When you were a kid named Howard -- as in "Howard the Coward" -- there was always the hope that, in time you would get over your name. There were other strategies available. You could insist on the diminutive "Howie," for example, on the general premise that "Howie the Cowie" did not have the same bite; or if you had a merciful family as I did for the most part, you could leave that matter to their invention. To this day my mother and sister both call me "How," which leads to such family interogative standards as "How, How?" or to the antigue Indian conundrum greeting "How, How" but stops in either case on the right side of heartbreak.
Of all the strategies, though, the simple one of time has worked best for me -- or would if the world would leave Howards alone. My brother is the last person to seriously call me "Howard the Coward"; and as he is nearly above 40, I soon expect him to rise above taunts. But I don't expect that the world will soon make Howards any more the comfortable.
Consider Washington. Surely a city dedicatedd to equality of opportunity should be equally dedicated to an equality of names. But is it? Hardly. You need only think of the Howards of Washington: E. Howard Hunt, second-story man extraordinaire: Howard Baker, the shortest Republican Senate majority leader in recent memory; Howard Metzenabaum, that forlorn Ohio liberal; or Metzenbaum's fellow Ohioan, William Howard Taft, the fattest president of either party in anybody's memory. And me, Howard the Coward, whom virtually nobody knows. The simple truth is that the only untainted Howard Washington draws not a breath, is a university in fact, which doesn't count in the present context.
Or consider sports. Howard Cosell need not be dwelt on here; but quick, rattle off an all-NBA Howard team, the pre-season American League all-Howard squad. Well there was Frank Howard, who doesn't count either. And there is always Howard Twilley, who is either a football player or a golfer. In the manner of Howards, no one really knows which. And there once was a first-rate football player at Ohio State University, a Heisman Trophy winner named Howard Cassidy, who got where he got by allowing the Buckeye publicity department to change his first name to "Hopalong." Cassidy, incidentally, went on to the Detroit Lions, where he put in a fistful of mediocre seasons, proving that the Rule of Howard will out in the end.
But the dilemma of Howardness goes beyond mere facts, for its most insidious effects lie in the shadow world of implication. Who is that boy in the television ad -- the one playing in the family room with his home computer while his classmates are out rampaging in the park, the one with inch-thick specs and the handknit sleeveless sweater on? We are not told the wimp's name, but you and I both know it; Howard. Or who is the guy who can't get the girl -- not the anit-heroic loser, the Woody Allen, but the klutz who never even knows he's behind the eight ball, the one with the box of choclates under his arm and the squeaky voice on top, the one that used to be played by Arnold Stang? Howard, Howard, a thousand times Howard, that's who?
Now along comes CBS with its made-for-television movie "Fallen Angel" and adds yet another dimension to the Howardness of Howard: a corrupter of young morals, the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth pervert. Yes, the child pornographer Howard.
I for one would like to think that this will be the end of it, that Howard has sunk as low as he can go, has bottomed out with "Fallen Angel." But I'm not conviced. Indeed, as the weeks draw toward Easter, I any day now expect the announcement to come forth from Biblical scholars: the discovery of the 13th apostle -- you know the one who made Judas Iscariot do it, Howard.