My nickname is Mongo. It is not a great nickname, but it is not horrible. Over time my nickname has started to drift to Mango. Again, not great, but not that bad. Nicknames can be far worse. One of my teammates in high school was apparently daydreaming in the shower, and from that day forward he was known as Rod. Even the coaches called him Rod. He quit the team. May god strike me down with cancer of my one testicle – I cannot remember his real name to this day. But I did not sit down to tell you about Rod, I sat down to tell you about Garb.
Garb was a great man, an American hero and my best friend. I met Garb in 1967. By the time that I met him he had no legs. Garb fought in the big war. Mostly in China and Burma. He was part of an elite unit – the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). The 5307th was a United States Army long range penetration special operations jungle warfare unit. They were the original special forces – total badasses. If you don’t know about them, you should look them up. The 5307th also had a kickass nickname – Merrill’s Marauders. But I mostly didn’t sit down to tell you about Merrill’s Marauders (although the title of the blog might suggest that I did), I mostly sat down to tell you about Garb – one of Merrill’s Marauders who lost both of his legs when he stepped on a land mine in Burma.
Garb and I were inseparable as I grew up. He taught me how to gamble, he took me to the track, he taught me how to fight, he taught me how to swear – but most of all he told me how to cowboy up. Garb drove a Cadillac that was about 100′ long. Now of course it may not have been 100′ long, but that it exactly as I remember it, so that is how I have to tell it. Garb didn’t have any special controls. He drove by adjusting the pressure on his pedals by lifting his wooden leg with his right hand, leaving his left hand free to steer and smoke an unfiltered Lucky Strike. I ran the radio. In the front seat. Without a lap belt. It was a different time. But I didn’t sit down to tell you specifically about the times we had growing up. That is another blog for another time.
By the time I got to college Garb was pretty old. He was not driving the Caddie any longer. He stayed close to home. I got hurt, and spent a long time in the hospital. The hospital was a long drive from where Garb lived, and it was an effort for him to get there. My initial prognosis was that I would be a quadriplegic for life – which was a bummer. After a few weeks though it became apparent that my spinal cord was not severed, and that there was a chance I could make some type of recovery. When it became apparent that there was a chance I could get better Garb phoned my Dad (there are many blogs to be written about my Dad, but today is not the day). Garb never wasted syllables. Hemingway would have characterized him as abrupt. He told my Dad – “I need to see the kid. Tomorrow. I want to be home before dark.”
Garb visited me and gave me advice that I still remember to this day. It was not a warm and fuzzy meeting, but the benefit of time gives me perspective that I did not have at the time. Garb told me – “You caught a shitty break. You have had enough time to feel sorry for yourself now. It’s time to get work. Everything is on you. You need to work hard, and scratch out what you can. Don’t look for sympathy – you learn to take care of yourself. You don’t let people wipe your ass for you. Don’t use this as an excuse to be less than you can be.” That was pretty much it.
Eventually Garb died. I had the honor of delivering his eulogy. I talked to family members to learn more things about Garb. I asked his brother Clem (which is a shitty nickname) about the origin of the nickname “Garb”. Clem told me – “the guy was a garbage can in centerfield! Two thirds of the earth is covered by water, the other third was covered by Garb in center field. He was amazing … before the war of course.” It never occurred to me that Garb was short for garbage can. And I still do not understand why a garbage can – a squat immobile object – is symbolic of a man who can cover a lot of ground. There is probably a story about the nickname – but I never got more information. What I did learn though, as confirmed by multiple sources (not that I didn’t trust Clem), was that a month before Garb left for the war he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. He carried a nickname for the rest of his life that reminded him of the life he could have had, yet never mentioned it to me, or anyone.
I have come to regard it as the best nickname of all time. It keeps me grounded (well.mostly).