Jackson Park, People

“I never saw a movie that’s been as interesting as my life”

Ronnie hobbles down a lonely stretch of Oklahoma Avenue supporting himself with crutches. The 77-year-old wears a pair of old-fashioned Koss headphones over a baseball cap adorned with American flag pins, his scraggly brown hair peeking out from beneath.

Ronnie is on his way to visit with his daughter and granddaughter. “That was my big thing — to get married and have children,” he says.

At this point, they’re all he has left. “My son only lived to be 19,” Ronnie says. “He went into the army and he was stationed in Germany. He got killed, not like in combat or anything, but he was in an automobile accident when he was coming home from seeing his daughter who was born prematurely — she was in the hospital ‘cause she was only two pounds.”

He remembers the day, exactly — January 4, 1992. He got a call from his son’s wife.

“I answered the phone and she, assuming that the army had already told me that … she was talking about the accident and she doesn’t know that I didn’t know that he was killed. And she says, ‘Oh, you mean you don’t know that he got killed?’ And, I—oh my god, I couldn’t believe it,” says Ronnie. “I just threw the phone down and I was just sort of hysterical for a number of hours.”

Despite his initial reaction, Ronnie speaks easily about the situation. It’s been about 24 years since his son passed. Ronnie says he knows that he’s in heaven and is glad that he doesn’t have to see what the world is like now.

A lot has changed since 1992. Though Ronnie is still married, his wife is gone, too — she moved out about 10 years ago. Ronnie lives alone, now — just him and his memories. But, in those, he’s rich.

“I often thought that, uh, well, because of all the different people that I got to know along the way, that I … I say to myself that I have never seen a movie that’s as interesting as my life has been.”

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Though his retelling of events are intricate and spot-on, he doesn’t rely purely on memory.

“I started taking [photos] when I was 18 on my first trip to Florida,” he says. “I was taking black and white pictures with a borrowed camera. And, then, my cousin, who was taking Kodachrome slides, he insisted I take his camera along.”

“When I saw how much better the Kodachrome slides were from the black and white pictures, then I really got into it.”

Kodachrome was revolutionary. Not only were the photos in color, but they didn’t fade. The film was so good that, after it came out in the mid-1930s, National Geographic used it exclusively.

“A lot of color film faded along the years, but the Kodachrome was almost like it was just taken,” Ronnie says.

Though Kodachrome doesn’t exist anymore and digital is largely ubiquitous, Ronnie still uses film. “To me … pictures aren’t really pictures unless you can hold ‘em in your hand,” he says.

He says when he stopped counting, about 10 years ago, he had more than 150,000 slides. Recently, he’s started making some into prints.

What did Ronnie photograph? “They’re pictures of things that I want to remember,” he says.

He didn’t stop there, though. “Along with taking all these slides, I got started on recording things in the late 50s with the reel-to-reel recorder … you know, before they had cassettes and all that.”

“I’d just turn it on,” he says. “You know, it’s not like, ‘Well, now we’re gonna record.’ I just recorded things like they happened.”

“I have all these tons of tapes and … you know, people would ask me, ‘When are you ever gonna be able to listen to all those tapes?’ … but I didn’t know that [my son] was gonna die and all that.”

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Though Ronnie has had a life-long fascination with documenting his life, he doesn’t seem content to dwell on the past. He had just left the Taste of Italy at the Italian Community Center downtown before coming to see his daughter, and talks about new and old friends.

He won’t go into detail about his early life — as far as Ronnie’s concerned, that’s behind him now. “Before I really became a born-again Christian, I know that god had been taking care of me, you know, because of all the things that happened in my life. I know that he was there all the time, even before I got to really know him.”

Ronnie’s convinced it’s coming down to the wire, but he’s simply focused on what he can do. “I don’t sit around and mope about what I don’t have,” he says. “I think about what’s happening now and what god wants me to do now.”

“It’s sort of like if you would see somebody’s house that was on fire and you walked right by and you wouldn’t let them know that their house is burning,” he says. “Well, that’s what I feel like when I don’t tell [people] about what’s going on with … you know, I mean, the world, right now, is so horrible.”

“I just live each day, and I pray to god when I get up that I can do all the things that he would want me to.”

 

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