We had driven out to San Francisco to see the Rolling Stones in concert at the Cow Palace. After that we drove south to Ft. Ord, to see our cousin Linda and her family. My brother Gary, our nephew Glen and I rode out from Ft. Ord early the next morning after two cups of coffee. Linda’s husband Glenn was a major in the Army. Glenn worked the night we arrived, so when Linda broke out the beer and wine, it might be truthful to say that in his absence, we over indulged. We did throw quite a shindig without him.
Linda met Glenn in High School, we had known him since then, his personality was always stern. Life in the Army made him more so. We didn’t want to face Glenn’s wrath when he got home in the aftermath, so we left kinda early the next morning. Our destination was the new housing developments we had seen scattered throughout the valleys a few days before, near the mountainous area just east of San Francisco.
We were driving by ogling the countryside when we noticed several bulldozers pushing up stumps, big stumps into a large pile. There were so many, that they dotted the landscape, some had been set on fire. A couple of days later, when we were out pitching our tools, we came across a place that was selling high dollar furniture, made from burl.
Burl was the gnarly twisted stumps from a redwood tree. Once they had been sand blasted and pressure washed the wood was beautiful was brought back to life. Skilled craftsmen were cutting some redwood stumps into slabs of beautiful cut wood, after which they sculpted it into furniture and treated it with sealer and polyurethane. This material was being made into very expensive coffee tables, end tables, dining tables, and heck, just about anything that you could imagine.
Once we saw the price they were asking for these relics we asked the bossman if he needed any more? You know just in case we knew where we could get some. He told us “hell yes,” he could use it. He promised to pay us a good price, he said that he would even loan us his trailer to go get it.
When we got back to the area that was being developed, we got the crew boss to hold off on burning anymore piles of stumps. They loaded them on our trailer with a front end loader. The stumps were so gigantic, that we could only carry one big one or maybe two small ones, at a time.
We didn’t have any problem getting a good price, after all this was California. Burl furniture was selling at a premium. When we asked for a thousand dollars for a stump that didn’t cost us anything, the boss said, “Hell boys, I’ll give you two thousand, have you got any more?” After dropping each load, we would drive up and down the valleys, searching for new fields of stumps.
On this morning, it was early morning yet, so early the dew was still heavy on the grass. I was driving down the side of a steep slope when we stopped to look at the view before us. From the top of a mountainside, we could see almost the whole of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog rising above it and the silhouette of Fisherman’s wharf, beneath.
Gary was taking a picture out of the passenger side of the truck when I noticed an imposing iron gate on my left that was just beginning to swing open. I noticed that it was an unusual gate; someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make it look like a sheet of music. Across the front were welded steel letters about a foot high that read “Bless Your Pea Picking Heart,” with musical notes painted up like flowers in the background
This discovery caused me to get my brothers attention, I wanted to show him the gate. The gate was in motion, opening enough to let us see a dark haired gentleman, walking out of the gate. Music was blaring out a familiar tune, loudly from unseen speakers. This gentleman, wearing pink striped pajamas and fluffy white bedroom slippers emerge from the gap. He took a couple of steps gingerly walking on top of the dew with his white frilly slippers and he picked up a newspaper out of the wet grass. Just as he stood up, Gary said “Hey, that’s Tennessee Ernie Ford.” After a closer look, I agreed with him. Sure enough it was, as he told us later to call him, “Old Ernie.”
I honked the horn, my truck had one of those “Old Rebel Yell horns,” that played “Dixie,” and a Rebel Flag front license plate This got Ernie’s attention real quick and he stood up to wave at us. What a sight. We had the whole San Francisco Bay on the right side and on the left side, Tennessee Ernie Ford, wearing pink striped pajamas, waving at us.
While we were staring, Mr. Ernie walked over to driver’s window of the truck. He could take one look at us and just know that we weren’t from around these parts. We both had on western wear and straw hats. This was before the Duke’s of Hazzard aired, so for that point in time, we were unique, in that area.
He asked us where we were from, what were we up to, did we want to come in for a cup of coffee? It was a no brainer answering that question. I could remember my Mom singing along while listening to some of his Gospel music. We told him in unison,“Hell yeah.”
Our nephew Glen was still sleeping in the truck, so it was just Gary and I that when inside to check out his mansion. Ernie had an overly inquisitive housekeeper, Filipino I think. The way he kept an eye on us, made me squirm a little, like he thought we were gonna steal some silver or something.
Mr. Ernie instructed his housekeeper to fetch us some coffee and to fix us some breakfast. The he turned to us and asked, “You boys like smoked sausage and grits don’t you?” We both spoke at the same time, “Oh Sir, yes Sir.” Then before we could say anything else the old crooner said, “You gotta import grits around here, nobody seems to know what they are, I get mine sent in special from Martha White. (I almost looked for the cameras, because I almost thought he was doing a commercial)
Then he said, “I’ve had the hardest time getting Stefano here to learn how to cook ‘em, he wants to put sugar and milk on it.” While we were waiting for Stefano to bring us our coffee Gary sat down on a piano stool and started pecking out a tune.
Mr. Ernie sat down next to Gary, they both were play along on the same tune. My brother could play anything. He had that ear, me? I’m tone deaf. I have problems playing the radio. Watching them tickling the ivories on the keyboard, it occurred to me that the great “Tennessee Ernie Ford” might be gay. No wait, I mean, he was very nice to us. He invited total strangers into his house to drink morning coffee and while at first I thought it was because he liked hearing our southern accents, it dawned on me that it might be because he thought that we were young unsuspecting males.
Our coffee was served. We told jokes and even a couple of stories about us being southern in California, surviving the pitfalls it projected when everyone thought that you were stupid because we spoke with a drawl. I reminded Mr. Ernie that Jimmy was in office. We aren’t the ones with an accent anymore. He seemed to like that.
Then Stefano brought our breakfast in on a silver serving tray. A large steaming bowl of grits was in the center of the tray. Mr. Ernie said to his servant “Are you sure you got these grits right Stefano, I’m entertaining guest from back home and I don’t want to be embarrassed. He raised the lid and peered into the bowl and said “What the hell?” Then he stuck a large spoon into the bowl and held it backwards in one hand and then pulled the top of the spoon backwards with the other, this caused the contents of the spoon to spatter up against the window. Once the grits hit the wall, the gooey mess slid down the window pane. Mad, yeah I think so, angrily he said “Them grits is too damn soupy, what have I told you, put one cup of grits into two cups of water and bring to a boil for a couple minutes, stir a couple times and then let ‘em simmer.”
Then Old Ernie turned back to us and said, “I’m sorry boys, you know how hard it is to find good help these days, but Stefano here is good people, breakfast will be in just a few more minutes.”
He then sat back on the piano stool and played a medley of some of his hits, we were entertained and to tell you the truth, we had already eaten breakfast, we just didn’t want to cut our visit short.
This time when Stefano brought the bowl of grits back to the table, the first thing Mr. Ernie did was the same trick with the spoon again. This time instead of running down the window, they stuck in a glob, One big splat. Equally embarrassed Mr. Ernie was frustrated as he turned to look at us, shook his head and said “You fellas see what I’m up against out here, I’m ready to pack my bags and head back to Tennessee.”
I told him not to feel too bad about it. I got beat up by the cops in L.A. and put in jail, just because I had a southern accent. Me saying that got his attention, he asked me to tell him about it. I told him there’s not much to tell. I was in my pickup on Hollywood and Vine, waiting for the light to change. Me and a friend “Dino” Dave Anderson had just broke the seal on a bottle of Jack Black. I had taken a swig and was reaching for a can of Sprite on the dash of the truck to chase it with, when two really good looking blondes walked past us, crossing street. I hit the horn, it played its melody and then I let out a whistle. I got out of the truck at the red light and hollered at the gals. I think I said something to the effect about my grandpa told me if I saw any good looking blondes while I was in California to bring him back one or two.
Old Ernie laughed at this a time or two, when he did the crow’s feet around his eyes almost disappeared, then he asked me what happened next? I replied “Well, I’m sorry to say this, but while I was watching them gals, they kinda looked to me like they was about ready to take off running, then two El Monte cops pulled in behind us. The one that looked like Bing Crosby’s son that you see on Adam 12 once in a while, came up from behind me and got me in a choker hold. The cops saw the bottle of Jack, but it only had one swallow gone from it. They asked me about the One a Day vitamins that I had in the glove box. I asked if that was illegal? The cop still had me from behind and said “you’re slurring your speech, ain’t body talks like that on purpose.” Next thing I know he grabbed me from behind in a sleeper hold, then I wake up in the County Jail, naked outside of the bars with my hands sticking through the bars behind my back, handcuffed. The rest of the night the jailer kept hitting me with his flash light every time he walked past. The next morning, they let me go.
After hearing this Mr. Ernie sucked on his teeth for a minute, then after shaking his head, he said “It’s enough to make you wonder about people some times, ain’t it. What happened to the evidence?” I said, “do you mean the vitamins?” He responded, “No, no, the sipping whiskey, what happened to the bottle of Jack.?” I told him that I never saw that bottle of Jack Daniels again. He just looked at the ground and shook his head, rubbing his tongue over his lips and said “Them bastards, they drank the evidence, that’s probably why they had to let you go.”
Our visit lasted about an hour. When we got up to leave, he asked us to keep his location a secret for as long as we could. I don’t care if Old Ernie was gay or not, none of my business. Heck, there are probably a lot of people in California that wear pink striped pajamas and fuzzy white slippers. He was a very nice host, a true gentleman, there is definitely something bred into folks from the south, the warmth of southern hospitality is for real.
I can remember watching his gate slowly opening for us to leave and listening to the tune the loud speaker playing a recording in his deep, rich baritone voice. “There will be peace in the valley, there will be peace some day. There will be peace in the valley of the Lord.”