Tom Anton's barbecues began simply: A guy from Bakersfield, with a genuine fondness for the military, boxed up a bunch of prime cut steaks, hauled them to a ship and barbecued them for a bunch of sailors.
The Bakersfield attorney's first barbecue, about two decades ago, was followed by several more -- just one man's personal expressions of appreciation for the military's sacrifices.
But after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Anton's barbecues evolved into a loosely knit group of about 60 people, called the Cooks From The Valley, traveling like an invading army, barbecuing steaks by the thousands for weary sailors, soldiers and Marines, some deployed to the most dangerous and isolated regions of the world.
To understand how a simple barbecue could become such a big deal, you have to go back to the beginning, which makes Anton laugh when he talks about it.
He says the closest he came to having a military experience was spending some time in a military school as a kid. Anton, 65, was born and raised in landlocked Bakersfield. But he developed a fondness for the ocean, an interest in boats and a respect for the U.S. Navy. That led to Anton's involvement in the local Navy League chapter, as its legal advisor.
"The most complicated issue I dealt with was whether or not we could have beer at an event," recalled Anton during a recent interview. He admitted he was a bit bored by the assignment and pestered the brass to allow him to go out on a ship. His persistence landed him a ride on a ship bound for Seattle.
A Navy officer he met on that ship later became the executive officer of the USS Chandler, a guided missile destroyer. He invited Anton to ride the Chandler home to California from Hawaii. An avid barbecue chef, Anton decided to arrange a taste of valley cooking for the ship's crew.
First barbecue: What a meat grinder
Before he flew to Hawaii to board the Chandler, he called a prestigious restaurant on the island and ordered 400 of its best raw steaks. But he hadn't quite figured out how to get the steaks from the restaurant to the ship at Pearl Harbor.
"I tried to rent a car, but that wasn't big enough. I tried to get a van, and that didn't work out either," he recalled. The solution was to hire a limousine.
Anton crammed boxes of steaks into every inch of the limousine, as Rocky, the driver, fretted that the steaks would bleed out of the boxes and onto the plush upholstery. "I told them they wouldn't leak. Hell, I had no idea what would happen."
The ship's commander, Robert Natter, cleared Anton through the base gate. When the limousine pulled up next to the ship, a senior chef came down to inspect the meat. He ripped into a box, pulled out a slab of meat, and slammed it back into the box, declaring: "It's not good Navy steaks; it's too thick."
A stunned Anton held back his anger. When he looked up at the ship's bridge, he saw his friend, the executive officer, and Natter laughing at their joke.
Anton and his steaks set sail in a calm sea and beautiful weather. The barbecue was scheduled for the third day of the journey. By then "the weather had turned snotty," Anton recalled, describing the strong winds and high waves that rocked the ship.
He thought the crew was kidding when they told him he would have to cook the steaks on steel plates in the galley. Instead, he went onto the deck and began preparing the barbecue coals. It was only after he asked to have the ship turned away from the wind that he was ordered to the galley. Anton's first attempt at barbecuing at sea turned out to be a disappointing steak fry.
That was in 1980. The amicable, fast-talking Anton would not be discouraged. He finagled his way into staging more barbecues -- one-man events, 400 to 500 steaks, on ships and bases, every year or two.
Then the terrorists attacked New York and the Pentagon in 2001.
The Chandler's young commander had moved up the ranks. He was now an admiral, overseeing Atlantic Fleet operations.
Anton called his old friend and asked to do a really big barbecue on board a Navy aircraft carrier.
The admiral's initial response: "What the (expletive)."
"I told him that he had no idea about the need for private citizens to do something for the military," Anton recalled. But the admiral was doubtful about the logistics of hauling more than 5,000 steaks out to a ship and barbecuing them.
After some convincing, Natter and other reluctant Navy brass cleared the way for Anton's barbecue aboard the USS John C. Stennis, as it sailed from Pearl Harbor to San Diego, just eight months after 9/11.
The 12-ounce steaks served to the Stennis crew came from Fresno County's Harris Ranch. Most of the 50-plus cooks Anton recruited to help came from Bakersfield. This eclectic group of lawyers, judges and business people paid for the steaks themselves and sweated over barbecue coals to bring a taste of home to the kids fighting the "war on terror."
"We buy the steak, cook them and clean up," explained Anton. "Anyone can give money. This is something we can do for the military that is allowing us to live today like it was Sept. 10, 2001. They are keeping us safe."
Why they do it
Anton recalled that a young woman on the Stennis came up to the cooks, with tears in her eyes. She asked why they had done such a generous thing.
Anton admits that his response to the woman was a bit lame. But he gets emotional when he recalls what a Bakersfield businessman told her.
Ron Surgener was serving in Vietnam, when he was suddenly given orders to return home. Still in his military uniform, he arrived at the airport in San Francisco to jeers. He was stunned and hurt by the reception.
Surgener told the young woman that he made up his mind he would never let that happen to any other soldier. Surgener and his son, Lester, have participated in many of the Cooks From The Valley barbecues.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Cooks have barbecued more than 70,000 thick, juicy Harris Ranch steaks for soldiers, sailors and Marines. The barbecues have been held aboard ships, in military hospitals and on bases in high-profile areas like the Persian Gulf and Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, as well as stateside. On Christmas Day 2007, four cooks, including Anton, traveled to a medical outpost in Iraq to barbecue.
"The need continues," said Anton. "We are asking enormous sacrifices from these kids. We are creating 'old young people.' We have exposed these kids to things no one has seen, as these wars have dragged on and the U.S. has become the 911 responder for the world."
Anton explained the barbecues are able to come together because "I just happen to know a lot of guys who won't hang up on me when I call them and ask for help."