FRIED LIGHT: What’s in a name?

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By Roger Snodgrass

My father was a cropduster, kind of a barnstorming migrant occupation, so we moved from town to town, according to the season and where the bugs were.


Sometimes I went to two or three different schools during the year. My least favorite moment was when the teacher said something like, “Kids, we have a new student. His name is Roger Snodgrass.”


I think there were few times when I didn’t hear at least a snigger and often many sniggers.


It took awhile for me to accept my name.


First of all, I began to discover there were many Snodgrasses.


It is very rare to this day that I meet an adult who does not ask me if I am related to the Snodgrasses in Lincoln, Neb., or Schenectady, etc.


Everybody seems to remember the one or two they know.


There was a famous Yankee centerfielder named Fred Snodgrass who dropped a very important fly ball during the 1912 World Series. Not many remember that he batted .321 in the 1910 season.


When he died, a famous New York Times headline killed him again: “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”


Was I related to any of them, people would ask.


“Yes,” I’d say. “I think we are all related because nobody would change their name to Snodgrass.”


Dickens wrote about a pretentious bird-watching poet named Augustus Snodgrass. Samuel Clemens, before he became Mark Twain wrote a piece called “The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” a loutish bumpkin, who said things like “drat my buttons.”


I discovered later as I moved around the country that almost any place I went had a Snodgrass or two in the phone book. That was kind of reassuring. Then I found a book listing, “The 200 most common names in America,” and guess whose name was one of them.


But for a long time I wanted to change my name.


It’s a Scottish name, meaning “the people from the grassy mounds.” But what’s interesting is that in the Scottish dialect the “d” is silent. It’s pronounced “snowgrass.”


Now that’s a cool name.


In college I discovered a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, name of Snodgrass.


W.D. Snodgrass died earlier this year and of course I never had the chance to thank him for relieving me of much of the onus of our name, by the grace of a poem he wrote, “These Trees Stand…”


In it, there is an emancipatory couplet for Snodgrasses: “So come, let us wipe our glasses on our shirts/ Snodrass is walking through the universe.”


What it taught me was how absurd the universe was that could contain beings named “Snodgrass,” and if I could accept my name, I could accept my place in a universe that was equally absurd.


I would not have to change my name after all.


When I came to northern New Mexico I became aware of another Roger K. Snodgrass in this area. I have never met him, but I found out about him when I was trying to qualify for a golf handicap.


After playing the required 10 rounds, I printed out my average and it turned out to be way below any single round I had ever played. The computer thought we were the same person.  


I have a lot of respect for that Roger K. Snodgrass, but I joke with people that I’m the good one and he is the bad one, in case there is any doubt.


One more poem sums us up. It is probably the national anthem of Snodgrassdom. The funniest American poet who ever lived, Ogden Nash, wrote it, and it’s called “Are You a Snodgrass, Too?”


The poem draws a contrast between humanity’s two main divisions – the Swozzlers and the Snodgrasses, who are as different as night and day in everything they do, from the way they put their cream and sugar on cereal and berries to the way the Swozzlers are always one-upping the Snodgrasses, even though “the facts of the case for the Snodgrasses are so evident/That it is ridiculous to debate them."


The poem concludes, “So I hope that for your sake dear reader that you are a Swozzler, But I hope for everybody’s that you’re not.”


I’m not. I’m a Snodgrass.


And which side are you?