I was sitting in Golden Gate Park among the giant trees contemplating the ups and downs of the construction industry focusing mainly on the downs.
I liked the greenery, the peace, and majesty here in the park. In the distance, the drum circle people were practicing their rhythmical beats. Drum circling had carried over from the sixties. It was a great day to be off. I had picked up a watermelon, cut into and found that I had gotten lucky. It was good and sweet and helping to make this Saturday pretty much perfect. I had cut it right down the middle, and I was trying to figure out what to do with the other half when I saw a homeless guy walking nearby.
“Hey, Guy!” I said.
He turned to look at me.
“Would you like this watermelon? It’s way more than I can eat.”
He smiled at me. I had taken a chance. This guy was in good command of his senses. He walked over, and I handed him the melon.
“Hey thanks,” he said.
We ate watermelon and talked a bit. His name was Ernie, and he seemed like a nice enough guy.
“This isn’t what I do all the time,” he said, pushing his backpack with his foot. He told me that he did some jobs here and there then goes back to home base.
“Where is home?” I asked.
“Watsonville, I work harvests a lot and sometimes odd jobs to boot.”
“Well I’m in construction, don’t know if I can recommend that,” I laughed.
“I was actually thinking about heading to my kid’s house, and regroup a little,” he said.
I smiled and nodded.
“Hey,” he said a bit nervously. “Would you like to meet Ritchie Valens’ brother, Bob Morales?”
“Unh?” I said, being caught off guard. He had noticed my guitar sitting there still in its case. Let me say right here, I’ll share a watermelon, especially with someone who is down on their luck, but trusting anyone, well that’s another matter. I had a few hard lessons in trusting when I first moved to California, so I learned really quick.
“My son lives in Watsonville and is Bob Morales’ next door neighbor.”
“Oh, he does? That’s pretty cool. Ritchie Valens, Rock’ n Roll pioneer.”
“Yeah, a tragedy. I know Bob Morales well, I’d be happy to introduce you.”
“Umm,” I said trying to figure out something I needed to do. There had to be something. Not my thing, taking a stranger out to who knows where.
“It’s only an hour and a half, I don’t have gas money, but just thought it would be cool for a music guy like you to meet him. Kinda special, you know.”
I took a breath. He looked like an okay kinda guy, plus he wasn’t a big either. I decided against my normally cautious nature.
“Alright, I will take you to your son’s house. Let’s do it.”
“Great! You will really like Bob,” he said.
I picked up my gear and we tossed the watermelon rinds into the trash. We got into my van. I pulled out of my parking spot with a bit of remorse. Good spots were hard to find on perfect Saturdays, and I had planned to spend some time in the park today.
“I have never been to Watsonville before,” I said.
“Well there’s a lot of strawberries there,” he laughed.
We hit the highway. All along the way, I felt okay, and not worried that here I had gone and picked up a homeless guy and now we were on a road trip. Stuff you do. Ernie made jokes and I told him my stories about how I decided to head to California and leave my home that was far away. Really too far away. We both had strong family ties.
“I never go too far from my son,” said Ernie.
I looked at him, he probably had a better time finding jobs than I did.
“It might be better if I was bilingual,” I said.
Before long we came to the city of Watsonville which, even off the freeway, looked like a neat little down.
“Wow, they grow all that stuff here?”
“In the country,” he said.
Up ahead, he directed me to exit off the freeway, and I found myself navigating a small road.
“Turn left up at the next one,” Ernie said.
Country road, non-paved. I was uncomfortable for sure, and the twinge of possibly being set up once again invaded my psyche. I felt down on the other side of my seat and touched the tip of my tire iron that I had stashed for emergencies. What if there was a gang up ahead. Did I really look like I had a bunch of money stashed somewhere? I liked Ernie, and I hoped it wasn’t all a scam.
“Okay, the next road, take a right. We are almost there,” he said. He must have been sensing how uncomfortable I had become.
When I turned the corner, up ahead were crazy fields of strawberries. Strawberries everywhere. Red dots on green. Acres and acres of strawberries.
“Wow, Strawberry Fields Forever!”
Ernie smiled. “They smell good too.”
He motioned ahead to an area surrounded by cedar trees. As we got closer, I saw three houses. A little enclave surrounded by strawberry fields.
“Cool,” I said, relaxing my grip on the tire iron.
We pulled up to the middle house and got out of the van. Ernie knocked at the door. A woman answered.
“Hey Gorgeous, where’s Bob?”
“Hi,” she said glancing at me. “He’s around there.”
We walked around to the yard. In the back we found two guys sitting in a junked out Fiat X19. No wheels, just the body, like it was perfectly normal. Stuff you do.
“Hey Bob,” said Ernie
“Hey Ernie, how’s it goin?”
“It’s all good,” said Ernie. “I brought a friend.”
“Hello,” said Bob, shaking my hand.
We started talking about what else, Ritchie. Then we delved off into that spiraling cycle exploring the depths of Rock ’n Roll and how fragile life truly is.
“How spot on was the movie?” I asked.
“Eighty-five percent true, Fifteen percent made up,” said Bob.
I liked him a lot.
“My mom, she is dead now. We lost the house in L.A., my ex-wife got it in the divorce. I lost a lot by taking the La Bamba movie money up front and not doing the gross percentage rider. Anyway, came back here, this is where we are from. This is it.”
“So you were Ritchie’s drummer in the beginning?” I asked.
“Nope, remember the fifteen percent? That’s the made up part.”
The shadows were starting to fall. Ernie had long slipped away. Gone on down to his son’s house to make up for the all the times he drifted in and out. Here I was in the middle of the Watsonville countryside, looking out over miles and miles of strawberry fields. You could just bend down and pick up a strawberry that had slipped through the harvester. The smell of strawberries running wild through the air culminating in an aromatic fruit fest.
“This is such a cool place to live,” I said.
“Hey, there are worse,” said Bob.
He smiled. Great guy. I picked up my guitar that I had felt compelled to bring in with me to meet the Rock pioneer’s brother. I wasn’t sure, should I do it? I weighed the option in my mind. I took a chance. I broke out with La Bamba. I was scared just a bit, what if Bob thought it was lame? I looked up at him, and he was smiling. I finished the song.
“Right answer,” he said. “Nicely done, too.”
“Come in for a minute.” We went inside. He went over to a bureau and took out a picture of Ritchie. He turned it over and wrote on the back and handed it to me.
“Wow, a photo print of Ritchie Valens! Thanks so much, man.” I said.
“You’re welcome, I’m glad you came to see me. Glad you brought Ernie. He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah, he really is,” I said.
I made my way back to the van and loaded up my guitar. I waved to Bob and looked once again at the view between the cedar trees to the unfolding strawberry glory beyond. I started the vehicle and headed out. It was a better Saturday than I had planned, and it all began when I gave a homeless guy some watermelon, and in return, he had given me an opportunity to step inside the short life of a legend who helped shape the music that defined me. Ernie also showed me art in the form of acres and acres of strawberry fields in a magical place that seemed to encircle that part of the country like a red berry oasis amidst fields of green.