See, Ronnie’s mom Lynn was a single mom. That meant she was out of the house a lot, working to make ends meet, and there’s nothing that 11 and 12 year old kids like more than to have the run of the place with no parent home to bust your chops. You can laze around watching TV and have a second bowl of Captain Crunch (we only ever had healthy cereal at my house) and nobody will shut you down. In spite of that, we spent most of our time outside doing one of two things.
One of our pastimes in Taber, Alberta – “the Land of the Loooooonnnng sun” from some chamber of commerce types I still recall – was pole vaulting. We would take the wooden handle off the head of a hard-tined rake to use as our pole, and set some hockey sticks horizontally over the tops of 5 gallon buckets, the backs of lawn chairs, and whatever we could find to get the bar progressively higher. Eventually, we were limited in how high our attempts could go by two factors: one being that our pole had zero flex and was less than 5 feet long; and the other being that we had no pit or crash mat other than the green grass on the other side of Ronnie’s backyard.
So once we got as high as we could go, it was time to retreat to the kitchen for our favorite snack- plain vanilla ice cream “tricked up” with either red, purple or orange Kool-Aid, but then mashed and stirred into a blended frosty. Then after a bowl - or two - of that, it was back outside for the other most favoured activity – back yard baseball (BYB) while pretending to be our favourite Montreal Expo.
You see, it’s only of late that Canada’s MLB team has been the Blue Jays. When Ronnie ‘n’ me were kids, the Blue Jays weren’t very good, but the Expos?!? Man, that was a team of superstars; and charismatic superstars at that, though it was only later in life that we would understand what to have charisma even meant. Gary Carter, with the big gun biceps he would always make sure you could see when he stepped out of the batter’s box to re-set in between pitches. I was a catcher like Carter. And while I had ramrod straight hair, Gary Carter’s tight curls tumbling out the sides of his no ear flaps batting helmet was always the stuff of great envy.
We also idolized the leadoff hitting, base stealing, ripped body builder of Tim “Rock” Raines, and before him in left field, Ron Laflore. And the ace of the pitching staff, for I was a pitcher as well as catcher and shortstop, Steve Rogers. The Expos superstar of superstars in those days who later had the quickest path to the Hall of Fame was Andre Dawson, but the Hawk was never one of my favourites for some reason. I don’t remember who Ronnie’s favourite was, I just remember it was Ronnie there, pitching or hitting, being my buddy until it was time for ice cream “swirlies” again. The Expos uniforms were beyond cool to us in the early 1980s, long before they became retro cool. The baby blue, with over-fat double piping stripes down the pants leg, and of course the pin-wheel tricolore caps. We both had those expos fake hard plastic batting helmets in the tricolore bleu, blanc et rouge.
Ronnie McCracken died very suddenly on July 23, 2012 – the 6 year anniversary of this was just the other day. I learned this from Facebook. I hadn’t seen, talked to or even thought about Ron McCracken in decades let alone years before then. But Ron’s death in his very early 40s shook me pretty good. Made me shed a few tears even.
It got me thinking about my childhood in general, but also about how Ronnie and I didn’t drift apart because one of us left our hometown. It happened long before that. And it happened with me and Ronnie the same way it did with a few other of my friends – Jason Hull in particular comes to mind.
Ronnie and I became good friends because of a relationship through sports, that was aided by the geography of where we lived in our small town, and my need for a respite from an always healthy, always sporty, always scholastic, always industrious life that was very much emphasized in my household. They say that we almost always become our own parents, and I catch in myself that I’m often (too often?) that dad who, meaning well, harangues his kids any time I catch them at leisure - not working at their sports and fitness, doing their chores, or polishing their proverbial university entrance CV; when all they want to do, especially in the summer time, in the words of almost 16 year old daughter, is to chill, you know, hang out.
I guess Ronnie and I lost touch because we differed in how we balanced the chill and hangout part with what brought us together in the first place - sports. It was that way with a few of my friends. When we were 6 years old on to 14 or 15, we all crammed as much sport into our lives as we could; spring, summer, fall and winter. I think it has something to do with the fact that at 16 comes the drivers license and the “get a job” versus don’t get a job decision that goes something like this: It’s hard bordering on impossible to have a job while going to school and playing baseball, hockey, volleyball etc 11.5 months of the year. If you keep on with the sports, you have no money and your vehicle is whatever three figure beater your parents can rescue for you from a friend’s barn, mouse shit in the back seat and trunk.
If you get a job, maybe you can afford the 1960s vintage Chevy truck, repainted canary yellow with “three on the tree”, mag rims with fat tires like my also-drifted-friend Kenny Just owned. And the pimped stereo with subwoofer the size of a whiskey barrel as opposed to the stereo you bought at Canadian Tire for under $150. And once you don’t have sports 6 days a week, when you’re not working at that job and making all that money, you can use that discretionary income to maximize your enjoyment of the chilling and hanging (ie. buy beer).
Thus it was with Ronnie and me. Until high school, we were all classmates, teammates and friends, but a dichotomy emerged at high school where you were either a “prep” or preppie and jock (and spent a lot of time with the Mormon kids – both your male teammates and all those super cute Mormon girls); or you became a partier. Much like the Socs and the Greasers in Outsiders, though we peacefully went our own way and never rumbled.
This is not a tale of who was better than who, it was a story of who had time and discretionary income, and who was flat broke and needed to put $7.00 of gas at a time in their Honda Civic to make it into hockey practice 30 miles away in Lethbridge 3 or 4 times a week. I suddenly lost many good friends by attrition simply because you hardly saw each other anymore.
I genuinely enjoy reconnecting with some of those friends like Jason Hull or “Jag” when I go back for high school reunions and/or Taber Cornfest. I kept on with the sports we always did together, went off to university in a series of big cities, and Jag chilled and partied and had a bitchin’ truck with an even better stereo. And he smoked cigarettes like a sailor and liked the drink. Again, not better, just different; as I’m pretty sure Jag has a much bigger house than I do. He became a welder, got married young, and we have a great time picking up where we left off at reunions, over the drink (but only he has the smokes).
In one sense, that these kind of friendships disappear makes me sad; but in another, it’s the way of the world and is hardly a rare story to tell. I do miss those simple laid back days of summer with my old friend Ronnie McCracken and the others like him. Maybe I’ll lay off my kids a little bit. Rest in Peace Ronnie.
Jordan Cleland was raised in Taber, Alberta and is the President of Jordan Cleland Consulting. He does performance & leadership coaching, keynote & retreat speaking, fund development & public relations consulting.
Me ‘n’ Ronnie McCracken
a short (but true) story
There was a time in my childhood when Ron McCracken was one of my best friends. From adolescence on through adulthood, we had not a single thing in common, but for a few summers in the early 1980s, Ronnie and I were as thick as thieves as they say.
We became friends through hockey. Ronnie was a year and a grade older, and he was kinda aloof and cool. A little bit badass and a lot a bit cocky. He wasn’t very big, and he was just a moderately skilled athlete, but you’d never know it by the way Ronnie carried himself. He was a winger and I was a centre and I don’t ever remember playing on the same line as him. But he lived just three blocks away from me, and we spent lots of time and his half duplex instead of at my half duplex, for reasons I only comprehended later in life.