On the legend of a man who had more stories than any single person could remember.
Ron Kraybill was there when the Yankees won the 1977 World Series in the sixth game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and after they won, he joined a mob of people who jumped over the outfield wall in celebration. When he made it to the field, Ronnie tore up a roll of sod from the outfield, and brought it back to New Jersey, where he planted it in my grandparents’ back yard.
There was the time at a different baseball game that a player was injured, and Ronnie’s instinctive response was to jump the wall (again) and help the man himself. He realized when he saw security chasing him that it was a bad decision. He was arrested.
Ronnie occasionally brushed up against the law, sometimes quite literally. There was the time that he was so distracted at a police check-point, what with trying to quickly summon his driver’s license and registration, that he inadvertently nudged his car against the officer.
There was the time Ronnie came to paint my parents’ house while we were away, and he caught pneumonia, ate an entire bag of cough drops in a day, and stayed on the couch for a week.
Ronnie was a blast, Ronnie was nuts, Ronnie was overwhelming, Ronnie was Ronnie. The remarkable, hilarious, and often crazy-sounding stories we told about him in our family drew a portrait of a character seemingly larger than life.
Deprived of the frontal lobe temperance that helps most humans navigate social situations after suffering a brain injury in a car accident as a teenager, Ronnie was prone to showing up unexpectedly in a station wagon full of drop cloths and paint buckets. Sometimes he’d take off without saying goodbye. There’s a story about how one day he told his Mom he was going out for milk, and he ended up in another state.
Ronnie once gave me a sandwich press as a birthday gift. When I was 10.
Eventually the paint fumes wore him out, so he went to work dealing cards in Las Vegas. It was Ronnie who taught me the greatest card tricks I know. We would sit at my grandparents’ dining room table, and he would talk his way through a deck of cards.
To know Ronnie is to hear him talk. Words would spill out of him as he dealt cards here and there, a wry smile on his stubbled face, wrinkles around his eyes as he grinned.
When Ronnie sent something in the mail, it looked as though you’d received a package from the Unabomber. You’d get a manilla envelope stuffed full of things–Ronnie wrote on whatever scrap paper he’d round up, including discarded betting sheets, receipts, hotel stationery. He often wrote in bold pen or marker, his sentences winding around the page, up the sides, over the back, like a Family Circus cartoon tracing little Bobby’s wandering path.
Six and a half years ago he left me a voicemail, which I saved on my phone. He was calling after my grandmother had passed away, lamenting that he could not make the journey from the desert to New Jersey for the funeral service, promising to send an envelope full of mail.
In the voicemail, he mentioned over and over how he felt my grandmother, Nana, was looking down over him now, that she was now his guardian angel, that his life was getting better–a better job, making better money in a better casino–and he just knew it was Nana’s doing.
My Dad could tell it better than I, but he saw my grandmother as a mother figure for himself. Ronnie was adopted, and his parents died when he was a young adult, and he sort of adopted my grandparents as his next Mom and Dad. I should say at this point that he grew up down the street from my grandparents, that he ran around with my Dad as a kid, and that eventually Ronnie became part of our family.
Last week, Dad was going to hop a plane to the west coast to visit my step-sister, and on the way back, he scheduled a stop to visit Ronnie in Las Vegas. His idea was to simply show up in true Ronnie style–find him dealing cards on the casino floor, catch up. It has been years since they’ve seen each other, and months since they last spoke. Dad was looking forward to seeing him.
Except a few days before he was going to leave, Dad found out Ronnie had died. That he had in fact passed away a week and a half before of a massive heart attack. In a sense, it’s just like Ronnie to slip away like that, to whisper away into the darkness of a desert night.
With any luck, he and Nana are sitting down somewhere with my grandfather, pulling out a deck of cards, pouring a cup of coffee, and making up for lost time, all while the rest of us are left to remember in astonishment the singular force that was Ronnie Kraybill. May he rest in light and peace.