The Naming of Stitch Funkhauser
By J. Bayer
I’ve been told he goes by Randolph Funkhauser now, which probably befits his job as a district court judge more suitably; however, he’ll always be Stitch to me. Actually, I’m being generous because everyone called him Stitches until we graduated high school, but age conspired to shrink his two scars into one and we gradually dropped the plural.
Some people learn quickly from their mistakes; others take a bit longer. Stitch fell into the latter camp.
When I was little, our house sat atop a hill, shared with a water tower and half a dozen other homes of similar turn-of-the-century vintage. Two features made this location special: a broad flat field – the only level area of any size for miles – and a steep embankment next to our house that led down to the field. Despite having to share the area with a temperamental old bull, it made for an ideal baseball field. The embankment, though relatively short, was a perfect launching place for sledding in winter.
When there are bulls about, a fence can’t be too far away. In this case it was a combination barbed wire and electrical fence. I could mention the time someone dared Stitch to pee on the fence, but that’s another story.
During good weather – no matter the time of year – someone was always playing baseball on the field. Special ground rules prevailed, like being out automatically if you hit the bull with a fly ball, but that too is another story.
Stitch Funkhauser was an excitable guy and not particularly prone to caution when he made up his mind he wanted to do something. I recall the day when Stitch got his nickname with particular clarity. My memory is good on this because it’s the first time I thought I’d seen someone die. Stitch got off the bus in front of my house with a bunch of other junior high boys and was so happy to see us younger kids already playing ball that he tore headlong down the embankment, having forgotten completely about the barbed wire fence and the difficulty one might encounter in trying to stop running on a steep decline.
This is one of those long-ago memories that my mind inexplicably recorded in slow motion. Stitch was about halfway down the hill when some of us realized he’d disregarded the barbed wire fence. Someone began yelling at him about the fence, an admonition that didn't register on his face for several more strides. By then, of course, Stitch could only commence a short-lived scream. For my part, I was certain his head would come flying across the field and I was already in motion to avoid it.
What did occur can best be characterized as an object lesson to Newton’s Third Law – for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. In this case, Stitch hit the three-strand fence full out and was catapulted backward through the air some ten to fifteen feet, the top strand having taken a goodly chunk out of Stitch’s head. I learned another lesson that day – scalp wounds bleed like hell.
At the outset, I hinted that Stitch had twice validated the rationale behind his nickname. Having encountered that particular section of fence, you might presume Stitch would tread there with caution, but that wasn’t his way.
It had snowed about eighteen inches – one of those good snowfalls when there’s no doubt whatsoever school will be cancelled. Taking full advantage of the unplanned vacation, scores of us were gathered for sledding – a term I use loosely, since few of us owned real sleds. Mostly, we careened down the slope on inner tubes, homemade toboggans, and big pieces of corrugated cardboard that had been waxed. We’d fly down the hill, then sail across the field, coming to an abrupt stop in a snowdrift that invariably collected next to Old Man Fuss’s wooden fence.
I didn’t make that up. His name really was Fuss, and he lived up to it by hoarding every baseball that was ever fouled into his backyard.
Despite the myriad of sledding devices, we pretty much shared a single technique – going down the embankment on our stomachs. Such a position was vital because of the barbed wire fence, which we could slide under if we stayed flat enough. Even so, the fence claimed untold back pockets over the years.
This is where Stitch comes in. His family wasn’t much richer than the rest of us, but they could afford new English-style bicycles – the kind with skinny tires and handbrakes; whereas, my old bike had balloon tires, a coaster brake, and had come from Jarvis’ Junk Shop. Stitch also had a real sled that he was using for the first time that day.
And he was obviously excited about having a real sled – so much so that he forgot the cardinal rule – he came down the hill sitting on the sled.
Having witnessed Stitch’s previous encounter with the fence, I couldn’t watch the carnage that was about to ensue. This was my undoing because the fence stopped Stitch cold, but his sled continued on a slightly altered course that caught me, eyes closed, square in the mouth, thereby giving me the nickname, Chip, until my parents could afford an orthodontist.
I’m not a brilliant woman, but my saving grace is learning from others’ mistakes. To this day, I avoid running down hills of any kind, and I’ve never even thought about peeing on an electric fence.