The Wordguise Alembic


Where the oxymoron meets the ham sandwich

Can I name my new van Tonto?

February 9th, 2015

Naming vehicles is silly. On the other hand, I’ve named blank sheets of paper for a long time, and occasionally make money at it. I named one ream of blank paper “Jumper.” Others pages became Belinda, Marcus, Malcom, Billy Billy Billy, The Magician who was learning electronics, Miss Pounder the exercise instructor who inadvertently taught math, Bruce the Duck who saved the day, the evil Nightsmoke, Pon, Braindead the Algebra Student, and many more. Naming things is kind of what I do.

During the Pleistocene Era, I  bought a 1980 Dodge van for hauling my uncle and his wheelchair around. I drove it for years. “Big Blue’s” proud life earned him a small role in The Land of Debris and the Home of Alfredo. His subsequent owner emailed to tell me Blue had continued his brave adventures for a long time, finally going out in a literal blaze of glory on an exit ramp. By the time my uncle died, driving vans felt very natural to me. They were useful for lugging boxes of books, you could camp in them, and people thought they were clunky so you could get a lot more vehicle for your money. Each one had a unique personality.

Clearwater Publishing got a deal on a huge  gray van with some ugly but harmless body damage. We nicknamed it the “Clearwater shark;” which got shortened to “Clark.”  Then there was the beige 1996 Ford Aerostar minivan. It was a few years old but always started and had no body damage.  I named it Ipanema because, by my vehicle standards, it was “tall and tan and young and lovely.” When my sons needed something they could all use to move, I traded Clark to them for labor on a project. Later, when needs changed, I temporarily swapped Ipanema back for Clark. I’ve been driving the old gray shark for a while. Alas, Clark developed a blown head gasket and I had to put him down. He recently became an organ donor and I was pretty sad. But life moves on.

I just bought a fifteen-year-old GMC Safari van that already feels like part of the family, although it’s weird to have a member of the family whose heater and radio both work. But what to name it?


When asked to describe the color, the first thing that came into my brain was “Apache Red.” An earthy, brick color that conjures arid canyonlands. My favorite Native American was a hero of my childhood, Tonto. Technically, he wasn’t an Apache, he belonged to the “Fictional” tribe. But more importantly, is the name Tonto racist?

People who think it is may remember all the Tonto jokes from years ago (Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by angry Sioux. “What should we do, Tonto?” “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”) and the Saturday Night Live skits that mocked Tonto’s speech. And the Lyle Lovett song (“If I had a boat…”) which implies he was oppressed: “Tonto did the dirty work for free.”

That’s just not the way I remember it. I was a pre-schooler when the Lone Ranger was on TV, so I was an early adopter.  Lyle Lovett and Jon Lovitz are a decade younger than me and only saw re-runs as children during the smoky haze of the 1960s. Who are you going to trust?

The Lone Ranger was powerful and mysterious, someone to admire and fear, but hard to identify with. He was a grown up, like a father or a principal, or a big third grader. You wanted him on your side, but you could not imagine actually being him. Tonto was the shorter guy in the background who didn’t speak unless spoken to. Like me. Maybe he didn’t understand all the big English words, but I didn’t either. The mean guys in black hats made fun of him and probably swiped his lunch money. But he was the one you could trust, who knew the cool secrets of Nature. He could make a campfire, or hide in a tree, or whistle up a coyote, or escape silently into the night without a trace.

More than that, he was completely loyal and honest, the best friend a person could ever hope for. When a grown up like the Lone Ranger got into trouble, we were all glad Tonto had his back. A few years later, the character Sam in “Rides Like an Indian” became my favorite Native American, followed soon by Chief Joseph, then Buffy St. Marie.  But I never lost my fondness and admiration for Tonto, the quiet guy in the background no one took seriously until they realized he’d just foiled their stage coach robbery. No matter what they did to him, he never once blew a head gasket.

It seems a shame that the folks who mocked this noble character have won out. I think that happens a lot.  Gerald Ford was our most athletic President and a complete gentleman but in our collective brains we remember Chevy Chase’s portrayal of him as a clumsy doofus on Saturday Night Live better than we remember the actual man. History distorts things, and so do movie remakes. I avoided Johnny Depp’s Tonto;  I love Depp, but I didn’t want to see a movie distortion of what was cool about the original. Imitations never get that part right.

Even as a kid, although I always wore my cowboy hat while climbing to work:

climbing to work 2

I often went bare-headed like Tonto when I was actually working, like helping to build Tony and Beryl Bernardi’s house:

kenn with board


Notice that none of the grown ups pay any attention to the little guy hauling the lumber. They knew they didn’t have to.

Of course, Tonto rode a fine horse, and it might make just as much sense to name my van “Scout.” But Ford makes a Scout and this one is a GMC. I hate to bring confusion into the world.

The original Tonto story was pretty cool. It was the tale of an unlikely friendship between two men who society considered natural enemies. When the story got changed by comedians and musicians and well-meaning activists who viewed it through the prism of civil rights and oppression, Tonto became a symbol of something quite different. Maybe it’s time to rewrite the story to be closer to the original. Maybe it’s OK to name my van after an admirable character in an honorable friendship. To restore the story, not make a cheap imitation.

Because people remember the story better than the facts.

Jumper on Writing

October 7th, 2014

If you neglect a writing project for too long the characters go feral on you. That voice you’d been following clams up. The path of the plot disappears into shadows and fog; the magic idea that twinkled and fluttered in your peripheral vision stiffens into a scrap of lifeless cardboard. Read the rest of this entry »

Cicada Songs, Ebola Dreams

February 14th, 2014

I’ve read several popular books about diseases recently: Rabid, The Hot ZoneSmallpoxDisease, Spillover, and  Deadly Outbreaks. More books on a single topic than usual, but not with any project in mind. It just happened, the way it happens to folks who start to read books by Michael Connelly or Rex Stout. Several focussed on diseases that leap from animals to humans (“zoonotic” diseases). No curious person could resist daydreaming about some of the unsolved mysteries one encounters when reading about diseases like Ebola and Marburg. You play detective in your brain and then you almost certainly come up with your own crackpot theory, just like I did. Read the rest of this entry »

Excuses for Not Blogging

February 12th, 2014

I haven’t checked in here for a while, but I’ve got excuses.

First, obviously, I’m lazy. That’s the one trait I seem to share with many great writers. I’d write a blog post about it, but that seems like kind of a bother. Read the rest of this entry »

Political Plagiarism

November 6th, 2013

Rand Paul is upset that people caught him using lines from Wikipedia and elsewhere as if they were his own. He feels like a victim and wishes he could just duel someone to settle it all. Or spend a couple days in detention after school, but certainly not his whole career. His words, I hasten to admit. Personally, I think most of what he did was harmless and we should cut him some slack. Read the rest of this entry »

Goats and Pigs, Iodine and Thiamine: a Hypothesis

October 29th, 2013

It’s easy to decide that iodine deficiency plays some role in neurological diseases like ALS and Alzheimers. For over fifty years we’ve known that you’re much likelier to get one of these diseases if you spent your infancy in a region that’s deficient in iodine. Another example: exposure to the fungicide maneb dramatically increases the chances of getting a neurological disease from a toxin; maneb works by disrupting the use of iodine in animals. Our instincts shout that iodine must be involved; but we can’t say it out loud. Although iodine deficiency remains the number one cause of mental retardation in the world, we can’t prove it has a role in Alzheimer’s or ALS. No one has found a smoking gun. Read the rest of this entry »

A Warning Shot for Syria

September 1st, 2013

A criminal races down the city street clutching the purse he’s just snatched from an elderly woman. A policeman chases after him. The policeman yells, “Stop! I’m a policeman! Stop! Really! I mean it! You stop right this minute!”

Read the rest of this entry »

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

May 13th, 2013

I read Wodehouse when I was a kid, and he cracked me up. This collection of letters cracked me up too, and that’s the one element other reviewers assume you know and forget to mention– this guy was funny, and his letters are also funny. Read the rest of this entry »

April Sleet and Monkey Eyes

April 4th, 2013

April snow, bittersweet like wedding tears,
Catches me every time.
Winter, a grizzled gray monkey,
Is a pest in the bananas;
Everyone’s glad to see him killed off.
But an April snow is that last monkey
We finally discover after a long
Day of exterminating
Clinging to the highest branch,
Staring at the knife with wide eyes,
A question on his forehead,
And we hesitate.

The snow floats fat and wet, like popcorn,
Or little white kittens,
Chasing the juicy gray fish to the ground.
Each feather tries to win the sidewalk,
But is washed away by warm minnows of spring.
Each drop washes off a bit of the man,
Exposing the wide-open monkey eyes.

“April Sleet and Monkey Eyes” by Kenn Amdahl. All rights reserved.

Conservative Bus Driver

April 2nd, 2013

The conservative movement has a tough challenge. It says “Buses are the problem. Buses are evil. All buses should be driven off a cliff.” Then it turns around and says, “OK, folks, please elect me to be your bus driver.”