Since 1971 Kerrville has been the home of one of the most renowned and celebrated folk festivals in the country. I listened to broadcasts of the shows on public radio and even watched live shows on PBS when I was in college. I moved to Dallas in the late 70’s and got so busy trying to get my life going I forgot about the festival until someone mentioned it to me at work one day. Once I knew where it was and when it was, I was determined to go.
I drug my then 9, 9 and 15 year old daughters to the campgrounds somewhat against their will. None of them claimed to be that “into” music and were not the least bit sure what folk music was anyway. When we drove up to the gates and my 15 year old looked around at the growing line of traffic and saw the sprawling campgrounds she said, “Oh, I have a really good feeling about this!”
As we drove through the gates the all volunteers greeted us with “Welcome home!” My daughters were speechless with excitement and we had what is still one of the most memorable vacations we ever had together.
In the 13 years that have passed I’ve only missed two Kerrville Festivals. The girls have grown and moved away and don’t go with me any more. My husband and his son went with me this year. In my second year at Kerrville I met a group of friends that I have come to know once a year every year (almost) since then. This group of friends is collectively known as “Camp Bungie”, named for the unique solution the members discovered for handling the sometimes 50-70 mile an hour winds that sweep through the valley. They have worked out an elaborate design for connecting their cover tarps with bungee cords flex to and fro with the wind and stay attached easily to the ground.
But the bungee cords are not what connected me to their ground. It was the delightful, giving, loving and talented group of people that welcome us, open arms every year.
One year we became known as the “plastic people” because after a show one night it had begun raining quite hard and we all donned those cheap clear plastic ponchos to keep us (relatively) dry.
Our friends, Sherry, Greg, Gumby and Pokey, Michael, Karen, Terry, Ronzo and Cat were there every single year, oh yeah, and Zoid, too. We met hundreds of others during our weekends there, but these were the constants that excitedly greeted “the plastic family” every year as we drove in and set up camp. Sherry quietly sat and read and chatted with us at meals. Michael, Ronzo, Terry, Greg and others entertained us with their playing and conversations. Ronzo had his flashing red lights, funny shaped balloons, knee high socks and shorts to accompany his wacky sense of humor. Turns out he was a clown by trade. Cat, Ronzo’s significant other knitted and talked very knowledgably with us on a variety of topics. She even bought a copy of my first book one year. Michael has always had plenty of wisdom about the world and a calm way of reacting to everything. They have always had plenty of food, shared their time, their resources and chairs with us and never asked anything in return. We always try to think of ways to help out, but its rarely accepted.
We made it!
“The plastic family” missed attending the last couple of years and we waited until the last weekend to attend, since this was the weekend “Trout Fishing in America” was going to play. “Trout” is a couple of guys who play funny, thoughtful, melodious tunes that get everyone to their feet.
We had a great night listening to Small Potatoes and Kathy Mateo Friday night with the most temperate weather we’ve ever experienced in Kerrville. I don’t know what the temperature was this past weekend, but it stayed cool late into the morning and cooled off again early in the day. This is a vast diversion from past years where it was 120° in the shade… that or pouring down rain. One year we were almost washed off the mountain.
A breezy Saturday morning
The pleasantness of Saturday morning made for a casual slow morning. Michael was all set to start cooking breakfast as we sat around drinking coffee and taking in the company. But, everyone wanted to wait for Ronzo, who seemed to be still sleeping in his tent.
One of the many traditions of the Kerrville New Folk Festival is that every night after the shows on the main stage, all around the many campsites across the valley and up on the hills are song circles that go on all night long. No one sleeps much at night and no one cares really how much sleep they get anyway. The music energizes everyone.
But some people do try to sleep in mornings as long as they can. We figured Ronzo was doing the same.
Along about 10:30 Sherry and Greg wandered down to the “quadraplex” (the latrine) and as they were coming back they saw that someone was being given CPR and was then taken off by an ambulance. Know one knew who it was, Sherry and Greg didn’t recognize the person’s shape on the stretcher. I passed them on the road as I walked down for my own trek to the latrine. People were buzzing all over the valley about the poor guy who looked like he probably wasn’t going to make it.
When I got back to “Camp Bungie” we sat around the kiddie pool with our feet in the cool water and talked about how sad for the guy and I said, ‘”Well, I have to say, if you’ve got to go, this is how I’d want to go. To be doing what you love to do surrounded by people you love.”
About that time a Festival staff person walked up and said she had been told the name of the man that had been taken to the hospital. It was Ronzo. No one could believe it, except Greg who jumped up and said. “I’m going to town.” Someone held Sherry as she cried.
An hour or so later we got the news that Ronzo had not made it. Tears flowed around the campsite. People from all over the ranch came, hugged, cried and sat with us. I sat by Michael and patted his arm as he cried.
Looking for BLAME
Of course, our system goes on, as it always does. The police came by about an hour after we got the news and searched Ronzo’s tent. There was the potential of their having been a crime and they had to rule out foul play. Searching through his tent, getting witness reports, and eyeing the group suspiciously the police went about doing their job. We waited until the detective had done his job and drove off. That was a somber, silent time as we sat comforting each other in the shade of the billowing tarps.
It was still a beautiful day with the sun shining brightly and the cool breeze lifting the tarps to and fro. Trout Fishing played a rousing set under the roof of the Threadgill Theatre as normal, and went on to perform at the main stage that night to a thunderous crowd. Karen and I danced and hugged as we listened to Guy Forsythe sing ‘Thank you for my friends”.
I learned a lot I didn’t know about Ronzo. He had been one of the original supporters of the festival and was a stockholder. The campground “Camp Bungie” was annually parked on had been provided by his investment and support in the festival. If not for supporters like Ronzo the festival could never have gotten off the ground. Ronzo had been with his significant other for more than 20 years. He was a political activist and had been a caucus member at the county level supporting Senator Obama for the Democratic Nominee for President. Later I learned that he had specifically requested no memorial service or funeral, that what he wanted was “a big party”. That definitely sounded like the Ronzo I knew and loved.
A sweet tribute
That night after the show, the “Leopard Lounge” down the hill and across the road from “Camp Bungie” hosted a spontaneous group of guitar pickers and singers singing songs about friendship. The “Leopard Lounge” campers all wore shorts, knee high socks and bright red flashing stars in honor of Ronzo’s normal apparel choices. We toasted Ronzo from time to time, but mostly sang songs about friendship and some of Ronzo’s favorites. Greg was the primary singer/picker for the evening and he ended the evening with a raised glass and the words, “Sail away Ronzo”.
I can’t imagine future festival’s without Ronzo, as I am sure most of our “Camp Bungie” group cannot. His lighthearted wit and generosity set the mood for play and gave us giggles and love. Thank you Ronzo for being a part of the “plastic family’s” love of Kerrville. We miss you already.
What about you?
Ever had a sudden loss of a compatriot? How did it affect you? Let me know. I’d love to hear your story.