Monday, January 10, 2022

Ray of Light (Madonna)

Pre-season training for the Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks meant a strenuous August. Two weeks before scrimmages, the team spent the week at California State University of Pennsylvania, aka Camp Hell. Staying in bunk bed style dorms, the Blackhawks had three practices a day plus conditioning and strength training. As Coach Matthias explained to the Boosters in his thick West Virginia accent, “It separates the men from the piglet’s on their mama’s teet.”

The week before Camp Hell was roommate selection. My brother Wendell was an outsider having not played Pop Warner, and most of the guys had talked about rooming with their buddies at Camp Hell since the age of five as pee wees. Despite being new to The Blackhawks, Wendell’s easygoing manner and hard work earned him many fast friends so our parents werent worried.

It was four days before camp hell and our dad was out of town in Harrisburg working on a class action lawsuit. This meant a trip to the pool, take out from Sal’s Italian Too, and sleeping in front of the TV. Mom parked her mini-van and we walked to the practice field to retrieve Wendell. Standing next to Coach Matthias, Wendell’s dark brown hair was matted to his head and the expression on his face was hard to read. Matthias said, “Mrs. Brucker, the lady I wanted to see.”

Mom looked at Wendell, “What’s wrong? Is it another concussion?” My ten year old sister Skipper and I stood there hoping Wendell was alright. He had gotten a concussion the week before.

Coach Matthias laughed, “No. We like Wendell a lot because he works hard, keeps his head down and is respectful of everyone. He’s what it means to be a Blackhawk. So I was wondering if it was okay if he roomed with Ragni. The kid’s a little odd. Now I am asking you because Bobby and his mother don’t quite fit in if you know what I’m sayin.”

Wendell said, “It’s okay with me. We’re just sharing a room.” Mom said, “Coach, the kid seems harmless. We’re happy to help in any way we can.”

Coach Matthias said, “Good. Then it’s settled. See you tomorrow, Brucker.”

To say Bobby Ragni and his mother didn’t quite fit in was an understatement. Often mumbling to himself, he was a loner who cried at the drop of a hat. For career day, Bobby had done a report on being a terrorist. The last line of the paper was, “Timothy McVeigh really doesn’t seem like a bad guy. And following Tim’s lead, I want to put The Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks on the map, even if I have to blow up a building.” Needless to say he got an all expenses paid trip to the school psychologist.

Bobby’s mother, when asked her name, explained, “my chosen name is Devorah.” My mom, seeing the bleach blonde Devorah who carried healing crystals and worked at Sheets was shunned by the rest of the Booster parents, tried to befriend her. My mom asked where Bobby’s father was, to which Devorah said that Bobby had never met him and he never came around. When Mom asked if he paid support Devorah explained, “He can’t, because Bobby’s father is a ray of light.” My mom laughed but then regretted asking when she realized Devorah was completely serious. Bobby was born with a bullseye in the middle of his forehead.

As we pulled into the pool I said, “Since he is half ray of light, maybe he can levitate, think of the stories.”

Skipper, who had tested genius level and was reading Greek myths all summer said, “But he might be Icarus.”

I said, “Nah, Icarus fell to his death and was too young to breed.”

Mom shut off the ignition to her mini-van, “Wendell, next week are Bobby’s only friend. Coach asked you because he trusts you. You need to eat with him and have his back. Being a leader isn’t easy. You understand?” Wendell nodded as we all got out of the car and headed to the pool for a refreshing dip.

The night before the team departed to Camp Hell, the Latham’s had their annual pre-season kickoff celebration at their house. Everyone on the team was invited as well as their family members. The food, cooked by Mrs. Latham, the head of the remedial reading department, was served buffet style. The desserts, cooked by Mr. Latham, head of the math department, had a table of their own and were worth the Type II diabetes one might get. Their blonde haired son Kyle, a starter on the offensive line, was the shining star for having his parents host such a glorious event. While he was still new to the Blackhawks, it helped Wendell’s standing among his peers that Kyle had adopted him as a surrogate baby brother, possibly because Wendell had been one of Mr. Latham’s favorite students of all time.

As we stood in the buffet line to get Mrs. Latham’s trademark lasagna, Kyle said to Wendell, “Little Buddy, tell Coach you can’t room with Ragni. He’ll understand. Millweather and I will figure out some way to squeeze you in. I would get into it what happened last year but we’re about to eat.”

Before Wendell could reply Mom flashed Kyle an I will cut you smile and grabbed Wendell’s arm dragging him to the side. Seeing Mom at barely five feet pull Wendell was a site in itself, “I raised you to include, not to exclude. And the bullying you just saw is why poor Bobby didn’t turn up today.”

I would have pointed out since the ray of light was his father maybe he had weekend visitation, but my mom would have also slapped me. Wendell said, “Mom, I said I would and I will. Can I get some food now?” Wendell yanked his arm, rolled his eyes and got back into the food line.

Mom said, “Good. Because I raised you to be a man of your word. Remember that.”

After getting some lasagna, Skipper and I took our food outside to the picnic tables in the Latham’s back yard. As the sun set and the lightning bugs hit the air, Wendell had taken a seat next to Casbar Renninger. One of three brothers named after The Three Kings, he had two brothers. Balthizar was in pre-season camp at Waynesburg College and Malkiar was in my grade. All of them bragged that they could get any woman they wanted and often did. Their father, who was an annoying blowhard who oversaw the local Pop Warner League, was head of the exercise science at the local community college and fancied himself an expert on everything.

Casbar shoved a piece of bread in his mouth and chewed as he spoke, “Brucker, I know you are bound and determined to be roommates with the freakshow but don’t let Ragni take the top bunk.”

Wendell said, “Do you ever get tired of being an asshole?”

Casbar continued to chew with his mouth full, “Call me an asshole but I am just stating the facts. I’m trying to warn ya. Balthizar let Coach talk him into it too so just do as I say.” Balthizar was an obnoxious loud mouth so whatever Bobby did Balthizar probably deserved.

Wendell said, “Since you are bound and determined to chew when you talk I will let you choke and won’t perform the Heimlich.”

Casbar said, “Good, cause that would be totally gay.”

Wendell said, “That’s mouth to mouth you idiot. Why am I even talking to you?!”

Casbar said, “Fine. Be his butt buddy.”

Wendell got up, flicked him off and walked away. As he did, Casbar, who still had his mouth full began to sing, “Quicker than a ray of light he’s flyyyiiinnnngggg!!!!”

The next morning the players gathered for camp. As per instructions, they showed up to travel in a suit and tie. Since it was Sunday, Wendell had just finished being a junior usher at church so he was dressed and ready to go after a McDonald’s dive through breakfast, or what he referred to as “the last meal” before Camp Hell.

After we pulled up, Wendell kissed my mom and popped out of our dad’s Buick and on to the bus with the rest of his teammates. My dad said, “Matthias had Wendell room with Ragni so no one else would kill him. You know that, right Gracie?”

My mom said, “I know Wendelin.”

A minute later, Bobby Ragni and Devorah pulled up. Getting out of their sedan, she wore a red sari with a red dot painted in the middle of her forehead. Years later, I would learn that was called cultural appropriation. Skipper said, “Why is she dressed like that when she is not Indian?”

My dad said, “Because she’s a Goddamn goof. That’s why.”

Devorah attempted to follow Bobby, who looked like a morose scarecrow in his wrinkled suit. Matthias said, “Son, did you get that off of a bum or a corpse?” Bobby said something and stood next to his mother, holding her hand. Devorah attempted to follow him and Coach Douglass, Matthias’s bigger assistant blocked the way.

Devorah screamed, “I’m not leaving! The kid he roomed with last year gave my Bobby a black eye and a bloody nose!” Devorah, although extremely eccentric, was telling the truth. Balthizar and any of the Renningers were about as understanding as concrete.

Coach Matthias said, “Ma’m, we put him with Brucker. He’s a nice kid. Ain’t nothin gonna happen.”

Devorah said, “Oh, another random assignment with a sociopath! GREAT!!!”

Coach Matthias said, “No. Brucker agreed he would do it. C’mon, Bobby. You comin or not.”

Bobby boarded the bus when all of a sudden the guys began to sing in an out of tune cacophony, “QUICKKKKEERRRR THAN A RAY OF LIGHHHHHHTTT HE’S FLYYYIIIINNNNGGG! AND I FEEL LIKE I JUST GOT HOME AND I FEEEEEEEEELLLLLL!!!!”

Mom said, “What on Earth is that song?”

I said, “Ray of light by Madonna. You know, because Devorah keeps telling people Bobby’s father is a ray of light.”

My dad rolled his eyes and rolled up his window, “That woman is one hundred percent the reason her son gets his ass beat.”

Devorah, after another minute of arguing, accepted that she would have to trust that Bobby was in good hands with Wendell. Then Matthias and Douglass boarded the bus, the doors closed and the team drove away. After the bus left our Buick joined the caravan of cars leaving the parking lot. As we pulled onto the street my dad said, “With a mother like that the kid is damaged goods and he hasn’t even started life. Wouldn’t be shocked if he grows up to become a skin head.”

Wendell called every night around 7:30 PM on the dot from Camp Hell. It was after dinner and lights out was at nine. For the most part, he sounded exhausted since he was doing three practices a day: one at 7 AM, the second at noon, and the third at 3 PM with strength and conditioning twice a day in between. Wendell talked about his teammates, the other teams and the new kids he was meeting. When asked about how rooming with Bobby Ragni was going he gave the same answer, “Fine,” and then changed the subject.

The following Saturday, Wendell returned from Camp Hell. Instead of having dinner with the family he asked to go to bed early. It was unusual for Wendell to miss a meal. The next morning, Wendell went to church while he usually was upbeat and affable as a junior usher, he moved like a zombie. At breakfast, he barely touched his food again. Mom said, “Eat, Matthias said you need to put on weight.”

Wendell rolled his eyes and ignored her. Dad said, “Come on, Son. Did Bobby levitate? You can tell us.”

I said, “Nah, he turned into a werewolf.”

Wendell said, “Shut up! All of you! Camp Hell was pure hell!”

Mom said, “Just what I was afraid of. They bullied Bobby and they bullied you too.”

Dad said, “Son, today was the gospel of Job. You are a lucky kid. God has given you a lot and could take it away.”

Wendell said, “Well God never roomed with Bobby Ragni!”

Mom said, “Your ugly teammates brainwashed you. Another thing I was afraid of.”

Wendell said, “Balthizar Renninger is a jerk but he beat Ragni up for a good reason.”

Dad said, “Son, the kid’s got issues, you know that.”

Wendell said, “He doesn’t have issues, Dad. He has a subscription. When we got to our room, he called the top bunk. I didn’t care because I was only going to be sleeping there and we went on and on about seeing his father who was a ray of light. So we go to practice where he gets his ass beat and then I sit with him at dinner because he has no friends and the guys just lay into him with that stupid Ray of Light song and Bobby starts crying. So I defend him and get into a fistfight with Casbar Renninger.”

Mom said, “Did you get him? I hate that kid and his family.” We all nodded as most everyone found the Renningers hard to stomach even on a good day.

Wendell said, “No, Coach broke us up and made the whole team do an extra run. And then Bobby started crying during the run so it was extra conditioning. And we got to bed at 11 and had to be up at 5. At this point I just want to sleep and all of a sudden I feel this dripping and soon it’s like a waterfall and it smells really bad. Then I realize…..HE’S WETTING THE GOODDAMN BED!”

We sat there shocked for a whole minute because we were not expecting this. Skipper raised her hand, “Wendell, did you speak to Bobby about seeing a doctor for his bladder issues?”

Dad said, “Skipper, be nice, he prefers Mr. Peabody.”

We all burst out laughing but Wendell did not find the humor in any of this, “SHUT UP! ALL OF YOU! THIS ISN’T FUNNY!!”

Dad said, “Son, you’re wrong. It’s hysterical.”

Mom said, “Enough, Wendelin. Sweetie, you should have told us. How did you get through the week?”

Wendell said, “You couldn’t have done anything. Besides, as a peace offering Renninger let me sleep in his room between practices because he figured I had learned my lesson. Latham and Millweather let me slip in after lights out and I slept in the bottom bunk with my feet facing Latham so it wasn’t weird. And I snuck in before Bobby woke up so you wouldn’t give me crap, I wouldn’t get in trouble with Coach and I wouldn’t make it on the hit list he told me he keeps in his dresser drawer at home. And I still ate with him. HAPPY?!”

Mom said, “Well I am still very proud of you.”

Wendell stood up and said, “I HATE YOU ALL!” Then he stomped out of the room.

Dad called, “Son, don’t be a pee brain!”

Skipper said, “That story was quite disgusting. But it would have been better if he levitated.”

The season came and went with Bobby barely saw any playing time. Some of it was the fact he was a mediocre player to begin with but then there was the fact he told several of the other seniors about the hit list he had in his drawer. Like every senior regardless of skill or position, at the end of the season Bobby was awarded a Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk Letter Jacket that he wore everywhere regardless of the weather. One day as we were running errands and the temperate was a record high, we saw Bobby walking in his letter jacket and beeped. As Bobby waved, my mom said, “That kid will wear that thing every day until the end of time.”

After graduation, Bobby worked for a while at Sheets and then was fired for creeping out a female coworker and then fell off the map completely. That is, until one day I was eating pizza while watching Live PD and saw the department in Arizona had pulled over a soverign citizen.

As they ordered the suspect out of the car I heard a familiar voice say, “I am a citizen and I only adhere to Maritime Law.”

Wearing what looked to be a beaten up Whiskey Rebellion letter jacket with a military style crew cut I said, “Holy shit! That’s Bobby Ragni!”

Bobby ultimately got seven years for resisting arrest and assaulting a cop. He put Whiskey Rebellion on the map and didn’t even need to blow up a building. Behind bars, Bobby has become a hero in The Sovereign Citizen movement and his girlfriend who he met on a facebook group for other sovereign maintains a blog about Bobby’s incarceration and dedication to his cause entitled, “Ray of Light.” The blog recently reported three kids did a paper on Bobby for career day, so he is finally becoming the cool kid he always wanted to be. As an added bonus, prison is filled with people who hurt children, and you know there is some sadistic CO who puts them in the same cell with Bobby knowing he will call the top bunk.

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