On two ships, both World War II-era destroyers not many voyages away from the wrecking yard, I had men approach me for help in changing their last names – Mr. Gross and Mr. Simpleton.
It’s not as uncommon as you might think. Just last week, I was reading about “Father Jesus” in Gulfport, who was known as Harold Ray Laster until he legally changed his name in September 2017. He came into the public eye when he wanted to build a church that would look like a castle on Alabama Avenue for his religion, “The Saints of the Most High;” however, the Gulfport Planning Commission denied his request. He went ahead and put a castle façade on an existing residence. Unfortunately, Father Jesus was arrested December 21, 2021, after police found a dead body in the residence. Apparently, he was running an unauthorized boarding house, and the man died of natural causes. Father Jesus was later cleared of any involvement in the death.
While Clint Eastwood might have ridden into immortality as “the Man with No Name,” the rest of us might think that we are stuck with the name that’s on our birth certificate. The truth is, you can change it pretty easily – just go to prison, and they will give you a number. Seriously, there’s lots of precedence for name changing. The most common example would be those in the entertainment industry. The singer, Prince, for example, changed his name to a symbol which I can’t duplicate on my keyboard; Norma Jean Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe, and Issur Daniellovich became Kirk Douglas.
Sometimes people are famous and we never know their names. For example, read Alexandre Dumas’ famous story about the “Man in the Iron Mask” (1847). While fiction, it was the account of a man actually imprisoned in the Paris Bastille from 1670 until 1703 who remained unidentified due to the veil worn over his face throughout his time in prison. He was rumored to be everything from deposed royalty to a political prisoner.
People change their names for various reasons. It could be a husband taking his wife’s name upon marriage; or there may be a desire for a more or less ethnic name. Perhaps they just don’t like their surname, as with my two Navy friends above. Have you ever heard or used the expression “My name is ‘mud?’” Well, the ignominy behind that expression goes back to Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, an American physician who was imprisoned for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Although he was accused of being part of the murder conspiracy, his only crime was in carrying out his Hippocratic oath, and for his efforts he was sentenced to life in prison, missing the death penalty by only one vote. Imprisoned at Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, a series of seven barren islands about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, he remained there until 1869 when he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson after heroically ministering to other prisoners during a yellow fever epidemic. Efforts to clear his name continue to this day.
People haven’t always had last names. China was one of the earliest civilizations to use surnames, and this was apparently in conjunction with the need for an accurate census. Last names didn’t come to Europe until much later. Most people lived in small villages, and first names were sufficient. Over time, however, populations grew, trade became more important, and they needed a way to tell the difference between individuals with the same first name. European surnames have many sources, but they can be divided into four basic groups: patronymic (named after your father), locative (where you are born), occupational (job: Carpenter, Miller, Sawyer, etc.), and nicknames (“John, the short” became “John Short,” etc.).
Although I’ve never been ashamed of my own surname, there have been times I wanted to change it. Early in my Navy career, when I was in electronics school in California, I needed Top Secret clearance to proceed with the training. The Federal Bureau of Investigation which handled such matters, sent a representative to my hometown of Lumberton to interview people who knew me and make a report on my character. To my dismay, my application was rejected, and I was about to be disenrolled from the school and sent to the fleet as a non-designated seaman. Luckily, the school took an interest in my case and found out that the FBI had reported that I was the “town drunk.” It seems that the people the FBI interviewed had confused me with my father, same name, who did have a problem with alcohol. I had grown up in that mess and never taken a drink in my life. Still don’t.
There have also been times I was so embarrassed I wanted to change my name. I can think of at least two. On my first ship, we were anchored off Civitavecchia, which is the port of Rome, hosting a visitor’s day. We were the flag ship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, stationed in the Mediterranean, and this was a common occurrence. It was my day to be a tour guide, and I was assigned to a group of American college girls who were on the “Grand Tour” of Europe. I noticed that they were speaking French to each other, so I decided to impress them by doing the narration in my own French, which was pretty sketchy. I started out by apologizing and saying that I probably sounded like a “peasant,” but I would give the rest of the ship tour in French. Unfortunately, instead of using the French word for peasant, which is “paysan,” I used the word “poisson,” which means “fish.” I noticed that they looked at each other and laughed, and it wasn’t until I put them on the boat back to shore that I realized what I had said. I’m sure it was the first tour they ever had that was conducted by a fish. You had to be there.
Later on in my military career, at the height of the Vietnam War, I was attending the Army Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Everyone was either just back from (instructors) or on the way over (students) to Vietnam. On the first hour of the first day, every student had to pass the Airborne physical fitness test to proceed any further. I’m doing pushups in the sawdust pit and an instructor walks by. They are called “Black Hats” because of the color of their ball caps. This guy is huge. His shirt is about two sizes too small, and his muscles bulge every time he moves. His triceps look like lemons have been glued to his arms.
Just like with those college girls above, my mouth got me into trouble. I was feeling my beans, pumping out the pushups, and I said to him, “Why don’t you let me take the rest of this course by correspondence?” I knew it was a horrible mistake before the words even got out of my mouth. I was already a graduate of two boot camps, and I knew that to survive, you had to be the “gray guy.” Don’t stand in front, but don’t stand in the back. Stand in the middle. Don’t be first, and don’t be last. Be in the front one-third. Try not to be seen.
I had made the classic mistake – called attention to myself. For the next month: Ground Week, Tower Week, and Jump Week, he was Drill Sergeant R. Lee Ermey and I was that poor private in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). Every evolution, I kept hearing my name. It was always “Hornsby Up!” I was always first through the obstacle course, first when he needed a sacrificial lamb to prove a point, first out the door of the airplane, etc. It was funny, but I actually got to where I kind of liked him before we graduated. It’s a little like an old French song which says: “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” – literally, “I love you, me neither,” a common way of expressing a love-hate relationship.”
He was a piece of work. When he called cadence during our early morning five-mile run, he taught us some special songs. This was one of his favorites:
Saw an old lady walking down the street,
She had a ruck on her back and jump boots on her feet.
I said, “Hey, old lady, where you going to?”
She said, “U.S. Army Airborne School.”
I said, “Hey, old lady, now ain’t ya been told?
Airborne School’s for the brave and bold.
She said, “Hey, young man, I’ll do just fine,
I maxed my test and I’m ninety-nine.”
Thinking back to my tour guide experiences, I want to share one more. We were running tours one day in Nice, France, and the famous English writer, Somerset Maugham, came aboard unannounced on a regular liberty boat. He lived in a villa on Cap Ferrat, overlooking the harbor which was our homeport. I called up the Officer of the Deck and told him that we had a celebrity onboard and maybe we should wake up the Old Man. He said, “Who is it?” I said, “Somerset Maugham,” He said, “Who is that?” I shook my head. I was just a dumb, redneck kid from Mississippi, but I read “Of Human Bondage” (1915) in high school. I gave him the tour. Many years later, I stayed in a room named for him in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore which featured a letter giving the hotel permission to use his famous quotation: “Raffles Hotel stands for all the fables of the Exotic East.” This hotel is also the home of the original Mahogany Bar, which features bullet holes from the Japanese invasion in 1942. It’s also home of the “Singapore Sling” cocktail, which I never sampled.
It’s really not that hard to change your name. In the United States, you generally have a legal right to change your name at any time, provided you don’t intend to defraud or deceive another person. Although it depends on the state, it’s basically a four-step process: file your petition for name change, take your fingerprints, attend your hearing, and request your Change of Name certificate. You would probably need to start at the chancery court in the state of your home of record, which for many sailors and Marines, in my experience, was either Texas or Florida, because they had no state income tax. Often, they had never set foot in either state, using a post office box address. I imagine they have plugged that loophole by now. If you are contemplating a name change, please don’t use this article as a guide. This is the road to perdition. Consult your county chancery clerk or, even better, get legal advice.
Names and their importance play an important role in literature, and you can probably cite more examples than I; however, the one that comes to my mind is the conclusion to Joseph Conrad’s novella, “Heart of Darkness” (1899). The narrator, Marlow, has gone up the Congo River to retrieve the ivory/rubber trader, Kurtz, who has gone insane. If you are like me, it’s hard not to conflate Conrad’s character with the one portrayed by Marlon Brando in the movie, “Apocalypse Now” (1979). Anyway, as they sped back down the Congo River, Kurtz’s life was ebbing away, and he was obviously dying. With his last breath, he utters “a cry that was no more than a breath:” “The horror, the horror.” Marlow returned to Europe and eventually gives a photograph and a packet of letters to Kurtz’s fiancé. She begged Marlow to tell her Kurtz’s last words, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her the truth. Instead, he says, “The last word he pronounced was - your name.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.