My namesake—gospel singer or drunken deputy?
My earliest memories include scenes and events that I can recall beginning at the age of three—that’s three years, not three days or three months. One item that is seared in my memory is why I was given the first name of Hershel—no, it wasn’t Herschel Walker—I would have been pleased to be named after Herschel Walker, but he began life far later than did I, and his name is spelled with a C and mine isn’t—also he was a much better football player than I was. Click here to read about my prowess on the gridiron and lack thereof.
Note: In addition to the gridiron, that posting also contains some significant facts relating to the San Antonio Spurs NBA team and one of its star players—that alone is worth a visit to the posting.
This posting is the story of my naming, a story I heard numerous times from my mother and one that I have repeated with gusto over the years whenever the occasion arose, and one that I will repeat with the same gusto should the occasion arise in the future. When I was a little bitty feller—actually I’m still a little bitty feller, just a lot older—my mother told me that when I was born, one of the most popular shows on radio was the Hershel Collins Gospel Quartet, a group featured weekly on a Birmingham, Alabama radio station and beamed to local stations all over Alabama and adjoining states.
The broadcasts were live, of course, because tape recording was still in its infancy. I always felt that being named after a well-known radio personality was in some manner highly complimentary. Many of the boy babies born in that period were burdened with biblical names, and I was thankful to be different. I could just as easily have been named Hosea or Habakkuk or Haggai or some similar name—and those are just a few of the biblical names available in the aitches.
Just as an aside, as a youngster I never went by my first name. Everyone knew me as Mike—Mikey to my mother—and in my teen years those in my peer group would sometimes greet me with Hi, Hershel, are you a Hershey bar? Is that with or without nuts? My standard answer was, With nuts—so eat me, eat me! I do not remember anyone that ever asked me that same question twice. Hey, one has a right to defend one’s self, right? Right? Right!
I was to learn that I was not the only baby boy named after the gospel group leader. Many years ago while stationed at Kelley AFB here in San Antonio, Texas, my wife and I were in the base commissary shopping for groceries, and when we checked out I used a personal check to pay our bill. The young woman at the register glanced at my name and told me that her father’s name was also Hershel. I bet her that I could tell her where he was born, and that I could come close to his date of birth, and I said her father was born in Alabama, probably in the early 1930s.
She said I was correct on the state and close to the date, but she felt that I probably knew her father. The truth is that I did not know him. It was pure serendipity—it hasn’t happened since and it’s unlikely that it ever will, but trust me—it happened that time. And now looking ahead to the rest of this posting, I believe that you’ll agree with me that it’s highly unlikely the girl’s father was named after a drunken alcoholic deputy sheriff—please keep that thought in mind as you read on.
I’m the only surviving member of my immediate family—those that have gone on include my mother, father, one brother and five sisters—oh, and one stepfather, an unusual man, one-of-a-kind that my mother married when I was nine and one that loomed large in my preteen and teen years.
Over a period of 29 years the couple were married twice and divorced once. Between the first marriage and the divorce they were separated several times, separations that were initiated by my stepfather. He also initiated the several reunions, and our small family was reunited. The first marriage lasted about sixteen years, the divorce a couple of years, and the second marriage some eleven years until his death in 1970.
As is my wont, I have digressed from my original reason for this posting, so back to the story of my namesake. Shortly before her death in 2003, my last surviving sibling asked me whether I knew my namesake, and I told her the story my mother told me, the same story that I told my wife, my three daughters and any others over the years that were willing to listen.
When I finished my answer to her question, she immediately refuted my mother’s story and told me that I was named after a small-town deputy sheriff, one that when not engaged in his official deputy sheriff’s duties spent most of his time in one of the town’s jail cells, sleeping off his constant drunken benders. I didn’t ask why he was repeatedly re-elected by the county voters—however, I deduced that his surname may have helped—the county was probably full of Smiths and most of them would have been his relatives—that’s how it was in rural Alabama counties.
I did not challenge her on her version of my naming—my response was a simple Oh, okay, so that’s where the name came from. My sister was very ill and died that same year. I knew her well enough to know how much she loved life and I knew that she was nowhere near ready to leave it. She was very proud of her two sons, their wives and their children, all successful in their lives and didn’t want to leave them.
I believe that she was deeply depressed, and because of that depression she lashed out at me in frustration, perhaps unconsciously—and on second thought, perhaps consciously—seeking to relieve her sadness by projecting some of it on to me. Such projection is one of the defense mechanisms of repression. How’s this for an example of psychoanalysis? Take that, Sigmund Freud!
I understood her depression and frustration, and while in her presence I accepted her revelation, her version of my namesake. However, I do not accept the notion that I was named after a drunken deputy.
Others may believe that, but as for me, I’ll stick to the version told to me by my mother repeatedly over the years—I’m sticking to her contention that I was named after Hershel Collins, the leader of one of the best-known and best-loved gospel quartets of the time.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.