As noted in a previous post, my first real boss, Ike Gellis, called me “Geronimo.” And my friend Susan is asking why.
It’s one of numerous nicknames I’ve been saddled with over a few score years. And, of course, there’s a story to it. But first some background . . .
When I was born, the name Stephen/Steven was very much in vogue. You could say we Steves were the Jacobs of our day.
I wasn’t aware of it until I went to day camp. I was 6, and I was in a group of 11 boys. We had five — that’s right, FIVE — Steves.
So I quickly became Hamburger for the summer. I ate them a lot for lunch, and I reckon it was a natural nickname for a guy named Bromberg.
In the fourth grade, I became Steve B, so as not to be confused with Steve W. In sleepaway camp, I was just Bromberg. There was at least one other Steve in my group; I don’t even remember his last name.
In my first summer job — I was a day camp counselor — the other guy was also named Steve. Two counselors, two Steves. Of course. I became Little Steve. I was taller than Big Steve, but he was “bigger.” I was 16 and looked 14. Big Steve Nahoum owned a razor and actually used it.
In college, I got by as Bromberg for a while, until Mike Levy decided to bestow names on a whole bunch of us. He named himself Big Louie. Terry became Birdie. Mark became Bimbo the Yucker. I was given the name Booger, and so I remained through graduation.
It could have been worse. Another friend, Bob Schindler, went through his college years carrying the name “Shit.” I saw him at a reunion last year. Everyone came up and said “Hey Shit, how are ya?”
So I could live with Booger.
When I got to the New York Post, I actually was Steve for a short while. Make that a very short while. They brought in another sports editorial clerk named — what else? — Steve. Maybe you’ve heard of him . . . Steve Serby, sports columnist for the New York Post.
Serby and I were both in our young 20s and every time Ike would shout “STEVE!” we’d both leap to our feet, because we had big futures in our sights. No slackers, we.
Ike immediately identified a problem. Two Steves was one too many. Something had to be done.
Flashback to a couple of months earlier, when I got my first byline.
In the summer of 1973 there was a concert at Watkins Glen, N.Y. — 37 miles south of Hobart College, my alma mater. The Grateful Dead performed. The Band performed. The Allman Bros. performed. SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND PEOPLE were there. . .
And I wasn’t one of them. I was the Hobart graduate with a job. In New York City. Just my luck.
One guy died at Watkins Glen.
Although there were no reports of violence at Watkins Glen, the day was marred by the death of Willard Smith, 35, a skydiver from Syracuse, New York. Smith dived from an airplane carrying flares. One of the flares ignited his body suit, and he was engulfed in flames. Smith’s body was eventually found in the woods near the concert site.
I was at The Post, culling sports photos from the AP feed, regretting that I wasn’t at the Glen with the Dead, the Band and the Allmans, when I came across a photo of the crazy skydiver who had died jumping into the concert.
I knew him as Bill. Bill Smith — Smitty — had been my skydiving instructor just one year earlier. I did eight jumps at the one-strip airport in Seneca Falls under his tutelage.
Smitty was former Army, if I recall correctly, and he was an awesome skydiver. I once watched him place a styrofoam cup upside-down in the middle of a field, go up maybe 20,000 feet and crush it with his foot when he landed.
He and a bunch of other very experienced skydivers loved to jump with flares. They’d light the things and they would trail colored smoke on the way down. Only this day, one of those flares malfunctioned and Smitty’s jumpsuit caught on fire. When you’re in midair coming down from an airplane, you can’t put out a blaze. He was dead before he hit the ground.
I went over to a couple of editors on the city desk and told them I knew the guy, and this was not a story about some drug-addled jerk doing an ill-advised stunt at a rock concert. Smitty’s number was just up, was all.
And they told me to write the story. They told ME to write the story. And I did . . . And they put it on Page 2 of the Post. That’s right — PAGE TWO! I was 22-years-old with a byline on Page 2 of the New York Post. Circulation went up that day. My parents bought half the papers in Brooklyn.
End of flashback.
Ike had to solve the Steve/Steve predicament, and he said I needed a nickname. I told him my college friends called me Booger, and he blanched. One of the definitions of “booger” was “a worthless, despicable person.” The Urban dictionary has a definition for “scam booger” — “an african american. More specifically, an african american sitting on a porch without a job looking for an easy buck.” — and I think that’s the definition Ike was familiar with. He made very clear that he wasn’t going to call me Booger.
And so he remembered my skydiving past and he named me Geronimo. Because, you know, that’s what he figured skydivers shout when they jump out of airplanes.
And if you go to the New York Post today, 25 years after I left the joint, you may still find a handful of people who knew Geronimo. They may not even know my name was Steve.
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