Shooting the moon

The younger and dumber version of myself was shaking . . . hopefully not visibly to others . . . but I could feel the tremors through my body.

My hands clutched playing cards . . . cards with values that meant nothing to me as I struggled to fake my way through this thing called pitch.

I was perched on a folding chair – one of four around a worn-out card table. The short heels of my 1980s shoes were tightly hooked on the rail between the chair legs, as if I’d plummet to my death should they come undone.

The table was one of many scattered throughout the dining and living rooms of my boyfriend’s grandmother’s house.

There were people of varying ages sitting around those tables. Folks were laughing and beers would occasionally be passed around.

I heard exclamations of “shooting the moon,” which was completely lost on me.

I heard stories about which motor was going to run the best when a certain race car hit the track.

“Ronnie, are you going on that trail ride?” someone yelled from the kitchen door.

The bearded man sitting across the table from me said that would be the case.

Then, he looked up from the spread of cards held in his overworked and lightly oil-stained hands to stare at me.

“You gonna’ bid?” he asked the body of the stupid girl in which my unfortunate soul resided.

I had some pretty good cards, I thought . . . but seeing how I was such a novice, I decided to take the safe way out.

“I pass,” I half-whispered and half-choked.

“Well, you just keep passin’, don’t ya’?” Uncle Ronnie said with a chuckle. “You need someone to take a look at your cards and see if ya’ got somethin’? Can’t be that dang unlucky.”

“No, I’m OK,” I said, feeling the heat of a nervous rash crawl up my neck. At the speed the anxiety was spreading, the redness would surely encompass my entire face within a minute.

Uncle Ronnie stuck a toothpick in his mouth, announced he was going to shoot the moon and gave a look of authority to a relative who apparently was going to be his partner in the endeavor.

The look said, “You better be ready.”

Uncle Ronnie physically said, “Don’t screw this up.”

I watched with awe as the two somehow scrounged up every possible point that can be garnered in a single hand of pitch. My partner, the sweet and doomed for defeat Aunt Sharon, reached over to squeeze my trembling arm.

“Oh, Mel, someday you will know how to play,” she said, with a wink. “You know, all us in-laws had to learn too when we joined the Wilkinsons.

“And don’t be scared of that old man,” she said, laughing and gesturing toward her husband who was celebrating his successful strike of the bullseye on the celestial being called the moon. “He just knows how to play cards. He knows how to play cards, drive horses, race cars, fix stuff . . . he doesn’t know much about talking to the new young ladies at the table.”

“Well, I don’t know much about cards . . . or talking to him either,” I whispered back, trying to take a breath.

“You’ll get it eventually,” Aunt Sharon whispered, offering me a swallow of her Miller. “We all did, we all do.”

That day, I got a little better at pitch.

And I learned that if Uncle Ronnie shot the moon . . . well, the world was a better place. Even if I didn’t know what shooting the moon meant.

Over time, I learned more about that family and more about the famous Uncle Ronnie.

He was the cowboy who led trail rides into town for celebrations and parades. He’d proudly sit in his dusty jeans and western shirt on the driver’s bench of his prized covered wagon . . . reins in hand as he guided his team of horses. People waved at him and clapped for the beautiful display . . . he always just stayed focused in what he was doing, acting like he wasn’t really interested in the accolades. I’d wonder if it felt like shooting the moon.

He was the crotchety guy in the pits who told people what to do with their race cars, arguing about why a motor wasn’t working right and how they were in the wrong groove during the heats. “Better switch it up in the feature,” he’d simply warn . . . and then subtly bask in the realm of “I told you so” when they came back winners. “Yep, knew it all along,” he’d say nonchalantly. It probably felt like shooting the moon.

There were times that if I wanted to talk to my betrothed, I’d have to pull into the alley behind Ronnie’s mechanics shop along Main Street in Elgin. I remember seeing him and some cousins on the roof, finishing some patching while their Uncle Ronnie finished off a cup of coffee. All he had to do was promise something about a transmission or breaking in an engine . . . and the thoughts of girls left their heads. That was a magical ability held by Uncle Ronnie that no card-carrying Wilkinson boy could resist. I’d laugh because playing the love card against Uncle Ronnie’s arsenal of racing, mechanics and cars was like the first pitch tournament at Grandma Wilkinson’s house . . . me with no clue and him shooting the moon.

Eventually, I became a Wilkinson.

I didn’t become a great pitch player, but I did learn over time that if I just apologized in advance to Uncle Ronnie for my terrible skills, I wouldn’t get a rash and he’d tolerate me anyway . . . as long as I wasn’t his partner while shooting the moon.

I learned that the method behind a great Saturday night was being sandwiched between a bunch of seasoned Wilkinson women on hard stands in hot heat watching a bunch of seasoned Wilkinson racers at the track. And that it had to be followed by sandwiches and coffee afterward, an Uncle Ronnie staple. Maybe that’s what shooting the moon was like.

It was realized, by watching from afar, that maybe some of the most gratifying aspects of life include the most simple of settings, the most concise conversations and an appreciation of things like history and the great outdoors. That’s also known as no fuss living, Uncle Ronnie style. Some of those quiet lessons, I guess, were like shooting the moon, even though they came with no announcements.

Today, the Wilkinson clan will gather to remember Uncle Ronnie’s life. He lost his battle with cancer but he leaves behind the imprint of an obviously genuine persona filled with unique perspective.

We’ll talk about his love of cars and antique tractors and horses and racing and riding and being a cowboy and playing cards . . .

I don’t know what it’s like to be good at pitch.

I don’t know what it was like to be Uncle Ronnie.

But I’m guessing, just guessing, that . . . it was all a little like shooting the moon.


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