Nom de fume

Imagine you're in hell and your name is Angus. But that's redundant.

Published January 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

My name is John Angus Pavlus. When my father bestowed this traditional middle name on me, I joined a vaunted circle of like-named cultural luminaries.

Wait. No I didn't.

No cultural luminary has ever had the middle name Angus. Small wonder: It's a name that smacks of ridicule, not respect. Its origins are hazy: From my best guess, the first trace emerged with my paternal great-great-grandfather. Making its way down the bloodline via the firstborn males, it remained dormant with my grandmother until she had a son -- my father -- and passed it on to him. He lived with it, coped with it as the men before him had and, in turn, inevitably transmitted it to me.

A congenital defect, trickling malevolently down the branches of my family tree? No -- but as a birthright, just as unavoidable and no less cursed. It was Angus, the traditional Scottish name borne by each of my forefathers and represented by his middle initial. Now it was mine. And of course, I hated it with every breath I drew.

I can't remember when the name's blighted significance first dawned upon me. Indeed, I spent my first half-decade of life blissfully ignorant of my hateful inheritance. But once I discerned my middle name's grotesque dissimilarity from those of my playmates, the reaction was swift. I berated my parents with righteous outrage: How dare they foist such a blemish upon their unsuspecting child, the same child they claimed to love?

My father, despite bearing the most guilt for the transgression, greeted such excoriations with little more than a bemused grin and a coy glance at my mother. He'd then calmly explain the history of my name and the dignified tradition preceding it, always concluding with the prophecy that someday I would not only take pride in the name, but willfully bestow it upon my future son as well. I would consequently retort with an impassioned vow to break the cycle and eradicate the accursed appellation as soon as I was legally able. For some reason he always found these oaths uproariously funny.

In the end, there was nothing I could do. Flaming rhetoric soon gave way to desperate pleading, but to no avail. My birth certificate was shamefully besmirched, the damage to my identity permanent. Eventually I had no recourse but to rationalize. Based on my father's admission that every bearer of the name had also "hated it at first," I concluded that its propagation was surely due to some vicious cycle of displaced revenge as each son, maligned by his father but unable to retaliate in kind, instead inflicted the same injury on his own defenseless offspring.

Indeed, as I chafed under the various indignities my middle name bore in grammar school (its tendency to get "accidentally" mispronounced as Agnes being the worst), I began to understand the need -- perverse as it had been -- for such vengeful catharsis. Nevertheless, where my progenitors had been weak, giving in to their misguided retributive compulsions, I was determined to be the bigger man and suffer alone. Barely past fifth grade, and already a martyr -- Thomas More would have been proud.

My mother was the first to notice my brave acceptance of the cross Dad had lashed to my shoulders. As the years wore on, her comments, intended to ease my load, became rote: "Don't worry, John, someday you'll meet a nice girl who'll love the name Angus, and she'll be the one for you." Unfortunately, this incessant linkage of my name with romantic destiny only made me more reticent to reveal it, as it immediately infused the most casual of female liaisons with a mythic, near-Arthurian gravity.

Which girl would draw the Excalibur of Angus-acceptance? Could I even find that kind of person attractive? What if she were really annoying? Would my fate be sealed? Was there any chance she might be a cheerleader? I just wasn't prepared to grapple with these issues every time I had a crush. I never dated much. Speculate as you will.

But a man's spirit gradually soothes the sting of any prolonged hardship, and as junior high waxed into high school and waned toward college, my sentiments gradually shifted. For most of my life I'd regarded my unwanted A. with about as much affection as Hester Prynne had hers. Now I found myself treating it like an old combat wound: disfiguring, yet distinctive -- evidence of a battle valiantly survived. I'd discovered the name's association with cool, virile stuff like steaks and kilt-wearing barbarians; I'd even come to relish retelling my childhood war stories. My friends had fodder for their own sardonic anecdotes -- Goliathlike bullies, hell-spawned nuns, totalitarian babysitters and the like -- but these were peanuts compared to my own uniquely juicy trauma, and they knew it. Somehow, it all had become oddly gratifying. I grudgingly faced the question: Was my father's smirking prediction slowly coming true?

The answer, like my name itself, was couched in history. I remembered reading about Native American traditions in which young boys had to pass a threshold into manhood. Usually no older than 12 or 13, they were made to endure coming-of-age rites that had left me aghast at their severity. But now -- now I understood. The adversity had scoured their souls of childish trifles, leaving them harder, purer, stronger -- ready to become men. Suddenly I felt a kinship with them. Had I not braved similar trials? Our manhood was indelibly etched in the scars we bore. The abhorrent legacy of my forefathers had a purpose after all, and I'd finally realized my place in their lineage. I didn't even have to tell my father. He saw the newfound dignity in my countenance as I passed the meatloaf at dinner, and he knew.

Of course, the real test will come when I forge the chain's next link by passing the name on to my own inevitably ungrateful son. I can see him now: sleeping innocently in his bassinet, still mercifully unaware of what awaits him. When it comes time to affix him with the tradition, will I be able to do it? If there be oracles to divine such answers, I'm not even sure I'd want to know. But I do know two things: When I graduate college, the script on my sheepskin will say John Angus Pavlus. And the last girl I dated said she'd rather die than give that name to a child. But that's OK -- I had a hunch she wasn't the one for me anyway.

By John Angus Pavlus

John Angus Pavlus is a writer in Ithaca, N.Y.

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