I met with Ernie Pardini at The Boonville Lodge on a recent Friday afternoon. I had planned to interview both Ernie and his brother Tony at the same time but Tony had to work at the last minute and so Ernie and I proceeded without him, and without beer too I should add!
Ernie was born in August 1954, the first child of AV High School sweethearts Donald Pardini and Donna Strickland who were living on the Bradford Ranch at the time where Donald worked as a cowboy. Donald had been born in Stockton, California in 1930 when his parents were visiting relatives there. “My Dad is bitter about that,” says Ernie. “He wanted to be born here and is still furious with his mother to this day.” The Pardini’s are long-time Valley dwellers, coming over from Italy in the early 1900s, eventually settling in Yorkville in the 30s where they ran the Pardini Hotel. Meanwhile, Donna’s family was originally from the town of Rough and Ready in the Sierras where Donna was born in 1932, before they moved to the East Bay where her father worked in the Alameda shipyards. Following World War II, the shipyards closed but there was a timber boom in the Valley, with twenty-nine mills operating by 1946, and the Strickland’s moved here for work in the logging industry, “although my Mom was a City girl and came kicking and screaming.” They lived in a mill shack which burnt down very soon after they arrived, with all their worldly possessions inside. However, within a few hours the community had rallied round and provided tents, clothes, and food and within a week they had built the family a new home with furniture too. “My Mom said she never wanted to leave after that.” Following Ernie, Donald and Donna had two more children — Tony in 1956 and Julie in 1958.
Ernie attended kindergarten at the Little Red Schoolhouse (now the Museum) and then the High School at what is now the Elementary School. “I liked the social aspect of school but found the lessons boring. I got good grades because other people did my work for me. My brother and I were really into the sports and both of us played football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. I was all Redwood Empire in football at wide receiver and Tony was a great quarterback, one of the best the school has ever had. We were not bad kids — just mischievous. My parents were strict and we weren’t allowed sleepovers like other kids. But when we left school we were wild and crazy. Imagine a couple of sheep dogs being tied up for some years then let off into a pasture full of sheep — mayhem — we were like that! I went to Santa Rosa JC for a semester but with all my friends working in the woods and making good money I left and went into logging. That summer of 1972 I made $35,000 in seven months and had money to spend on partying. A few years later I went to Mendocino College but really just to play baseball. By the time I was twenty-one I had been drinking for a few years on my fake ID. My Dad did eventually call The Lodge and told them I wasn’t of age but it was just two weeks before my 21st birthday. They kicked me out but two weeks later I was back legally.”
Ernie had married Donna Hibbeln at nineteen, and was then divorced that same year. “I couldn’t handle being in the house. I was into being with friends in the bar. We did some serious carousing in The Lodge; it was probably the final few years that the bar was justifiably called ‘The Bucket of Blood’ — a title that had been around for the generation before us, and probably a lot longer before that. Along with Danny Kuny, Tony and I were always in fights. Our reputations meant that people would come looking for us. We’d be playing pool and some stranger would come up and say, ‘So you’re pretty tough eh?’ ‘That’s a rumor’ I might reply. Soon one thing had led to another. It was just fist fighting, no weapons. I must say I enjoyed it. I missed the contact sports, I guess. We did not start many fights; well I didn’t, Tony didn’t seem to mind starting it sometimes. We were not the bad guys but we were definitely wild and crazy and didn’t lose many fights.”
“On one occasion some guy had a bottle in his hand and began to threaten us. Tony said, ‘That bottle might hurt. Do you think it will hurt, Ernie?’ ’Maybe,’ I said. Tony then picked up another bottle and smashed it over his own head and said, ‘Nah, that doesn’t hurt’ and beat the hell out of the guy. I usually tried to talk it out before getting to the fighting. I didn’t back down though and as soon as I knew it was inevitable I’d get the first punch in. Really I just wanted to be in the bar picking up pretty girls and then the other stuff happened. As I said, Tony, Danny Kuny, and myself had quite a reputation. Those are the two guys I’d least like to fight. My brother just will not quit, you cannot hurt him. In those days there were fights nearly every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Just fist-fights, no knives or guns, and apart from the occasional out-of-towner, we all knew each other and most fights were soon over and the loser would buy the beers.”
“Once a Mexican guy kept bothering us. He flicked Tony’s hat off. He was warned to stop but he wouldn’t and so Tony grabbed him by the throat and pinned him to the pool table before kicking him out. The guy threatened to come back with a gun. I watched him go to his truck and return with a rifle before standing across the street from the bar where there used to be a bus stop. He was waiting for Tony to leave. I walked down the street and doubled back behind him, and disarmed him. He ran into the Post Office lobby. I chased after him, knocked him down, and stood over him with his own rifle at his throat. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ I shouted. ‘If I don’t kill you I’ve got to be always looking over my shoulder!’ I was shaking and the hammer was cocked. Tony arrived and talked me down. A week later the same guy came into The Lodge. I didn’t want to deal with it so I left. He followed me in his truck with another guy driving as he pointed a gun out the window. I hid and after making about twelve passes and not spotting me they drove off. Tony and I had to sort this out so we went to where the guy lived and talked to a guy who I was a friend of, who lived with him. I said we were going to blow his brains out. This friend said he would sort it out and gave me his word. I accepted this. The guy then disappeared. I thought they had off’d him to keep the peace. Six months later the guy showed up and had bought me a drink before I could say anything. To this day he still buys me a drink every time he is around. I have no idea what was said to him.”
At the age of 21, in 1975, Ernie had married once again. This time to Sandra Abernathy and over the next few years they had two daughters, Christina and Stacey, but it was not to last. “She was a great mother and a great wife. If I’d been smart we’d still be together perhaps. I take the blame for that one not working and I have a great relationship with her to this day.”
Over the years Ernie found regular work in the woods, originally setting chokers, then driving bulldozers, and eventually as a log loader, which he did for 25 years. He mainly worked in the Valley with Hiatt logging (initially for Kay Hiatt, later with Charlie and Wayne) but he also worked in Willits and Fort Bragg at times.
By 1984 he was divorced and wanted a break and decided to leave town. He had $5 and hitched a ride out of the Valley. He had no idea where he wanted to go but ended up in Las Vegas where he found a job selling vitamins. “I was just good at it. I earned $500 a week in commission and lived in a three-bedroom house with a Jacuzzi. It was good for a time but I did miss the Valley and my kids. I had a girlfriend, Gina Galliano, who was from New York City and we decided to come and live in the Valley. We got married and were here for almost a year but it was too small-town for her and she wanted to return to New York so I went with her.”
“New York City was a culture shock but I’m nothing if not resourceful and found work for a tree service company. It didn’t last long once the freezing weather arrived so in January 1986 I found a job in the service department of a Chevy dealership. I had no experience but the guy interviewing me said I seemed reasonably intelligent and then when he asked to see my hands, which were badly calloused, he knew I didn’t mind hard work so he hired me. I did pretty well for them. A few months later the local Toyota dealership offered me double the salary and commission so I took that job and was soon the Service Manager there. Meanwhile I began to take night school classes in Kitchen Design and when the opportunity of a job in that line came along I took it. We lived on Long Island and in total I was gone from the Valley for a total of four and a half years. Once again I was missing my kids and Valley life and told Gina ‘I’m going back to California — you can come if you want.’ She had three kids who had to stay in New York State so she decided to stay so I returned and that was it between us.”
Ernie returned to work in the woods wherever he could find it. This sometimes meant more than 70 hours a week with an hour’s drive each way. He married his fourth wife, Shannon Elger whom he had known since she was a small child, having gone to school with her mother. They had a daughter, Sarah Jane and all was well for a time. However, his work was taking its toll and he fell into the trap of taking methamphetamines to stay awake. This led to big problems that were to last for many years. “My ex-wife Shannon and I are 16 years apart in age and we were having many issues and drugs added to the mix. We lost parental rights and Sarah was put into a foster home. She is still in the foster-care system but I get to see her on weekends and I am working towards getting custody. The work and drugs were tough on any relationships and my health suffered. At one point it got so bad that my lung collapsed and I was in the hospital for 21 days. I almost died. It was a real bad time of my life but we were both to blame for our problems. Meth is a very, very destructive drug when you are addicted. It ruins marriages and relationships with your kids. At the time I didn’t think I could function without it. It was the number one thing I had to do every day, everything else came after. I never stole for my drug money, I paid for them with my own money so I guess I didn’t completely abandon my principles, although my relationships with family and friends were definitely strained.”
These days Ernie has pulled things together. “I’ve now been clean for one and a half years and help run the Valley’s Narcotics Anonymous group as the secretary and meeting facilitator. We meet once a week at 7pm on Thursdays at the high school and I encourage those with problems to attend. We can definitely help.”
In recent times Ernie has continued to work in the woods, recently with Ed Slotte, “a great logger,” who does sustainable logging, although work is far from frequent in the current economic climate. He has also found work over the years in construction around the Valley and for a time had his own salvage business. He views Navarro as his home, not Boonville. “My family is from there. I grew up in Boonville but my forefathers were from Navarro and I feel at peace when I’m there. I love that end of the Valley — the Deep End — it’s my favorite place in the Valley. There have been so many changes to the Valley. When I was a kid you could sit and count cars in Boonville and if you saw 65 in a day that was a lot. I also used to know everyone here. Not anymore. Some things stay the same though. The Lodge is one. It no longer has any fighting and it’s a nice place for many different people now, but it’s still feels like the Lodge and that’s a good thing.”
I next asked Ernie for his responses to some of the various issues that are frequently discussed around the Valley.
The wineries? “I am not pleased at all the vineyard development. Logging, if done right, doesn’t do as much damage as the vines. Having this one species — grapes — everywhere is not good. They go eight feet down with their soil treatment. It is an environmental crime. As for the water, that is a big concern. We used to be able to swim in all the creeks in August. It’s not even close to that now. It’s not all the wineries’ fault but the extra traffic coming through the Valley bugs the shit out of me. It blows me away sometimes when I try to pull out of the Drive-In and have to wait for such a long time.”
With Ernie and his buddies constantly ‘misbehaving’ in their youth, what does he think of the Valley’s law enforcement? “Deputy Keith Squires is a classic Keeper of the Peace in a country environment. He will bend the rules where he thinks it will help the overall situation. He had the respect of all of us during those crazy times; no matter how ‘bad’ some of them thought they were. He is the perfect small-town sheriff. If he got his hackles up we knew it was time to stop. Today he does what he needs to do but knows when to look the other way. Tony and I have paid for the windows to be repaired, and the chairs and tables to be replaced in The Lodge many times. Keith would come to our house on a Sunday morning, politely waiting until he knew we’d be up, and give us our bill, shake his head, and turn away. If I was bad he’d put me in his vehicle and take me up Highway 253 a few miles and drop me off. He’d tell me to walk home, and that if he found out I had got a ride he’d take me to jail. ‘Yes, sir’ I would say and then begin walking.”
Before taking a break I asked Ernie who he would vote for Mayor of Anderson Valley if such a position existed and had significant power to change things? “It would be Emil Rossi. No doubt in my mind. He is a fellow libertarian and on the money with his political views. He is a realist and I like that.”
Following his four-year stay in New York during the late 80s, Ernie returned to the Valley and not long afterwards the Louisiana Pacific (L-P) logging company bought out Masonite and began to clear-cut everything. “This really disturbed me. They were raping the woods. One day when I was working with my Uncle Robert we drove through miles and miles of clear-cut woods. I asked him how he could be a part of this. He said he needed the job and had no choice. I said I felt I did have a choice and so I quit. It was crazy. Green logging could be done. Selective cutting, sustainable logging, was certainly possible but L-P didn’t want to do it. They wanted to make a quick profit and get out. You don’t have to use all your base volume and you can still maintain the forests. I had logged all my life, cutting down old growth trees, but this was wrong. I loved logging, I am from generations of loggers but these people were destroying our ability to do it in the future.”
“I wrote letters and gave talks about this. Judi Bari of Earth First, the environmental group, had read and heard me, and I eventually became a friend of hers. For some of my opinions and actions my co-workers blackballed me and my family relationships were strained to say the least. What I said was very controversial coming from a member of a long-tome logging family. I know some of them agreed with me but were upset that I had to be the one saying such things. At first, my brother Tony didn’t agree with me but said I had a lot of guts saying such things and that he’d ‘got my back’ if anything was to happen.”
“I’d walk into the Redwood Drive-In here in Boonville and people would walk out. It was a very difficult time for many people and I felt strongly about this. I was soon unable to get a job when people found out who I was. I couldn’t even get a job in a deli. I was a ‘traitor to the logging industry’ and while others agreed with much of what I was saying they felt they couldn’t risk their jobs by saying so.”
“After I’d shown Tony some huge clear-cut areas he’d commented ‘What the fuck is all this? — It’s like the moon,” and from then on he joined me. For one County Fair we made a throne out of a redwood stump and put it on the back of a truck with Judi Bari sitting on it and then drove it in the Parade. Half the crowd was cheering, the other half throwing rocks. On another occasion we went in the Lodge with Judi one night and by the end of the evening all the hard-nosed, anti-environment loggers were wearing Earth First t-shirts!”
“L-P was an investment corporation who wanted to make short-term profit out of the woods and then get out. I said when they arrived that within five years they would be out of Mendocino, having being a disaster for the timber industry. One week short of five years they were gone. Of 300,000 acres, 96% had been harvested. They took all the small trees too. They could have left them and never depleted the base volume. They were not interested in the long-term logging industry and now look at what we have, or don’t have. There are no sawmills left here and many people are out of work. Sure, at the turn of the century and again in the early 50s, they did clear-cutting but in the later years anyone worth their salt in the logging world knows you can do sustainable logging.”
“Judi Bari had many wealthy people behind her movement who wanted to restrict the logging and gave to the cause. After the attempt on her life, in the bombing down in Oakland, she decided to use a little of the income from these sources to provide protection for herself. She asked me to be her bodyguard and I accepted. She said I was the only person she ever felt completely safe with. I drove her everywhere and flew with her when she gave talks around the country. I received training in bomb detection and the self-defense I pretty much had down. She jokingly called me her ‘logger slave’ and we became great friends. Romance? There was something there maybe, and we discussed it, but we both decided not to let it go there.”
Ernie has his own theories about ‘Who bombed Judi Bari?” “I did not know Judi personally at the time but the bombing really pissed me off and I spoke up about it with articles and radio interviews. I definitely do not believe that she had knowingly been carrying the bomb. Three weeks prior to the bomb attack in Oakland, I saw a poster of Judi’s head with a ‘scope and crosshairs over it. The FBI had a group (COINTELPRO) within it that infiltrated dissident groups and did what it could to break them up — groups such as the American Indians (AIM) and the Black Panthers. Led by a guy named Richard Held, they went after Earth First too. With Earth First planning a series of protests in the summer of 1990 — ‘Redwood Summer’ it was to be called — the FBI had prepared local law enforcement agencies by giving training courses on how to deal with such protests. One such course was a car bomb seminar at which three cars were blown up. Two of the bombs were identical to the one that was later used in Judi’s car. One of the cars was the same model as Judi’s. And the bombs were definitely anti-personnel devices.”
“First on the scene of the bombing was an Oakland police officer. Two FBI officers, the same two agents who had put on the seminar, soon joined him. It was as though they had been round the corner with their fingers in their ears, waiting for the bomb to go off. The cop thought the bomb had been under the driver’s seat but revised his original report when the agents told him where the bomb had been: on the back seat. The FBI agent in charge of the Bari Bombing investigation was none other than Richard Held, formerly of COINTELPRO.”
“Over the couple of years or more when I was with Judi as her bodyguard we were trailed everywhere. I would drive round in circles sometimes, down dirt roads and back just to mess with the agents behind us. The same guys would follow us down Highway 101, be on our plane, and then be at the venue Judi was speaking at. It was comical at times. They were very inept and stood out at all the functions we attended. They tried to look like hippies but were obviously not. People would ask us questions about being followed and Judi would say, ‘Why not ask those guys over there?’ and point at our ‘hippy’ followers. She was very brave but would always call me if she felt threatened. One night she called and told me there were some weird noises in the woods around her house in Willits. I went over there and searched around. I was leaning down to gather some firewood on the porch when I noticed a little red dot on the woodpile in front of me. I looked around and could just barely hear a helicopter. The dot was an infrared scope dot and I dove away from the pile. They were just scaring her I’m sure. Intimidation was their way most of the time.”
“However, the bombing was different. I believe the FBI could have killed Judi whenever they wished. Of course they could. But they had other people who could do it for them. Some with a reason were in the timber industry. I believe that the FBI taught people from the logging industry how to make the bomb and then helped in the cover-up. I was in a bar in Willows, California with a bunch of loggers. They were glued to the television. They were waiting for the news program. Three days in a row I was there with them. They knew a bomb had being set in Bari’s car. The timer was defective and finally went off when she was driving through Oakland.”
“The FBI did not do it themselves, neither did the loggers. It was a joint effort. Some people suspect Judi’s husband, Mike Sweeney. I was privy to their relationship and although they had separated they remained friends. They had a volatile marriage but had been getting along great since then. Judi confided in me that it had not been Mike. They were good friends by that time. Judi was not against the loggers at all. In fact she wanted their support to change the logging practices. She needed their support to be taken seriously by L-P but it was tough for the guys to say anything at the time. L-P was ruthless and would fire anyone who said anything against them. Her main thing was against the corporate destruction of the environment. She had some success but not soon enough. These days much of what she said about the logging practices has come true. It was a case of too little, too late.”
I next asked Ernie for his responses to some more of the various issues that are frequently discussed around the Valley.
The school system? “I think they are doing a good job although there are too many teaching assistants and too much special education for my liking. I wish I knew more before being too critical. The Ag department cuts do bother me. Many of the kids will end up working in the agriculture business so why the cuts?”
The AVA? “I think the paper is one of the best things about local life. I respect what Bruce does and believe he keeps a lid on the insanity level here sometimes. I don’t always agree with what the paper says but I do read it every week and like that Bruce tells it likes he sees it. The truth sometimes hurts and unlike the Press Democrat, you know it’s not bullshit. I was really sad when Bruce left a few years ago but really glad when he returned.”
KZYX&Z local public radio? “I am just a casual listener. I think some of it is drivel and far too politically correct and wishy-washy at times. I like Trading Time, Car Talk, and some of the stuff from NPR but prefer KGO to be honest.”
To end the interview I posed the usual questions to Ernie from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert” Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
Favorite word or phrase? — “Bullshit”
Least favorite word or phrase? — “That would be ‘Whatever.’ This is a word people seem to use when they can’t think of anything intelligent to say.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Walking in undisturbed forestland or the mountains.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Ignorance by so-called intelligent people. For example, these people who are giving Obama a hard time already. Bush took eight years and got us into this mess. Let’s give the new guy a chance.”
Sound or noise you love? “Running water in a stream”
Sound or noise you hate? “Sirens. Nothing good ever comes from sirens.”
Favorite curse word? “Rotten bastard!”
Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “The book would be ‘1984’ by George Orwell. It was required reading in school and I enjoyed it. With much of it coming to fruition, it’s been very prophetic obviously. As for a song, ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’ by Hank Williams Jr. is one that I can and do relate to. And a film would be ‘Rocky.’ The underdog thing is big with me. I have always championed the underdog.”
Favorite hobby? “It used to be football for many years. I was on our local North Coast Loggers team, a good but rag-tag outfit. We had no regular practices; our uniforms didn’t all match and were fading. Talking of underdogs, we once played a team from San Jose up here and they looked immaculate and were making comments about playing in a sheep field against a bunch of country bumpkins. We were a bit intimidated. Then when the PA system started playing the theme from ‘Rocky’ we just rose up and went out and kicked their ass 31-6. We destroyed them. Anyway, I am still involved with football doing the announcing for the High School and the Pop Warner teams. For many years I was into rodeo and loved it. Being on a 1800-pound bull is something else. No drug can give you a rush like that. These days, I suppose hiking is still a hobby, or perhaps picking mushrooms for commercial sale. Doing something I like and making a little money from it can’t be bad.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “I think I would have liked to be a lawyer and had aspirations to do that at one point. Again I would like to champion the downtrodden so I probably would have given my services very cheaply.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “I wouldn’t want to be a cop.”
Happiest day or event in your life? — “The births of my children were each very special occasions.”
Saddest? “The weeks leading up to my mother’s death. She died at 48 of ovarian cancer and yet had always been very conscious about health.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically/ mentally/spiritually? “I have a good heart and am a compassionate person. That sounds strange when you know about some of the things I have done. As for the fighting in my younger days it was always important to me to think that I was right or I couldn’t fight. I would go after bullies and stuck up for those who couldn’t defend themselves or who didn’t deserve it. My father used to say ‘quit crying and act like am man and don’t take any shit from anyone.’ My Mom would encourage me to be sensitive and compassionate. I guess I learned from them both.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Err, how about, ‘I didn’t think you would but it looks like you made it after all’? I have had lots of fun and have many great memories. That’s all you have in the end, I guess. Many people say they wouldn’t change a thing when they are asked about their lives. To be truthful I would have done many things differently if I had the chance to do them again. I have regrets about how I dealt with the relationships with my kids and with my marriages. I think I have learned though. I like what I have become, somewhat wise I hope. I believe I can teach by example. Of course, in my case, that sometimes means learning good behavior by not following my bad example!