Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What's in a Name?

Shakespeare may have asked this question in dulcet blank verse, but military aviators have taken the idea of a rose by any other name to extreme levels of humor—or cruelty, depending on how you look at it.

Perhaps you saw the movie Top Gun, which showcased call signs like Maverick, Ice Man, and Goose, which are Hollywood names that tell audiences a lot about the characters. Real-life call signs, however, are much more colorful and often have quite interesting stories behind them.

The first thing you should know about military call signs is that people generally do not pick their own. They are assigned a name by their squadron mates. If an aviator is so self-conscious as to protest a name, he or she will be branded that name for all eternity. When George first arrived at the 34th Bomb Squadron, or Thunderbirds, a bunch of drunken comrades wanted to change his call sign. He used the only weapon of self-defense he had: “YES! I love Noodle! Oh wow, you can call me Toe Jam anytime!” His friend John, call-sign Beemer, tried to blow George’s strategy by yelling loudly and repeatedly, “He’s using reverse psychology, people!” But everyone was too drunk to listen.

As a fledgling Thunderbird, George was finally assigned Chick. It didn’t stick because everyone already knew George as Spot. I’m convinced he kept the call sign Spot because of the term Spot Drunk, a George-inspired phrase that entered the B-1 community lexicon following a particularly amusing night in which George was kicked out of the McConnell Officers Club.

But that’s another story entirely.

On rare occasions, someone can buy his or her way out of a call sign. Our friend Levi had his name changed to Sonar because he pinged so easily. Obviously, such a name is unflattering, so eventually he petitioned to have it changed back to Levi, which is a simple play on his last name, and had to pay $200 toward a four-tap kegger for the Squadron bar for the privilege.

His wife was not amused.

George received the call sign Spot during his first B-1 assignment at McConnell AFB, and the reason was quite uninteresting. He has an albino patch on the back of his noggin. As Spot was the least offensive call sign suggested for him, he ran with it, quickly having name tags made up and introducing himself to people as Spot.

Spot falls into the most basic of call sign categories, those drawn from a person’s physical characteristics. In fact, one young aviator bore such a striking resemblance to George (not at all unfortunate) that his call sign became Spot’s B*tch (highly unfortunate). 

Another example in this category was Turnip. Turnip was prematurely balding, and the top of his head looked, well, like a turnip. Fortunately for me and several other wives, Turnip was quite short, so when the squadron hosted a flight-suit party, at which spouses were invited to wear flight suits with masking tape over the rank, many of us short wives borrowed flight suits from him. Lest anyone doubt the dedication of military aviators for call signs, please note that the officers ordered name tags for their spouses just for the occasion. My call sign was On the Spot.

This picture makes me deeply nostalgic for my dark brown locks.

Some call signs play on a person’s real name. A friend whose last name is Daley, for instance, became Planet. My favorite in the play-on-name category, however, was Freddie Kruegger. I thought his real name was Freddie for years because that’s what his wife called him. When she was annoyed with him, she called him Frederick. I addressed their Christmas cards to Captain and Mrs. Freddie Kruegger. In fact, his real name was Howard. Or Harold. Something with an H. I can’t remember. George says Ronald. Whatever. He’ll always be Freddie to me.

If a name offered any opportunity for vulgarity, it was seized upon with alacrity. A man whose last name was Wood became Morning, and Morehead became Cravin’.

Please tell me I don’t have to explain these.

Other call signs are merely insulting, such as Wedge, who was the simplest of tools; Splinter, who was small yet annoying; PITA, who was a pain in the ass; and Glitter, who primped like a woman. One silly aviator showed up at the Thunderbirds whining that he was so good in the plane he shouldn’t have to go through Mission Qualifying Training, after which it was decided that he couldn’t even be a Chick…he was an Egg. That, at least, was better than Sperm.

By far, the best call signs are awarded to memorialize something a person did. I particularly like Harpo, who appeared on Oprah as one of America’s most eligible bachelors (you can just imagine the ribbing he took for that). He is now the Commandant of Cadets at the Air Force Academy and a bachelor no more. He and his lovely wife throw the best parties ever.

But like Spot Drunk, that’s another essay entirely.

Beemer, whom I mentioned above, throttled up his B-1s engines so hard on the taxiway that he blew out the windshield of a Very Important Person’s BMW. Hurlin’ once vomited, of course, on a Colonel’s wife in the Officers Club. Poacher was so-called because of the rumor—which he would neither confirm nor deny—that he strafed camels in Desert Storm.

I do not condone the strafing of camels, mind you. But the fact he will neither confirm nor deny the rumor shows admirable presence of mind in relation to preserving a call sign that is rather innocuous. Poacher is certainly better than, say, Camel Spit.

On the Spot certainly worked as my call sign for a party, but I'd like a call sign to call my own. George found one that he feels is more appropriate. Tuesday, he clicked into a website that lists call signs and the stories behind them. George’s favorite was Tulsa: Total and Utter Lack of Situational Awareness. I immediately took this one personally because he’s accused me any number of times over the years as lacking situational awareness (rarely without good cause, mind you).

Or perhaps my nickname at Troy State University might do. I was known as the Mussolini of the English Department when I taught at the Ft. Benning campus. George was stationed at Ft. Benning as an Air Liaison Officer for the Army Rangers and some of the enlisted Rangers were TSU students. One day, a couple of Rangers walked into George's office and told him they were angry at me.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because, sir, she isn't teaching English 102 next term and we need to take it."

"But I thought you called her the Mussolini of the English Department," George protested.

"Yes, sir. We do. But we consider that a compliment."

Being named after a Fascist dictator seems a tad harsh, though, so I won't order any name tags with Mussolini on them. No, I have the perfect call sign for myself. If I were to order name tags, they would say Bookworm B*itch, or BB for short. That’s what some young punk yelled at me from a moving vehicle as George and I entered the Barnes and Noble in Wichita years ago. It’s edgy and descriptive and frankly true.

I embrace BB.

I own it.

And no matter what, BB is better than Tulsa.

Put your self-deprecating thinking caps on and tell us what your call sign would be!


  1. Singing Farm Wife of course. It pretty well fits everything I do. Loved this post. I feel informed and I've had a good laugh. Two of my favorite things.

  2. AS you know, DS's an AFA grad, so I've heard some stories over the years to make me smile. Love your post tonight, Susan! I will think BB and smile every time I see your face pop up on my screen now :) Hmmmm....I guess I'd be Asap. I know it's not real original, but my kids have been overheard chatting, and one would say "Well, what do you think mom would do?" and the other would answer, "She'd pray about it, silly", so Always Say a Prayer....I'm sure I'll think of something better, but that's what comes to mind tonight! Thanks for a great post...

  3. I found the stories behind the call signs very amusing.
    Kind of funny as the group of mountain bikers (that DH and I hung out with in that life before kids) assigned call signs too

    DH: Toad...a play on his name (Todd)

    Tex: good ol' boy who you could depend on being 15 min early to every ride

    Chief: a true Indian that could do trials like no other and that didn't mind the nickname

    Ed Dog....again, a play on his name

    Me: Shark. Short for pool shark. Let's just say that my hands were FREEZING after one ride and I put them in DH's pockets only to be ribbed about about being a "pool shark"....15 years later and it still is with me ;)

  4. Adorable dimples, BB! Thanks for the giggles...

  5. I had a good laugh about this! :) I don't have any (close) family in the military, so I guess this was one of those things that I never knew to think about knowing. You know? ;)
    As for a call sign? Tit. Which sounds horrible, I know. But I'm known for Thinking It Through. What can you do? *sigh*

  6. Let's work, I have two: Supply Queen (SQ) AND Kitchen Witch (KW) - or Bitch (KB) - depending on how ruthless I am in cleaning out the fridges. I got carried away one day and threw out someone's lunch they had just brought in that morning (it looked nasty!)- I do believe KB was my name that day!

  7. My husband recently had his call-sign naming ceremony. I think he was okay with Tweak, maybe a character from South Park? He has an eye twitch and maybe an addiction to coffee.

    As for my call sign...I might have to ask him to help me out. I'm terrible at naming things, I had beta in college named Fisher and our dog is named Panther (yes she is black, but it is also our college mascot).

    It was fun to read your story and yes some are very crude.

  8. What a fun read, Susan, and the photo of you is awesome! George must have had a tough time keeping all the single flight jockeys in line when you were around. As for a personal call sign, I've had so many over the years. Most acquired while I was in the USN and will likely never be shared with my children and grandchildren. My favorite though, was one assigned by my father when I was a pre-teen which is a play on my name: Mickey Mouth.

  9. My son's call sign is "critter" as that dirty little critter in back. It wasn't as bad as what some of the other guys were called.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!