“You in?” he yelled while already launching me forward.
“And this is how it ends,” I thought. “Death by homemade zip line!”
As the very questionable swing rocketed forward, I gripped fiercely and managed to scooch my bum into the very key area- the seat! The smile on my face shifted abruptly to an expression of pure panic as I beelined for the very solid tree directly in front of me. “Does this thing stoppppp?!?” I wanted to yell, but before I could form words, the swing yanked me backward in one jarring, whiplash-inducing motion.
Wooohoo! One more time!
Welcome to the Kunkle Family Reunion, Quelcy!
The Kunkles, the Urban Farmer’s family through his mother’s side, are titans of tradition! The family reunion I attended could have been any of the family reunions from the last 50 years. The faces may have aged, and new little Kunkle offshoots may have arrived, but the campsite was the same. The games and challenges were the same, and the spirit of good ol’ family fun was the same.
That family fun didn’t include technology either. I didn’t see kids scrolling on phones. I didn’t see iPads or movies. I saw rackets, gloves, tree swings, dogs and kids splashing in the creek, and middle-aged men competing against children with the seriousness of Olympic athletes. In a word, it was comforting.
The reunion was especially comforting because beyond the Kunkle family compound, “progress” threatens the beautiful hills, meadows, mountains and streams. Where families once hiked and swam freely, toxins and carcinogens now bar them from their own land. The promises of natural gas proved too good to be true, and the landscape of Western Pennsylvania is changing rapidly. In the name of “progress” so much has already been lost in our region (see these firsthand accounts if you don’t believe me).
But these external threats and unraveling traditions made the Kunkle Family Reunion all the more special. Real people. Real connections. Real traditions preserved and passed to the next generation of Reunion Presidents, Vice Presidents and Treasurers. Like a grandmother’s beloved recipe baked by her granddaughter, these ritual handoffs deserve to be celebrated. So, without further ado, I bring you this glimpse into the past, and why it stuck with me.
The legendary Kunkle Reunion Base Race kicked off the events of the day. The competitive nature of this event quickly became apparent when the historical scoreboards came into sight. The discolored boards of the 80s marked the key year when the bases were moved, lest any performance be judged unfairly by the distance differential. It was also worth noting that Mike Shoop’s slowest time was the result of a knee injury, not a lack of athletic ability.
Julep and I watched with pride, awe and maybe even a heart flutter or two as the Urban Farmer dug deep and delivered the overall winning base race score of 9.3 seconds, a far cry from his score of 39.1 seconds in 1986!
“Quelcy Kogel to the plate,” the man in suspenders announced. “Oh no…no, no…no,” I objected, but all eyes were on me. I had come merely to watch, but the Urban Farmer had thrown my hat in the ring. He had entered my name without my knowing!
My palms were sweaty, my heart was racing, and off I went! Every competitive nerve in my body was tingling.
I fell short of my main squeeze, so don’t be surprised if you sporadically find me running bases in the off season. Next year, I’ll be prepared, but I sincerely hope the official time-keeping uniform never changes!
Young and old kept the tradition alive, and after such exerting work, it was time for swimming in the creek, which first requires jumping from a rope swing (and requires leaving cameras safely on dry land).
As happily overwhelmed as I was, my Julep was overwhelmed in a way that gave us all quite a scare. Between the other dogs, the commotion, the anxiety of watching her papa tethered to another human and teetering in a three-legged race, the poor little one overdid it. As the Urban Farmer and I held her close and tried to decipher what exactly was causing her to drool, pant and tremble excessively, so many family members came to our side.
Family members who I barely knew rallied to offer any help they could. Closer family members overlooked dog drool and wet fur to help us ice down and comfort our poor dehydrated fur baby. They showed such sincere concern for our Julep, and I’ll never forget it.
I had come simply to observe and relish the Kunkles’ traditions, but in the end, I felt so connected to the Urban Farmer’s family. As our Julep rehydrated, refueled and showed signs of her normal self, the rest of the reunion adjourned to the campfire for silly songs, s’mores and the rest of the evening’s time-tested agenda. Though we left early, the day left me with a lasting impression.
The Urban Farmer, like his family’s reunion, borrows from the past in an effort to preserve tradition. He worked tirelessly this year, through rainy spells, dry spells and rampant groundhog spells to stay true to his farming convictions. He believes in tighter ties to our food, and more connections with the makers and growers. He believes in a self-sustaining local system, and he won’t stop until he achieves it.
As the autumn settles upon his farm, the tomato vines have given one last burst of bright red fruits. Like base races, old truck rides and creek swims, summer tomatoes are worth preserving.
In an effort to truly preserve the flavors and the spirit of summer, I returned to America’s classic condiment- ketchup!
As a Pittsburgh resident, it may be blasphemy to offer an alternative to the beloved Heinz 57, but I find it blasphemous to masquerade high fructose corn syrup as an American tradition (though sadly, it is becoming an American tradition).
This homemade ketchup won’t boast the exact ruby redness or perfectly smooth texture of store-bought counterparts, but each dollop of this condiment will impress. Make your own ketchup, and every winter burger or oven roasted french fry will become more satisfying and take you back to summer grilling and tomato harvesting in the heat. There’s something to be said for preservation!
Here’s to traditions, memories and delicious condiments!