Long Live Nitwit!

When I was a little kid, deeply entrenched in my stuffed animal collecting years, Mom handed down a penguin. You can have him, she said. Not a big deal. He was a gift from a friend I met before I got married, she added with a dismissive wave.

But the penguin was the only stuffed animal that Mom had kept, the only one she’d passed along to me. So I treated him differently. Unlike the other animals populating my bedroom, I gave him a name.

In a moment of first grader narcissism, I named him after myself. I called him Nitwit.

My Dad often called me Nitwit… albeit, with affection. As in, Hey Nitwit, come ‘re! (And people think that “Hadley the Barbarian” is offensive….)

Nitwit wasn’t some cheap, rag-tag, carnival prize. He was a “Steiff” — a high-quality, high-priced German toy company — and he stood stoutly, flippers at his side, with a distant, googley look in his glassy eyes.

I hauled him everywhere — on trips, shopping excursions and sleep-over parties. Poor Nitwit was subjected to numerous surgical procedures. While Mom tried on clothes in department stores, I collected pins from the dressing room floors and plunged them into Nitwit’s plush mohair abdomen, twisting and turning them to reach his imaginary liver and kidneys. Sometimes he needed multiple operations and I jabbed his belly, flippers and stubby legs, all at once. “Okay,” Mom would say, collecting a few outfits to buy. “Time to go. Take those pins out of Nitwit.”

In exchange for his surgical sacrifices, Nitwit earned everlasting life. He wasn’t thrown out when I left for college or stuffed into attic storage. Today, he sits atop the highest shelf in the kids’ room, well out of their reach.

Time and wear have turned his once-white belly a dingy gray, and stuffing pokes out of his felt beak. In recent years, I’ve given him only a fleeting thought.

That is, until Martin called me last week.

There’s a new penguin movie out, Martin announced. It’s called Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
And Jim Carrey’s in it.
So what?
One of the penguins is called Nitwit.

I was silent, stunned. Wow, I finally said. In awe, I pondered the odds. Then I grew suspicious, as if someone had stolen my idea. And finally greedy, speculating how I could capitalize on this information.

But then I googled Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and discovered that Martin was close, but not quite right. The penguin in the movie is called Nimrod. Not Nitwit.

I’m partly disappointeed and partly relieved. Nitwit will never get the fame he deserves. He won’t live in perpetuity on DVD. On the other hand, he’ll never be mass-marketed. And never wind up as a plastic toy, boxed with fries and nuggets. And I’m happy for that.

Nitwit’s always been a class act.