Welcome to Police Horse. I’m a person in Sacramento, California named Chip Powell. Chip is not the name they gave me when I was born, but it is more or less my real name now.
My dad was named Tracy O. Powell, II. Dad was Mom’s third husband, but Mom was Dad’s first wife. My folks were only married about six or seven years, and I was their only kid. Dad had been named after his own father, Tracy O. Powell, a urologist from Los Angeles by way of Oklahoma and Arkansas. His family always called my dad “Tops,” an acronym for Tracy O Powell the Second, although he despised the nickname. Dad always introduced himself as Tracy, and later went professionally by either Tracy Powell, Tracy O. Powell, or Tracy O. Powell, II. Never Tops. I never heard the name Tops unless the rare relative from that side of the family came to visit. Dad preferred his real name.
When I was born, they named me after him: Tracy O. Powell, III. The O doesn’t stand for anything. My birth middle name is literally capital O, period, and it was the same for Dad. Even though Dad had a rocky, complicated relationship with his own father – the original Tracy O – he wanted to continue the tradition by naming me after himself.
The only problem was Mom already had a child named Tracy.
Mom got married at fifteen, and had daughters at sixteen (Tracy), eighteen (Kelly), and twenty (Nicki). She and her first husband divorced not long after that, and a few years later – after a second, brief, childless marriage – met my Dad, Tracy Powell. So here Mom was with a fourteen year old daughter named Tracy and a husband named Tracy – a husband who wanted to name his firstborn son after himself. After I was born in 1969, three of the six people in my house, HALF OF THE PEOPLE!, were named Tracy. There were going to be problems.
There’s no one left to ask – except maybe my sisters who were young teenagers at the time, as Mom died twenty years ago, and Dad just last year – but my recollection of the story is that they started calling me Chip not long after I was born, as in a chip off the old block: Dad being the old block, and I being that little fragment, the chip. It’s a thing. More importantly it cut down the number of people in the household one had to address as Tracy.
As I learned to talk, I couldn’t pronounce my sister Tracy’s name too well, and it came out as “Sissy,” which is a solid nickname for a girl. I still call her Sissy; I’m 47, she’s 62. So before long the Tracy ratio worked itself out organically. My dad was either Daddy or Tracy, depending on who was doing the talking; my sister was Sissy or Tracy, also depending on the speaker; and I was always Chip. Before long Sissy was married and out of the house, which further reduced the number of Tracys. (And Kelly not long after her. Both married as teenagers, like Mom, but in the 1970’s. They were the real chips off the old block.)
Dad must have thought, “OK, we’ll call him Chip for now, but surely he’ll eventually prefer his real name – Tracy – as I did.” But that didn’t happen. I hated my real name and never wanted to be called anything but my nickname. To me Tracy was a girl’s name, my sister’s name. It wasn’t MY name.
My real name was a closely guarded secret, but it would slip invariably on the first day of school or whenever a substitute teacher filled in. On the official school roster I was Tracy Powell, so that was the name an unfamiliar teacher would read off during roll call when she got down to the P’s. I would dread the reading of the names, sweating, heart pounding all the way through Scott Manfred, James Nakamura, and Shelley Orson. “TRACY POWELL” the teacher would say, certainly in a normal voice, but to me it sounded like screaming. My classmates would all turn in their desks, some simply staring at me slack-jawed, some openly laughing, but none indifferent. I would sheepishly raise my hand and croak “here,” and later I would have a conversation with the teacher to ensure this humiliation never happened again. My friends would tease me for the rest of the day, during recess and lunch, playing kickball, riding the bus home, but after the next couple days when the teacher got the message and read my name correctly, the spell would break, I would suffer no more taunts, and I could go back to being me again. That’s how my name, Chip Powell (no middle name, initial, or suffix), became a kind of talisman for me, an incantation, magical words. To see or hear my preferred, “rightful” name in print or spoken by a teacher or other official gave me great joy: it signaled victory.
Mom and Dad divorced when I was in first grade, and I think Dad was always a little hurt that I so openly wore his name like an albatross. It was never personal. I loved my dad, but I didn’t want the name. As a kid, it wasn’t important to me where it came from. Dad hated his own nickname, Tops, and only ever wanted to be called by his legal, birth name. He was safe in the land of teacher roll sheets, university records, and his professional life. His danger zone was the home front. The people who knew him, whom he was supposed to trust and feel safe around, didn’t respect him enough to call him by his real name, his preferred name. I was the opposite: family and friends called me what I wanted to be called: Chip. But to everyone else in the world, people who didn’t know me, I was Tracy Powell, a stranger. This says something about who my dad and I each became.
When I learned I needed a Social Security card in order to start my first job at sixteen, I decided to roll the dice and apply simply in the name of Chip Powell. Here’s what happened…