NOM DE VOYAGE
by Travis Kiger
It was less about ego surfing than curiosity is what my fingers self-consciously whispered into the keys spelling my name in the box. If you did this, you would find, even before finished, that Travis is a former city councilman of Fullerton County, CA. Click one of those links your search produces and you would read critical blogs with critical comments written about him. You would read the headline, “12 Year Old Takes Fullerton’s Travis Kiger to School on Bullying.” You would learn that he is a progressive politician by finding a video posted of his rant purporting DUI checkpoints as unconstitutional and are a union scam. Scroll down—he plays soccer for Lee University. Scroll down—he coaches debate. But mostly, thanks to busy bee search engine optimizers, you would see that he is a former city councilman. Each Travis Kiger with a different face. Each with a different occupation.
Our names are arbitrarily shared, which isn’t surprising as they were given to us. Gifts. Mine was born of conflict resolution. My parents were traveling to New Orleans from Thibodaux in their royal blue Chevrolet station wagon. They were arguing, my mom pregnant, my dad belligerent, about what they would name me. My dad wanted to name me Cory. My mom wanted to name me, “Not Cory.” In the heat of the battle for my identity, the Chevrolet headlights shined upon a glimmering green rectangle of a road marking—TRAVIS DRIVE. My dad saw the sign and in frustration indignantly pitched, “Let’s just call him Travis.” My mom said, “I like Travis.” My dad said in defeat, “Well, I do too.” You will not find this out on the Internet. You would have heard this in the same blue station wagon on the way to New Orleans from Thibodaux as my mother explained to me every time—“TRAVIS DRIVE. Dat’s where ya got ya name.”
The way my dad tells it: “Ya motha was in labor fo eighteen hours, and we were cryin and she’d worked so hard, so I looked at her an said, ‘Ya name him whatever ya want.’ And she said, ‘I still like Travis.’ And I wasn’t gonna argue wit her.”
In Grand Isle, LA, however, I am Travel. What Felix, my grandfather, called me. When you asked him why, his cracked face would spit out an explanation like he would his stale tobacco after a long chew—as if the question required no modicum of dignity in response, “Cuz dats da boy’s name.” He very well could have called me this because it was easier to say than Travis, but my dad also admits that my grandfather forgot things. Even years after the divorce cap-stoning eight years of marriage, the old man called my mother Susan (her name was not Susan)—the name of my father’s ex. I think he called me this most because it bugged my mom, who subscribes to the strict sentiment that you name people what they are to be called, and then you call them that thing that you have named them. But perhaps the rationale behind Travel was not so sinister.
Felix Kiger lived a habit of calling articles by other names. My dad ruminates in attempt to discern whether Felix called things by what he wanted or by what he understood. Felix called me Travel. My dad’s best friend Bennie Gatz—Biddy Gat. Those variations were understandable. But he also evaporated Up Da Bayou fo’ da’ hurricane. And he called Tommy Casanova—LSU football great—Castrano and sometimes Snowball. He cooked for Casanova’s family when they visited their camp on the island, and so Felix dragged my dad down to the sideline of Tiger Stadium during a game. He yelled over the crowd noise to the security guard, “Where’s Snowball?! I know dat’ boy!” The bewildered guard held my grandfather off, as there was no Snowball on the team. Casanova, injured at the moment, saw my fat little grandfather in his polyester leisure pants—that had been taken up considerably on account of his short legs—causing a commotion on the sideline and crutched over to greet him, clearing the air.
“Mr. Kiger, thanks for coming out.”
“Hey boy, how come you not in da’ game?”
Casanova held up his crutches and shrugged. He extended his mammoth footballing hand and covered my grandfather’s stubby fisherman’s mitt. My grandfather then narrowed his eyes and looked to the security guard. “I tol’ ya I knew dat boy!”
Maybe names simply did not mean much to my grandfather, either. Recently, I was researching his census history the best way I knew how—on the Internet. I found that Kiger was sometimes spelled Keiger. I also found Felix represented as Fidelis. Fidelis Kiger. Felix Keiger. Fidelis Keiger. Travis Kiger. Travis Keiger. Travel Kiger. Travel Keiger.
Names didn’t hold any amount of sacred significance to me growing up. My youth league baseball jersey was forever wrong. Kieger. Keiger. Koger. Kyger. I don’t know why copying Kiger from an order form should be any more difficult than copying Smith, but nonetheless, I was never bothered by it. When teammates called me T, T-Dawg, Trav, Trever or Larry, I didn’t mind. I intuitively felt cool that someone thought enough about me to make up their own name for me. Then I started teaching.
In the classroom, calling your students by nicknames can help develop rapport. I do this every year. I call out these nicknames like I am a game show announcer and they are characters on American Gladiators. My classrooms are as diverse as the colorful gladiators, and the practice works to keep the students engaged—on the edge of their seats to hear who will be branded next. Mike-n-Ike? Tommy Gun? Gio? They really get into it and typically wear this nickname as an insignia of pride. “I was in Kiger’s class and he called me Little John or A-train or Jack Attack or Weapon X or Slice or W-2 or Ray Ray or Madison Square Garden.” However, last year, a ninth grader with hair as blonde as her ambition responded to her nickname with indignation. I’d called her Goldilocks.
“Please do not call me that. That is not my name.”
I callously apologized, and continued with my lesson for the day. But, even if my mouth and eyes were discussing the theme of pride acting as a great motivating factor of men in The Old Man and the Sea, my thoughts were consumed by, “How dare she interrupt my mojo by assuming power of what I was to call her? What was wrong with this person?”
Then, in preparing an introduction to a unit on spoken word poetry, I chanced upon a video of a young poet who brands herself Ethiopian Girl. Her poem began, “I’m tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them. They want me to bury it in English so that they can understand.” And then she continued, “No, you can’t give me a nickname to replace this gift of five letters.” I paused the video. Her name was Hiwot.
And then came that moment when teachers realize that they should accept their students every day in the present. That even though there is much repetition in content and technique, that each session is an evolving organic thing. That judging the present according to the past is a mistake. I’d forgotten that sometimes I acted like an asshole. I’d forgotten that my age and education did not forge an armor insulating me from learning lessons from my students. I realized that names meant something, and that someone gave my indignant student her name with no small amount of thought and deliberation. She was certainly more complex than my ill-inspired story time allusion and her blonde hair. Maybe her parents argued about her name for months. Maybe her name was a trophy earned by her mother’s labor. Or maybe it was a legacy conveyed by her heritage. I hit play on my screen. Hiwot described her name as, “The only line I have to a place I’ve never been—a vessel carrying me to the earth I’ve never felt.” I watched the video three times. And then I wrote a not-so-callous apology to my student. And then I typed Travis Kiger into my search engine.
Travel became the Kiger stamp on my sense of self. It has become what I’m called on my dad’s side of the family. This is more so since the death of my grandfather fifteen years ago. It seems that every interaction with me births an imagined interaction, as if calling me Travel can raise the dead and conjure a conversation with a ghost. This badge of his legacy is quite unexpected. My godfather, Bennie, breathes sustenance into this badge every time he hears Travis by emphatically demanding, “His name is Travel!” Very recently, not a week after a pilgrimage to Grand Isle to visit Felix’s only surviving sister, Aunt Moe, I called her to check in.
She answered, “Who’s dis?”
“Can I speak to Margarie Bradburry, please?”
“Who da fuck is dis?”
“Aunt Moe, it’s TRAVIS. TRAVIS KIGER.”
“Oh, Travel, hunny, why didn’t ya say so? I was about ta cuss you out. I don’t know no fuckin’ Travis. Next time, just tell me it’s Travel. What do you want, boo?”
Travel was sacred text. This ritual of my renaming seemed mysterious and whimsical to me until my encounter with my indignant student. Until my run-in with Ethiopian Girl. I then understood Travel as a gift of six letters. The name as a lifeline to someone that has given up gone some time ago. The name as a vessel carrying my family into memory and affection for the fat little man that called things by whatever he wanted.
When I typed Felix Kiger into my search engine, I was bombarded with ancestry and genealogy sites fishing for a registration fee to learn more about my past. I also saw information about his gravesite and the gravesite of a Felix Kiger before him—a farmer in Fairfield County, OH, whose grandfather was Henry Kiger, an early pioneer to Ohio who fought in the War of 1812 and lived to be more than 100 years old. And then I saw a Louisiana sportsman blog and this passage by e-man, motorboat describing a shrimping occurrence called a jubilee:
A very old gentleman in Grand Isle, Felix Kiger (now passed away) would always talk about the ten-fifteen baskets (champagnes) of shrimp he would catch on those rare occasions. I was fortunate enough to see one with him in early 80s and yes we could have caught as much shrimp and crabs as we wanted. In his vast amount of Cajun wisdom, he swore that the jubilee was caused by the exact alignment of the moon with some of the planets. I have no idea of the cause, but viewing [it] was probably the greatest outdoor event I ever saw.
After reading this, I smiled considering my Pa Pa, The Cajun Astronomer. The man who could not say my name correctly. Then I typed Travel Kiger into my search engine. I did not see any thumbnail images reflecting my handsome mug. I did, however, find a great deal on travel to Kiger Island, OR. I saved the link in my browser. Kiger Island sounds like a nice place to visit.
Travis Kiger was born in Thibodaux, LA, and grew up in a lot of places. He earned his MFA at the University of Tampa, and he teaches Rhetoric and Persuasion at Illinois State University. He has previously written for The Rostrum, Bull Men’s Fiction, and Bridge Eight Magazine. He is a husband, father, dog owner, and beer drinker.
All images © Travis Kiger
Cover image: Grand Isle, Louisiana, 2014