have to bring it out of mothballs. And for a reason I never could have predicted.
John and his wife Heather have two boys, James and Andrew, the latter having reached a level of baseball-mania that can only be described as borderline-obsessive. In a good way. He plays on two teams (not simultaneously, but if he could figure out a way, he no doubt would). My wife and I recently attended one of his games up in Portland, where the 10-year-old lived up to the parental hype: he excelled at bat, on the mound, and at shortstop. I couldn’t help briefly comparing his performance with my own, when I lived in mortal terror of being struck by a ball, whether while at the plate or waiting for it to roll toward me at third base at 40 mph. Andrew was totally committed and fearless.
And while most of his teammates were exhibiting your typical boyish behaviors while off the field – throwing baseballs at each others’ heads, running around, laughing, looking for a snack – Andrew was laser-focused on the game, absorbing every single aspect of what was happening on the field. I’ve never seen a kid act so…professional.
But the most visceral reaction we experienced our first time watching Andrew play baseball happened when he donned his red batting helmet and dutifully marched toward home plate. From teammates and adults alike came cries of “All right, Heff! Let’s go, buddy! C’mon, Heff!”
John and Heather had given birth to another Heff.
Diane and I burst into incredulous laughter, looking at each other in amazement and then at John, who smiled and said something like, “Yeah, I know.”
I’m sure there are other Heffernans called Heff – it only makes sense – but the last time I heard that nickname called out in a show of support was over 30 years ago, so I’d say our amazement was justified.
John’s small yet loyal cadre of fans at KHS was so dedicated (to spending as much time as possible out of our classrooms during Class Pictures Day in 1981) that we quickly established the John Heffernan Fan Club, found the required faculty adviser in the form of a grumbling yet amused Joe Foster, hastily threw together a banner, and gathered for a photo in the stairwell.
I believe that banner is in a steamer trunk in my attic. I’m thinking with a little bit of editing, it could be recycled.