Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, June 15, 2012

Doodlebug: A Father's Nickname for His Son

As we near Father's Day, how can I not think of him?  Charles Edward Dyer, 1913-1999.  Always "Edward" or "Ed" (he hated "Charles").  A wonderful man, a great father.  Yet, like many of us children, I suspect, I didn't really know him very well at all.  And some of the things I didn't know were both surpassingly simple, surpassingly complex--at the same time.

For example ...

I can not remember the time before my dad called me "Doodlebug," though sometimes he added some initials: "D. J. Doodlebug."  It is the first name I remember, the last name he ever called me.  Not long before he died, I walked into his room at the nursing home where he'd gone to die--all systems failing--and he brightened a moment, the drug haze dissipating, and he said, "There's old Doodlebug!"

When I was a child, I had no idea what that word doodlebug meant.  (And the initials D. J.?  No clue.)   I remember asking him once, and he said I reminded him of a little train, a doodlebug, chugging around the house at full steam all the time.  That sounded all right.  Sort of flattering ... sort of not, too.

Later, after he died, thinking about that name, I checked the OED, and, Dad, are you sure about that train?  Here are the other meanings of that word--and how, I guess, they've applied to me.

1. a tiger-beetle, or the larva of this or various other insects.  Now, Dad, this one is not very nice.  Most of the colloquial uses are derisive ("You blamed doodle bug, yuh!" from C. E. Mulford's Orphan), but there's also a mention in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Tom, wondering if a witch has interfered with his plans, consults a doodlebug: "Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, tell me what I want to know!"  The bug emerges a moment, sees Tom, darts back in the ground.  I loved Tom Sawyer as a kid (our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Rockwell, read it to us after lunch--if we were "good").  I wanted to be Tom--to sneak out at night, have adventures, escape from a cave where I was trapped with a killer.  Okay, maybe not that part ...  I do not remember Mrs. Rockwell reading the doodle-bug chant--but I must have felt a shock of recognition.  Was that the day I went home and asked Dad about the word?

2. a nickname applied to the German pilotless plane or flying bomb of the war of 1939-45.  Dad was in World War II, both theaters.  He landed at Normandy some days after D-Day.  He surely knew this awful definition.  Maybe he foresaw my adolescence?  When I would set out to destroy so much that mattered?  Did he know that you can not reassemble everything?  That some things stay broken?  By the way, the first published use of the word in this meaning was in June 1944.  I was born five months later.

3. a divining rod or other device supposed by prospectors to indicate the presence of oil, minerals.  So, Dad, in what sense was I (am I? have I ever been?) a divining rod?  Well, let's stretch the metaphor: I'm now a book critic, looking for treasure on printed pages.  I hope I employ tools, though, that are a little more reliable than a forked stick?

4. a prospector for oil, minerals, etc.  (See #3)

5. a midget racing car.  Hence, transf., any small vehicle: spec (a) Railways a "New Style" or similar locomotive; (b) Mil. a reconnaissance car or tank; (c) a tractor of truck modified to increase its performance.  Well, this is the one you told me about, Dad, among the possibilities the least disturbing!  I did indeed do a lot of running around as a kid--a lover of summer, wishing I were Tom Sawyer, energy sufficient to power a tractor or a train.  (And where, Dad, has that gone?)

Dad didn't really have firm nicknames for my two brothers, one younger, one older.  I'm not sure why.  But I think they've missed out on something.

I still sign "Doodlebug" on all the letters to my mom (sometimes with the mysterious "D. J." as well).  My heart leaps up when I behold the word in print somewhere.  And when I think of my father, lying there near death, his great athlete's body betraying him, his bright, educated mind struggling to comprehend, his fear surely his greatest enemy, I wonder how he could find the strength to summon that word once again, that word that brought a smile to my face, then broke my heart.

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