Last night was my annual Cousin's Christmas gathering. This is an event where all of the cousins on my dad's side of the family get together with their kids and have dinner and talk about the unique experiences we had growing up with my father's side of the family.
My father was the youngest of five children born to an Italian imigrant and his American born wife. His only brother, my Uncle Ronnie is 11 years his senior and the undisputed character of the family. Every year when we get together for Cousin's Christmas, the talk invariably turns to Uncle Ronnie stories.
The most succinct word that I can use to describe my Uncle Ronnie is "crazy". Not in a traditional, paranoid schizophrenic kind of way, but more of an elusive, multi-threaded and unique brand of crazy that is difficult to pinpoint with a diagnosis. He has always been the kind of uncle that would let the kids do anything they wanted, without regard for safety or sanity.
When I was a kid, my Uncle Ronnie was my favorite uncle. He would show up at our house on the weekends and he would take me and my friends for rides in his camper. He had one of th0se campers that mounted on the top of a pickup truck. Being that this was 1971, long before the days where people cared about silly things like buckling up their children in vehicles, Ronnie would load me and a couple of friends in the back of the camper and we would take off. My parents would happily wave good by from the front door, clueless as to the danger that we were in from the moment we stepped into the camper.
Left to our own devices in the back of the camper, a group of seven year old girls will try their best to play "house". This meant using matches to fire up the gas stove, filling a pot with water and black pepper (the only thing in his cabinets) and boiling up some "pepper soup". Aside from the matches and gas stove and boiling water, the other hazard that the camper had was guns. Not just a couple of guns, more like a rolling arsenal, complete with boxes of ammunition of every imaginable caliber. And if the mood struck him, we'd stop at a sand pit and we would fire those guns. What? Don't all seven year old girls know how to shoot a Winchester .30-30? Watching me shoot down cans and bottles with a sniper's precision would make Uncle Ronnie laugh. Ha. Ha. Ha.
One year when I was about 8, we gathered for a family Christmas celebration at one of my dad's sister's houses. This was the home of two of my favorite, older cousins, both of whom I idolized. While the aunts and uncles were busy putting dinner together, Uncle Ronnie took me and my older cousins to an office building complex to practice driving. For me to practice driving, not the older cousins.
I would sit on my uncle's lap and take the wheel and I would step on his foot, which was on top of the gas to accelerate. I had done this dozens of times before (probably since the age of six), so this was a pretty routine event. My cousins were in the back seat of the car as we drove down the main drag of the large office complex. I was doing fine, tooling along at a reasonably safe speed, until we rounded a bend and spotted two teenagers on ten speed bikes, pedaling down the middle of the road. My cousins immediately recognized these two as their next door neighbors. Neighbors that they had a beef with.
As soon as one of my cousin's yelled "It's the Lindemans! Get 'em!" I was overwhelmed with a desire to please them and my foot jammed down on top of Uncle Ronnie's, sending his Cherry Red Cadillac rocketing forward toward the unsuspecting bikers. Ronnie started stuttering, half yelling at me, half laughing as my cousins cheered me on from the back seat. Totally consumed by the mob mentality and the adrenaline rush of chasing down these teenagers, I broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Ronnie took the opportunity to grab the wheel from me and swerved the car to avoid the bikers as I gasped for breath and eventually peed in my pants from laughing so hard.
Ronnie returned us to my cousin's house and we went inside to eat dinner. Nothing was mentioned to the parents about the attempted run down of the Lindemans or the fact that I had peed in my pants. We never talked about it. . . not until years later at Cousin's Christmas, this last one and the fifteen or so that have come before it, where it is always the centerpiece of the conversation. And Uncle Ronnie? I'm pretty sure that he's still laughing.