While sitting with a group of friends eating Mexican food recently, we got into a discussion of family names and birthdays. One had just recently found out he had been celebrating his birthday on the wrong date after finding his birth certificate, proving he was older than he claimed. Everyone thought that was funny until they heard my story of not being who I really am.
No, I’m not in the witness protection program or anything, but a strange happening at birth with a brown copy birth certificate made an interesting problem for me, as well as a story for my Mexican lunch partners.
For over sixty-five years now, I have used the name Pettus in all of my correspondence, business transactions, public schooling, medical records, publications, and everything that requires my name. I am very proud of my first name since it was passed down from three generations of those who used Pettus as their first name. Currently, I am the only one in my family that uses Pettus for their first name, and after checking the Internet just to see how many Pettus Reads there are in the world, I am still the only one out there at the present time.
I felt fairly secure with my name until 1997, when I discovered an old error and became the person whom I was not.
That July, I escorted a group on a tour out of this country. To do this, I needed a passport. Never having one, I went to my county courthouse to make application for the needed paperwork to get me in and out of this country. If there is one great fear I have, it is to be in a foreign country not able to get home. I try not to stray too far from the farmstead, and the last thing I would want to happen is to end up someplace where they don’t know what good fried chicken is, or cornbread.
After completing all the paperwork, having my picture made, giving the clerk a check for $65 and swearing I am a good citizen of the USA, I handed the clerk my birth certificate. It is the original copy my mother has used for all these years, which she gave to me when I got married. It is dark brown and what I thought was a certified copy. However, the clerk informed me, as soon as she saw it, that it was not a certified copy and I would have to get one from the Tennessee Department of Vital Records.
I found out you can get a short copy of your certificate at any county health department if you were born from the year 1949 and up. Of course, I was born in 1948. So, I began to call Nashville. I also found out it is almost impossible to talk to a human when you call the Department of Vital Records. The process to get a certified copy by phone is done by voice-mail. I punched the numbers one and two over fifteen times to order my certificate. But, I placed my order and waited the required one working day to receive my copy, thinking all the time that if this works I am a fortunate man.
I did receive the certified copy of my birth certificate just as I was told, but had a strange feeling of fear, you know, like when you get a letter from the IRS. Removing the certificate from the envelope, I immediately took a quick glance at the legal document from our state government. Everything seemed to be right, until I looked really close at the top line where my first name was typed. There in bold letters was the incorrect spelling of my first name. Instead of it being Pettus, it was Petties. For all these many years I had been spelling my name wrong, as far as the state government was concerned. I”ˆwas not who I thought I was.
After an immediate call to Nashville and the Department of Vital Records, I started again to talk to machines. Finally, after several pushes of the numbers one and two, I reached a human. She listened politely to my horror story and assured me it could be fixed. However, I would have to prove who I am.
My mother, who was still living at that time, had to get an affidavit notarized from her attorney, saying an error was made and I am Pettus, not Petties. We had to go to Nashville with my wife, take our marriage license, our children’s birth certificates, and any other legal proof that showed that I was Pettus.
I was at the mercy of the State of Tennessee and had to have a hearing before the department to prove that I was Pettus. It seems at the time of my birth, someone made an error on the copy and it never was corrected. The only thing I did wrong was to be born, of course there have been others to suggest that as well. Either the doctor who delivered me, the county health department, or the 1948 Department of Vital Records failed to correct an error that had made me who I was not.
Today, I am who I am, which is still under debate and the final conclusion is yet to come.
Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org