by Denise Rush

Unbeknownst to even himself, Ronnie Comesana has a superpower—his self-proclaimed “goofy” sense of humor. Day-by-day, throughout his entire life, it has empowered him to get through the tough times. More recently, as he ages, it has been a godsend to help deal with the pains of his multiple medical diagnoses. When doctors tell him: “Ronnie, your body is like an old, beat-up Ford pick-up truck,” Ronnie’s response with a big laugh is: “That’s okay cuz I’ve got one!”  When his legs just give out without warning and he falls down, friends say to him: “Ronnie, when are you getting a cane?” Again, he jokes, “Well, my Dad, bless his heart, was 72 when he used a cane, I’m only 70. I just may have to wait 2 years, and use a ski pole if I have to…Oh Lord!” His present-day health crisis is one of needle-like pain jabbing at him in—of all places—his “funny bone.”

He inherited that great “sense-of-humor-superpower” from his father, who, like Ronnie used it to laugh away his own diabetic pain. Both his Cajun born mother and, for that matter, Ronnie’s entire extended family seem to possess it— they all know that trick to happiness. It is the Cajun code: “Life is just better when you’re happy. I always try to make people laugh and make them happy like I was,” says Ronnie, who really did have a happy childhood. This admittedly not-so-po’-boy was raised in New Orleans (or, as Ronnie says it: “NuAwlins”) with his father’s family. They all visited frequently the Cajun land of Vermilion parish on his mother’s side, land that has been in the family since the 1700s. It was there that rowdy, friendly, brotherly wrestling matches and extended family gatherings (served Southern-style with po’-boy sandwiches, juicy fried catfish, and other Cajun delicacies) took place. These happened especially during the 11 days of Cajun Mardi Gras festivities. Yet, as joy-filled as his childhood was, Ronnie, the runt of Mary Jane and Clement’s five boys, had a needling to leave the flatland of Louisiana and head for the proverbial hills.  My mother always said, “At some point, I had to be vaccinated with a gypsy needle.” Ronnie’s strong desire for travel and adventure all started as a child. Once, at his godfather’s house, he eyed a rocking chair with a quilt draped over it of crocheted leaves. He knew right then and there that he had to go in search of those leaves that didn’t exist anywhere in Cajun country, and when he was told they could only be found in New England, his “thirst” for this area was born. Another time, as a 10-year-old, it snowed just outside “NuAwlins.” Ronnie was literally captivated by this new and strange phenomenon. He enjoyed it so much so, that he forgot all about his two younger brothers who were with him as he played away the day in the fresh powder. That’s when he knew the mountain life was in his future. The way it became a reality for him was that, at one point in his life, he went to visit his brother in Vermont, staying there with him for 5-6 months. Since it was always his wish back then to work at a ski resort, he quickly sought and found a job at the front desk of Loon Mountain and then made the move to Lincoln. While here, he made many friendships and began hiking (Mt. Washington and other 4000-footers). He also biked, swam, and skied with his local buddies. “Now,” Ronnie jokes, “my body laughs if I even look at skis.”  

Way before his Lincoln adventures, though, in the late 1960s, the tip-top-physically-fit-Ronnie decided to join the Army, thinking that if he enlisted he wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam. He completed his basic training in Louisiana and Indianapolis. Ronnie turned 21 in ’Nam, serving in the Artillery unit there for a year. Interestingly, he missed seeing a Bob Hope U.S.O. show because he drew the short straw (Ronnie’s luck) and was assigned to guard duty that day instead. He did have one bit of luck while there, however. He was sent on R&R to Japan. There, he climbed Mt. Fuji, this time not while hiking, but from the luxury of a cable car. Post-Vietnam, he was sent to Washington, D.C. for 1-1/2 years.

In 1981, he moved from New Orleans seeking employment in the lucrative work of the “awl”/oil fields knowing that he could work 7 days on/7 days off. He worked from Mobile, Alabama to Southern Texas, and all along the Gulf, as a logistics manager where, from Ronnie’s desk, he controlled 19-passenger helicopters, boats, and personnel (130-180 people) switching back and forth at all times of the day from 6-story high oil rigs (if drilling, 6K-7K ft. deep). He worked 7 years, 200 miles offshore in the Gulf, and also 4 years on land rigs, and 8 years on land bases. Ronnie actually knew some friends from the ill-fated Deep Water Horizon oil rig disaster in 2011. Thankfully, those friends all got out alive. For his own training, however, every Saturday there were fire and abandon drills, survival training, where they would muster and board a lifeboat without actually leaving the rig. It was practice to know exactly what to do in order to escape in an unfortunate event like that. Also, every 2 years, he would have to undergo underwater training where he was strapped inside a makeshift helicopter for 10 seconds (upside-down and blindfolded) and would have to memorize where the window was and feel around for it in order to escape. As for his employment, he continued on in that line of work on the rigs, as he was offered (and accepted) a position in the frozen tundra off the northern slopes of Alaska in Prudhoe Bay where he sling-loaded containers onto helicopters. (What that means is to attach hooks to a hovering overhead helicopter flying out to the oil rig that carries supplies to the personnel on the rig.) Ronnie was one of those men who literally stood on top of those containers doing just that. He explains, “I worked in 40 degrees below zero in the frozen Arctic where your gear is only good for 20 minutes before you freeze to death.”  In the 1990s, when the oil field industry tanked, and the economy was hurting, Ronnie switched gears and set out for Glacier Park in Montana. He spent 5 months there, hiking seven days a week both there and into the Canadian Rockies. He also worked as a “Dorm Dad” to the male students housed in the Park. “It was the best summer of my life,” he adds. That gypsy needle had been fast at work, as his adventures continued. In fact, when he was 52, Ronnie was, as he puts it, “flat-footed in all 50 states,” something that was on his bucket list to achieve.

Now, keep in mind that that bucket, though filled with a litany of good times and travels, also contained a few mis-adventures during his life, and they continue to affect him to this day. The heavy cigarette smoking of get-togethers with his chain-smoking friends that took place in his younger days of the ’70s, have now resulted in a diagnosis for Ronnie of COPD, even though he (and his parents) never smoked. It is that second-hand smoke back then that is the culprit of his scarred lungs today. Also, while helping his cousin raise a porch on the Cajun homestead, the propped-up porch fell on his head as it collapsed. In 1967, he was involved in a head-on car accident. These last two traumas, Ronnie believes, are the probable cause of his present-day back, leg, and neck injuries, of which he has had to receive shots (needles!) to attempt to relieve the neuropathy pain. He has had spinal compression surgeries in his back. As mentioned earlier, sometimes his legs give out from under him. He has vertigo too, and has had cervical (neck) disc removals, where his disc came out in 3 pieces.  This, he believes is what may be the cause of his present day symptoms, as Ronnie has stabbing jolts and jabs of needle-like pain (up to 50-60 times a day) that run down into his “funny bone.” Ronnie laughs it off, however, “Gee, I sound like a wreck!” But wait; as if that’s not enough in the Ronnie Comesana saga, he had yet another wrecking-type event that happened to him in 2005—Hurricane Rita destroyed his home in Louisiana. It was just after Katrina hit New Orleans and the tidal surge from Rita threw several hundred pounds of marsh grass and mud into the walls of his and other’s homes on the family’s Cajun land. He was turning 60 at the time, so he raised the land up 5-6 feet on a hill, bought a mobile home there, and later sold it to a cousin’s son. Yet, he carried on, and, later in life, returned to Louisiana to care for his parents in their failing health (attending to their every need, and being there for their respective funerals.) In 2013, he retired to Lincoln and his beloved mountain area on a permanent basis, adding, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” He loves our parish and the people; particularly those at the 4:30 Mass. He participates there as a greeter, collector, and usher. He is also a money counter, and serves on the budget committee. His favorite hymn is Day-By-Day, which coincidentally, he listens to daily. It helps him to stay cheerful. Ronnie lives to help others. One example of this is that he takes out trash for some of his elderly friends (though he, himself, could use a hand, as his hands tingle with nerve endings firing up and down, literally jolting his arm away from his body.)

Thank God Ronnie learned the Cajun code for happiness: be happy, cherish your family and friends, help others, take problems Day-By-Day, and never, ever “cage-in” your sense of humor. Ronnie personifies that mantra. His positivity is plastered all over his beaming face, just check out his broad smile (even when he’s in pain). “I’ve had the best life of anyone, but my hobby now,” as he laughs, “is getting up in the morning!” There’s that “goofy” sense of humor again! Not only is it Ronnie’s superpower…it is his saving grace.