Mrs. Bootleg & I are helping J w/campaign posters for his ASB vice president bid. They rejected my "BIRD IS THE WORD" slogan, so I resigned.— Aaron Cameron (@ThatBootlegGuy) April 16, 2017
Our 13-year-old son Jalen starts 8th grade this week as one of the proverbial big men on the middle school campus. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but, Mrs. Bootleg and I couldn’t be more proud of him. Jalen is an honor student and involved in ASB. He’s participated in leadership conferences and has the confidence to speak in front of his peers for oral projects. He’s a wonderful young man…who will always be our little boy.
If you’ve previously visited these lightly-read blog parts, you MIGHT have heard that little boy’s story before. Most of it can be found here. TL;DR? Really?! Fine…for the lazy goddam millennials among you: Jalen was born nine weeks premature, he spent five weeks in the neo-natal intensive care unit and most of his first year strapped to a bulky – ostensibly portable – heart monitor.
Jalen’s early physiological challenges extended to both his motor and speech functions. He didn’t start crawling until nine months. He didn’t start walking until 16 months. And, by the time his second birthday came around, his vocabulary remained exceedingly limited. These developmental delays led us to enroll Jalen in occupational and speech therapy.
(Believe it or not, there was a time when Mrs. Bootleg and I wished Jalen would talk MORE.)
Sometime in the middle of all this, I took Jalen to the zoo on my off-Friday. It had rained overnight and the early morning parking lot was filled with flocks of seagulls looking for worms, snails and whatever else might be served at the invertebrate breakfast buffet. As I unloaded most of the contents of my car into the ostentatious covered wagon that doubled as my son’s stroller, Jalen pointed out towards the Hitchcockian scene and said, “bird!”
This was Jalen’s first word in the non-mama/dada division, so I responded with the appropriate level of parental restraint. First, I frantically called Mrs. Bootleg at work to see if Jalen would repeat his monosyllabic utterance. When that failed, I expeditiously wheeled him to the flamingo exhibit – foolishly hoping he’d make the aviary association between a traditional bird and an ostrich/giraffe/pastel mash-up. When THAT failed, I simply dedicated the rest of my waking hours – every damn Morris day – to getting my boy to say it again.
If you’re a parent, you’re probably familiar with the path we travelled. Whenever we were out and about, I’d see a bird and melodramatically gesture towards it. Hoping to apprehend the attention of a toddler, I’d exclaim, “Bird! Bird! Jalen, bird!” My wife and I had been using “J” as an affectionate appellation since the day he was born, so it wasn’t long before my bleating became “J, bird! J, bird!”
And, it stuck.
Years later, I found this picture of Atlanta Braves infielder Jerry Royster! The original J-Bird! Black baseball tradition! Jalen carries on this not-at-all exaggerated African-American legacy with equal parts pride and indifference!
With Major League Baseball’s profitable/puerile “Players’ Weekend” jerseys on deck for the weekend, I’m reminded of a time when nicknames meant something MORE than money. I’m also reminded of two nicknames for Jalen that thankfully didn’t stick.
J started playing catcher for the first time as a 9-year-old. I was manager of his team and an incredibly kind and patient dad named Jason was an assistant coach. Late in one game, J threw out consecutive attempted base stealers at third to get us out of the inning. Coach Jason had taken J under his wing and gave him a lot of lessons on the position, so he was understandably excited. Perhaps, too excited?
Jason: “Wow! Those were two GREAT throws, Jalen!”
J: “Thanks, coach.”
Jason: “You should change your last name to ‘Cannon’!”
J: “Jalen…Cannon? JALEN CANNON! Dad! Coach said I should change my…”
Me: “I heard him, J.”
J: “Jalen Cannon! Jalen “The Cannon” Cameron! Say it like you’re announcing it, dad!”
A few years later, I was picking up Jalen from school. He had a pretty bad migraine and was trying to sleep it off in the nurse’s room. As I signed J out, one of his teachers approached me in the office.
Her: “I’m sorry to hear about his migraines. We just think the world of JB.”
Her: “Oh…aren’t you JB’s father?”
Me: “You mean Jalen? Jalen Cameron?”
Me: “Why in the world does your teacher call you, ‘JB’?”
J: “It’s short for ‘J-Bird’.”
Me: “That’s [possible expletive] ridiculous.”
J: *mumbles something about ‘swag’*
J: “Dad, my head really hurts.”
Me: “We’ll talk about this later.”
We love you, J-Bird.