George Ernie Pickett, Pt 5


by Bill Starr | April 25, 2013

george ernie pickett

The reason why Ernie and I lifted in that power meet on the Jersey Shore in July was to qualify for the Senior Nationals to be held in Los Angeles two weeks after the Olympic Trials. We wanted to go to Disneyland. Hoffman was all for us making the trip. In his mind, the more athletes that represented the York Barbell Club, the better. Roman Mielec had also qualified for the meet the previous fall and he was also going with us. I had tried to talk Kenny Moore into going to the Jersey meet to qualify. Kenny was extremely strong and I knew he would do well in the Seniors. He did reps with 550 in the back squat and only Barski and Ernie did more in that lift.

But Kenny, like about 95% of all Olympic lifters, didn’t care for powerlifting at all. He considered that sport way inferior to Olympic lifting, even if it meant missing a fun trip to southern California. 

The York Picnic was held the day after the Olympic Trials at Brookside Park in Dover. A huge crowd showed up. Most had attended the Trials at Central High School in York the day before and took full advantage of this opportunity to visit with those athletes who had taken part in that exciting contest. 

When I had first approached Ernie with the idea of going to the Senior Nationals in powerlifting, I thought he might be hesitant. If he did make the team, he might want to concentrate fully on the three Olympic lifts. And most lifters would have rejected the idea of taking part in a power meet while getting ready for the biggest show in Olympic lifting - the Olympic Games. But Ernie wasn’t like the other lifters. 

Before the Trials, he told me that if he did make the team, the trip would be a great way to celebrate and he was a firm believer in using the power lifts to help improve his Olympic lifts. “Besides,” he added, “a power meet is not as strenuous as a heavy session in the York Gym on Saturday.” And if he didn’t make the team, visiting Disneyland would be just what the doctor ordered. A chance to regroup and to decide what to do next in regards to weightlifting.

In my case, the decision to make the trip was an easy one. I knew that I didn’t have a realistic chance of coming in second against Bartholmew, Grippaldi, and Capsouras. Not to mention Gary Glenney and Chuck Nootens, both of whom had been posting big numbers going into the Trials. My goal, since watching the ’64 Trials at the World’s Fair in New York City, was to qualify for the ’68 Trials. So I had already achieved my goal.

After Ernie had beaten Barski and been selected to the Olympic team, I asked him if he still wanted to make that trip to L.A. “Sure Starr. I’ve already been to Mexico City and didn’t like it all that much. I’d much rather go to Disneyland. Now I get to do both,” he said with a big grin.

Bill St. John showed up at the picnic. He had helped me work with Ernie at the Trials. He was the only bodybuilder I knew who liked to hang out with Olympic lifters more than he did with his fellow bodybuilders. Bill and Ernie had become close friends when Ernie started getting treatments on the Isotron at Doc’s home office in Olney, Maryland. Bill was a regular there to also take advantage of Doc’s magical machine, and he and Ernie appreciated each other’s quirky sense of humor. They bonded. 

Ernie and I wanted Bill to make the trip to L.A. with us. He could compete in the Mr. USA physique contest held in conjunction with the power meet. However, Bill wasn’t one to blow his own horn. Unlike many other bodybuilders, he did his best not to attract attention. He preferred being in the background rather than in the spotlight. Since he wasn’t going to ask Hoffman to sponsor him to go to L.A., it was up to Ernie and me to convince Hoffman to include Bill on the York Team. 

But neither of us had come up with a good plan as of yet. Then, Bill related what he had been doing earlier that day. Doc Ziegler had asked Bill to put on an exhibition at Gettysburg College for the football team. Doc wanted to show them an example of neck strength. They set up three chairs. Bill suspended himself on two of them, heels on one and his head on another. The Doc stepped off the third chair and stood on Bill’s chest.  

“Perfect,” I said and Ernie nodded, knowing exactly what I had in mind. Hoffman was always eager to have a well-built bodybuilder do some poses or other strength feats at the picnic. Ernie stood up and waved. Since he was a massive specimen he caught Hoffman’s attention. Then he pointed at St. John, and Hoffman, who was on stage talking on the microphone, called Bill to come up on stage.

As Bill got up, I said to him, “Tell Hoffman about that stunt with the chairs. He eats stuff like that up.”

The person on stage before Bill did a series of poses had done some push-ups with his arms fully extended. Bill did the same number of extended push-ups with one arm. Hoffman really liked that, and Bill told him about the stunt with the chairs. Bob loved that idea and the three chairs were set up. Bill fixed his head on one chair and his heels on another and braced himself. He had already done this once before today and knew that Hoffman wasn’t any heavier that Doc Ziegler. But Doc had removed his shoes before stepping onto Bill’s chest. When he saw that Hoffman still had his shoes on and was about to step on him and put his full bodyweight on his chest and midsection, Bill said “Bob, you have your shoes on.”  

Hoffman looked down and thought that Bill was concerned about him. Bob said, “Oh that’s all right,” and proceeded to step off the chair and balance himself on Bill’s outstretched body. The shoes cutting into his skin added another level of pain, but Bill acted as if it didn’t matter at all. 

The crowd gave them a standing ovation and when Bob stepped off of Bill and down from the chair, he grabbed the mike and announced that he was taking Bill to Los Angeles to compete in the Mr. United States physique contest in two weeks. This brought another loud cheer from the audience. 

When Bill got back to where Ernie and I were standing, he found us in hysterics, with tears running down our faces.

Bill scolded us. “It wasn’t that funny.”

Ernie stopped laughing long enough to say, “Yes it was. I’ve never seen anyone humiliate himself like that just to get a free plane ticket.”

That set us off laughing again and Bill joined in. Finally, he admitted, “I got no pride.” 

The members of the Olympic team and alternates who did not have a valid reason to return to their homes stayed at the Yorktown Hotel in the center of York. They trained at the YBC and feasted on some of the finest prime rib east of the Mississippi every night. Some had it for lunch and dinner. Ernie continued to work at his job at Continental Can Company in Baltimore, but drove up to York on his training days and took full advantage of the free cuisine at the Yorktown. He was packing on some quality bodyweight.

After the competition at the Trials, I had the chance to visit with one of my favorite people, Tom Hirtz. He was now stationed at an Air Force base not far from Los Angeles. He had lifted in the light heavyweight division and got off to a great start with a 319 press, but failed to make any snatches. Yet he was in high spirits, happy that he was able to take part in the Trials. When I told him that Ernie and I were coming to Los Angeles for the Senior National power meet, he said he would not only come to watch us lift, he would chauffeur us around and act as our tour guide. Perfect! 

The Senior Nationals in powerlifting would be held on two days, Friday, the 13th of September, and Saturday, the 14th. On Friday evening, competitions would be held for the following weight classes: 123, 132, 181, and superheavyweights. On Saturday afternoon, the 148, 165, 198, and 242 lb. classes would lift. Then the Mr. United States physique contest would be staged that night. 

This schedule suited Ernie, Bill, and me to a tee. With Ernie lifting the first day, we would have a lot of time to explore the Los Angeles area. I was using the meet as a heavy workout but didn’t plan on training specifically for it in any way. Ernie was doing the same and Bill knew that he wasn’t going to be in peak condition to have a chance to win the physique portion of the show. Our goal was not medals, but to have as much fun as was humanly possible. 

Bill St. John, Ernie, and I flew out of Friendship Airport in Baltimore early Thursday morning. Hoffman and Roman Mielec would catch a later flight. The three of us had invited Roman to join us, but he rejected our offer. He was still very peeved at me for backing Ernie over Barski. Roman and Barski spent a great deal of time together while working in the warehouse at the Barbell and had become good friends. Roman thought I was being disloyal to Barski and had stopped talking to me after the Trials. 

I didn’t try to convince him why I had taking that stance. He was allowed his opinion, so I left him alone. But the simple fact was that both Ernie and Barski were my friends as well, but since Ernie had asked me to work with him going into the Trials, I felt my full allegiance was for him. Plus, I had done my very utmost to try and get Barski to gear up his training another notch, because it was obvious to many of the other York lifters that he hadn’t taken the Trials seriously enough. He was 100% convinced that he would be selected for the team regardless of how he performed at the competition. He was dead wrong, and I felt no guilt when I stood by Ernie after the meet. 

The reason we left early was to get into Los Angeles with plenty of time to do some sightseeing.  Our other reason for catching the 7 a.m. flight was so we could get checked into our hotel and be long gone before Hoffman arrived. We knew that if we ran into him, he would volunteer one or all of us to accompany him when he went to visit the health food stores in the area. St. John was especially vulnerable. Hoffman always wanted to take an athlete along to do some posing. And the odds were pretty good that he would want to also take Ernie to show off. Which meant I would have to tag along. 

At LAX, we caught a cab and gave the driver the address of our hotel, on 9th and Grand Street, right across from the meet site, the Embassy Auditorium in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. I had called Hirtz the day before we left to tell him of our E.T.A. and where we were staying. We quickly registered, took our luggage to our rooms, and hurried down to the lobby to wait for Hirtz. It was a short wait.

Tommy pulled up in his freshly-washed El Camino and we went outside to greet him. For those who may not know what an El Camino looks like, it’s a car built like a pickup truck. The cab could handle three people, but those people had to be of somewhat normal size. There was no way Ernie could fit. He weighed over 300 pounds and at 6’4”, he would have had to bend over until his head touched the dashboard. Plus, the seat would have had to be pushed so far back that Hirtz would not have been able to reach the gas and brake pedals.

That meant Ernie had to ride in the back. Tommy had anticipated this. In the bed of the El Camino there was a mattress, which I recognized as the type used in military bases, plus two fat pillows that looked like they had been discarded next to a dumpster. This suited Ernie just fine. He sprawled out and nearly covered the entire space. Bill and I climbed in the cab. Tommy asked, “Where to?” Bill and I answered together, “Disneyland.” And we were off. 

Tommy knew his way around the mazes of interstates, cross streets, and back roads. It was a picture-perfect day, temperature in the mid-eighties, with a bright sun breaking through the smog. We arrived at our destination and followed Tommy. He was proving to be an excellent tour guide. However, we were about to learn that he planned on having a great deal of fun on this adventure as well. And a large portion of his entertainment was going to come at Ernie’s expense. He found more ways to pester Ernie that I could count on both hands.

For the first hour, we wandered through the expansive grounds, soaking up the various rides. I was having a great time just watching all the visitors and workers. They were a show in themselves. We took a break to scarf down tacos, chili, and orange juice at a vendor. St. John put away twice the number of tacos as the three of us did. And I had to chuckle watching Ernie devour the delicious Mexican fare, since he was extremely picky about what he ate. 

The next order of business was to try some of the rides. None of us, with the exception of our young friend, wanted any part of the scary rides. We watched people getting on and off the boats for the Jungle Ride and concluded that it was safe enough. That’s when Hirtz got started. 

Ernie was a shy person. He didn’t like being in the limelight like Barski did. Ernie much preferred to remain in the background and let others be out front. So once everyone was seated in the boat, Hirtz stood up and announced that they should be honored to be on the same ride as one of the strongest men in the entire country – a weightlifter who had set two World records in the overhead press and had recently been named to the Olympic Team.

All the visitors, and even the worker manning the boat, gave him a rousing ovation. Ernie turned a bright shade of pink and did his utmost to try and get smaller. Which didn’t work very well. Hirtz wasn’t finished. All through the ride, he kept shouting out more of Ernie’s accomplishments, even interrupting the almost continuous commentary of the park employee guiding the boat through its serpentine course. 

Ernie, of course, couldn’t wait to get out of the boat. In contrast, St. John and I were in stitches. Hirtz had gotten Ernie in a position where he couldn’t escape. Once Ernie regained his dignity and composure, he admonished Tommy and made him swear that he wouldn’t do that again. Hirtz raised his hand and promised he wouldn’t embarrass Ernie in that way ever again. All the while Tommy had a shit-eating grin on his face, and I knew he wasn’t finished with Ernie. I had watched him tease and torment everyone at the first two Teenage Training Camps at York Junior College in ’66 and ’67, and I just hoped he would keep pestering Ernie rather than me.

We strolled around the grounds, which were immense, stopped to watch the parade of the Disney characters, shook hands with Minnie, Mickey, and Goofy, then Hirtz suggested that we get in line for the Matterhorn. He knew none of us were interested in any of the thrill rides, and there were plenty of those, and assured us it was a tame sort of roller coaster.

We agreed and after a half and hour wait, we climbed in the rail cars, Bill and me in one and Ernie and Hirtz in another. Tommy was the model of good behavior all through the ride. He didn’t do any shouting of Ernie’s recent accomplishments, mainly because there was too much noise. Children and parents were screaming even on the slight declines and Tommy would not have been heard over those outbursts. But as the cars glided to a halt in front of perhaps a hundred people waiting for their turn and the guard bar was released, Hirtz jumped over in Ernie’s lap and began squirming around and moaning loudly. He was giving Ernie a lap dance.

The onlookers responded in a variety of ways. Those with children forced their kids to look away, while the teenagers roared in delight. Once again, Ernie tried to make himself small and invisible. As for Bill and me, we stumbled out of the Matterhorn doubled over in laughter, then had to hustle to catch up with our companions. Ernie was somber. Never had he faced an adversary like Hirtz. He was usually the one getting something over on another person and he was stumped as to what to do about Tommy. He couldn’t really get too upset since Hirtz was doing us a great favor. 

Hirtz told him he could relax, he was through playing pranks for the rest of the day. But Ernie didn’t relax, kept his distance from Tommy and stated that he wasn’t going on any more rides. We came across a live country show at one of the outdoor pavilions. Ernie and I were both big country music fans. Bill and Tommy not so much, but they deferred to our musical tastes and we sat on benches and watched the entire show, munching on popcorn and sipping freshly-made orange juice. 

When we got up to walk around a bit more, Ernie, Bill, and I were suddenly aware that between the jet lag and all the walking that we weren’t accustomed to was taking its toll. We decided to call it a day and headed for the parking lot. Before leaving the grounds, we took advantage of the bathroom facilities. The place was absolutely huge. I had never seen so many urinals and enclosed toilets in my life. There must have been thirty urinals along one wall. 

St. John, Ernie, and I waited until Tommy had selected one of them, then we moved as far away from him as possible to empty our bladders. We figured we were safely out of harm’s way. We were, but that didn’t stop Hirtz from finding a way to make us break up again. We were in the middle of the task at hand when Tommy started moaning like he had when he was sitting in Ernie’s lap. And he proceeded to moan louder and louder, which of course, got the attention of everyone in the room, including a lot of fathers and young sons. 

The three of us started giggling, and as Hirtz’s moaning reached a peak we were shaking so much from our laughter that we were spraying our shoes with urine. This went on for about three minutes. When he finished and zipped up his shorts, we were the only four people left in the bathroom.

On the ride back to downtown Los Angeles, St. John would start remembering one of the incidents and would start chuckling again, and I would join him. I asked him to stop because my abs were sore already. He did his best, but whenever we looked at one another, and saw the silly grins on each other’s faces we were off and running for another ten minutes of uncontrolled giggling. 

We could have eaten at the hotel and put the charges on our rooms. Then the bill would have been paid by the Barbell, but we didn’t want to take the risk of running into Hoffman. So Hirtz took us to an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant not far from our hotel. Once again, St. John put away more food that the rest of us combined. We offered to pay for Tommy’s meal, but he wouldn’t accept. We were already covering the cost of gas and he felt that was enough. 

We slipped into the hotel and gathered in Ernie’s room to decide how to avoid Hoffman for the next couple of days. We would use a signal when we knocked on one of our doors: three knocks, pause, then two more. If we wanted to phone a room, we would let it ring twice, hang up, and call again. We also agreed to make Friday a less ambitious day, with very little walking since Ernie would be lifting that evening. Hirtz left with the promise that he would pick us up at eight o’clock the next morning in front of the hotel. 

At exactly eight o’clock, we slipped down the back stairs and dashed through the lobby without seeing Hoffman or any of the other lifters who were staying at the hotel. True to his word, Tommy was sitting in his El Camino with the motor running. Bill and I once again got in the cab and Ernie jumped in the back and made himself comfortable. 

Hirtz took us on a driving tour of the more popular spots in the city: Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, the Walk of Fame, and Sunset Strip. That took up the whole morning. We had lunch at an outdoor cafe and again St. John devoured more food than the three of us. Where he put it, I could never figure out. When Bill March ate mass quantities of food, every calorie was turned into bodyweight, but St. John stayed exactly the same weight even after stuffing himself with enough food to feed a Third World Country. 

Then Hirtz took us up Highway 101, the coast highway. We went as far as Malibu and stayed there a while, watching the surfers do their stuff. When he drove up and around a steep hill, I wondered where in the world he was going. I quickly found out. On the top of that hill was the campus of Pepperdine University and when he stopped to let us out, before us was one of the most spectacular scenes I had ever looked out upon. The hillside was a deep green and hid the highway below. Then the panorama extended out over the many blues and greens of the Pacific, and was crowned with a sky that looked as if it had been done by Claude Monet.

I thought that if I had lived in California, I would have done everything in my power to attend this university just to be able to look out on that spectacular view every day. I looked over at Bill and Ernie, and from their expressions I knew that they were in the same state of awe as I was.

I broke the spell by saying, “Maybe we should start back to the hotel so Ernie can get something to eat and get some rest before he lifts.” 

As the four of headed towards the El Camino, Bill provided us with his best imitation of John Wayne’s sidewinder swagger and gruff voice as he barked, “Well, let’s saddle up and ride partners, we’re losing light.” 

He got the reaction from us that he was after and that bit of silliness kept us in high spirits for the rest of the day. 

My thanks to Bill St. John for the use of his sharp memories. 

  • Part 1
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  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Part 6
  • Part 7
  • Part 8
  • Part 9
  • Part 10
  • Part 11
  • Part 12
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