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Rebranding Colonel Johan

The Willoughby’s were descended from a tolerant group of folk, mostly musicians, librarians, artists, and the odd circus performer, that settled in the Pacific Northwest when Seattle was a tiny city on a mudflat. The recent generation of George, Charlie, and Catherine Willoughby, all gifted musicians were also the parents of Tabitha, C.J., and Sadie, respectively. George was employed as a Professor of Jazz Studies at the Cornish College of the Arts, Charlie played second chair violin for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Catherine taught music at an elementary school in Astoria and played violin in several ensembles.

Tabitha herself was not musical. She’d tried to learn the violin, cello, flute and tuba, but she had no natural ability for making music or singing. Instead, Tabitha was clever. Most Willoughby’s were good students, traditional academics always falling second in line behind musical priorities, but Tabitha’s mind was sharp and she could recall people, places, numbers, poems, songs, paintings, events, and smells with flawless accuracy. She was also an avid knitter and could create patterns that marveled the knitters in her neighborhood. She regularly sold patterns on Martha and George knew she was not likely to ever study music, so Tabitha was free to learn anything she liked and what she liked most of all from a very early age was to observe the behavior of her fellow humans.

C.J. liked music and played the piano as was required by his mother Sakura. Though he received private lessons and practiced regularly, C.J. found playing the piano to be somewhat akin to a weekly chore. He much preferred dancing to music rather playing it and his favorite music was kept secret from everyone, except Sput who occasionally joined in when C.J. was home alone and danced all over the house to Bollywood music.

C.J.’s parents, Charlie and Sakura, met unexpectedly. His father, Charlie was smitten the moment he saw Sakura playing cello with a band called Swing-Sing Jazz Bonanza at The Sea Monster Lounge. Her long black hair swung gently as she played, mesmerizing Charlie and he’d never since even glanced at another woman.

Sakura was Japanese American, third generation. Her parents settled in Seattle at the turn of the last century and instead of a Japanese name, which he would have much preferred, C.J. had been saddled with a rather awkward moniker, all because his father Charlie could be extremely literal.

Sakura’s craving for fried chicken during her pregnancy was startling. She could eat five pieces of chicken in one sitting. After an eighteen-hour delivery she admired her new baby boy whispering to him softly, “I should call you my little Colonel.” This was of course a reference to the spokesman for a fried chicken establishment that Charlie had to frequent to satisfy Sakura throughout her pregnancy.

Like most musicians, Charlie had a keen sense of hearing. As he overheard his wife whisper these first words to his son, he sighed. Sakura had chosen the baby’s name. After hours of labor, he couldn’t deny her name choice for their baby son. And so, as he filled in the papers at the hospital, Charlie decided that the baby could be named Colonel, but go by his middle name, Johan after he and Sakura’s favorite classical composer, Johan Sebastian Bach. Sakura, touched by Charlie’s thoughtfulness had not asked for a retraction of this unusual combination and so Colonel Johan Willoughby was printed on the birth certificate, much to the surprise of their friends and family.

C.J. had Tabitha to thank for rescuing him from a lifetime of the name Colonel Johan Willoughby. He was a year and a half younger than she, and thus subject to her scrutiny, mild as it was on many occasions.

“Your name sounds weird,” she remarked to Johan one afternoon as the two youngsters endeavored to build a castle from his Lego set.

Johan puckered his lower lip and exclaimed with frustration, “I know, Tabby. I’ve asked for a new one, but my Dad says it’s a fine name and I should be happy with it.” Tabitha nodded sympathetically as tears welled in Johan’s eyes. She’d overheard her parents remark, “that poor kid once he starts school” and she knew this meant Johan was going to be teased. She would put some thought into this for her cousin.

As they worked on the castle, Tabitha’s precocious seven-year-old brain flashed back to an event she had witnessed recently in the bulk section at Whole Foods.

“I know how you can change your name to one that you’d like better,” she said with such certainty that Johan’s head popped up from the bridge he was constructing.

Johan had recently overheard his parents saying that Tabitha had skipped kindergarten and moved straight to first grade. He knew she was special, and her advice was not to be ignored.

Tabitha continued, “I saw a boy get his name changed to Batman last week. He had a meltdown— kicked his legs on the floor and cried until his mother agreed to call him that.”

Johan’s eyes bulged. He stared at Tabitha for several seconds. “I can’t do that, Tabby,” he whispered. Johan was a model child. Sakura and Charlie were kind, gentle parents and Johan never had any reason to execute a full-scale revolt. His every need was always met.

“Parents get very embarrassed of meltdowns, Johan,” said Tabitha knowingly. “You’d only have to do it once, in front of other grown-ups and your name could be changed forever to something like C.J., which is much better, don’t you think?”

Johan mulled this over and decided it must be so. Kindergarten was only a few months off and he dreaded being called Johan or worse Colonel in front of the other children.

A week later, Charlie and Johan walked through Benaroya Hall, where he was to take his seat while his father played. Johan was the only child the conductor had ever allowed to watch the Seattle Symphony dress rehearsals. This was due partly because of his namesake but mostly because he was so well behaved. Johan slowed as they approached row R, his favorite spot to watch the orchestra. He wasn’t sure if he could go through with it, but something inside urged him onward.

“Here is your section, Johan,” said his father Charlie kindly. “Now give me a…” and before Charlie could ask for a hug, Johan took a deep breath and hurled himself to the floor, yelling with a gusto that horrified his father and impressed himself, “No more Johan! I wanna be C.J.! I wanna be C.J!”

He kicked his feet and thrashed back and forth on the floor shutting his eyes tightly. He did not want to see his father’s face. Instead, he imagined he was fighting a giant octopus and continued thrashing, loudly repeating his demands as his mortified father tried to hush him, agreeing to change his name.

 A few months later C.J. Willoughby started Kindergarten at Lafayette Elementary. A special note was attached to his file, which indicated that he must not be called Johan, but referred to by his initials, C.J. Seven-year-old Tabitha was secretly pleased, not so much because her plan had worked, but because she was slowly unraveling the secrets of the human psyche.

One afternoon late in August as the first day of middle school loomed, Tabitha remarked to her cousin that an adolescent doomsday had been avoided. C.J.’s real name had never been uttered at public school and he was known to everyone by his initials. Even better, his two best friends were both in eighth grade, which significantly raised his social status according to the all-knowing Tabitha, who as she was keen to point out, was generally right about most things.


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