Family, Memoirs.

At play with Uncle Ron

Ron Wiebe, my Uncle Ron, my Dad’s youngest brother, died recently. I will miss him. He was a good man, a man of heart, a man who lived his life with passion, and shared his joie de vivre with everyone around him.

He and my Aunt Joan lived most of their adult lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia as Christian missionaries. So it was that we saw them rarely, as their fashion was to visit the U.S. only once every five years or so. But when Uncle Ron came to town, it was time for stories and especially time for play.

Uncle Ron was a gifted and generous athlete, a standout in high school and college in the big three sports: Football, baseball and basketball. He did not spend time reminiscing about his past glories, but always looked for the next opportunity to play, to the delight of his nephews and nieces. Sooner or later, usually sooner, we ended up outside playing one game or another when Uncle Ron was visiting. He would patiently organize the rabble into some touch football game, or half-court basketball game (my Dad always put up a hoop outside whatever house we lived in), or maybe a game of first bounce or fly, the work-up softball game that could be played on any street. My brother Craig told of a family reunion I missed where Uncle Ron and others played the venerable Mennonite game of Ecke Balle, or corners.

I particularly enjoyed playing basketball with Uncle Ron. His play seemed effortless to me, and he celebrated good play by anyone on the court, his encouragement infectious. He could manufacture many different kinds of shots, but his skinny bankshots remain vivid in my mind, tough shots he employed in a tight game of Horse. Even as I grew into a young man, at that point more mature in my basketball skills, and holding the advantage by then of youth, my Uncle Ron would still outplay me and the others on the court. I particularly remember his ability to steal rebounds from behind without fouling, timing his jump to perfection, even as his growing age tethered him closer to the earth.

My Dad has told the story about the time he and Ron went with as part of a group of young adults to Timberline up on Mount Hood for a day of skiing. Most of the group had not skied much or at all. Rather than buy day passes at the Timberline resort, they chose to ski down from Timberline to Government Camp below, on a trail haphazardly maintained between the two locations. Dad said that when Ron was offered some basic instruction on how to ski, the most important learning how to stop, Ron eschewed this and just took off down the hill. Dad said Uncle Ron managed to make it all the way down, with maybe a fall or two, often on the outer edge of control, caught up in the exhilaration of going fast down the hill, evidently confident that he could figure out how to do it on the way down. Many years later, as a teenager, I spent a day skiing with Uncle Ron and cousin Michael, then maybe six years old. I spent most of the day skiing with Michael on what was his first day of skiing. Michael, like his father, seemed fearless, and took the inevitable falls in stride, wanting to ski faster than his fledgling abilities might have otherwise dictated. Perhaps his Dad’s example gave him permission to let it fly.

Uncle Ron loved to laugh, his eyes crinkling nearly shut in the act.  I particularly recall the visits he and Aunt Joan made while in the U.S. and in the company of Los Andinos, a musical group from Cochabamba, young men who toured the U.S. with Ron and Joan and sang and preached at various churches and meetings. The Andinos had developed some mastery of Andean folk songs and folk instruments, and we were privileged to hear them sing and play their guitars and flutes and drums, and sometimes to make some music together with them. They and Uncle Ron formed a convivial group, and laughter seemed a near constant among them. They mostly communicated in Spanish, and while my single year of high school Spanish was insufficient to follow the vast majority of it, I often laughed too in their company, swept up in the joy and general mirth. Sometimes they communicated in Quechua, a South American ancestral language still spoken by many Bolivians and Peruveans. When they spoke in Quechua, the laughter seemed heightened. Uncle Ron said that his own Quechua wasn’t very good (he was probably being modest), but that one could be much funnier in Quechua than in Spanish or English.

Uncle Ron and family

The Andinos and Uncle Ron played every kind of sports that could be conjured up. They organized small-scale games of soccer on any patch of open ground, which required serious ball control on their part. It was fun to watch the Andinos score goals in tight situations into two foot wide goals. They included we nephews and nieces in their play. At our house we played, besides soccer, ping pong, basketball, touch football and volleyball. Uncle Ron and the Andinos taught me, for the first time, aspects of competitive volleyball, serving and setting and hitting with purpose, as opposed to the polite version of batting the ball across the net.  Later in my life, I played a good deal of competitive volleyball, the pleasure of the game born from those backyard sessions with Uncle Ron and the Andinos. They would sometimes play basketball or volleyball in exhibition games against church or small college teams. The Andinos were excellent volleyball players, and were very competitive in these matches, often prevailing. Their basketball skills were not at the same level as their volleyball skills, aside from Uncle Ron, but they played with verve, without concern for their opponent’s greater familiarity with the game. I was enlisted to play once with them in an exhibition game against Multnomah School of the Bible, which I found very intimidating but nonetheless memorable.

The last time I recall playing together with Uncle Ron was on an Oregon beach at a family reunion, with Uncle Ron and his immediate family and their families, some of my Dad’s extended family, and cousins from Arnim and Arnola’s family. We inevitably gravitated to play: Cousins and nephews and uncles and great uncles played touch football on the beach, with teams divided so as to create age-appropriate matchups. This put my Dad and Uncle Ron on different sides, so they would guard each other as receivers. They were both in their mid to late 70’s, and moving slower than they could remember. Which of course changed nothing. Both of them were still as competitive as ever, and slow-motion or not, routes were run, and catches were made. It was glorious. The thought ran through my mind more than once that afternoon, that were I to live to be their age, I would hope to be playing touch football with as much joy as they still brought to it.

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