- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — When Thomas Anton and his friends throw a barbecue, they tend to go a little overboard.

In the past 14 months, they’ve spent more than $100,000 of their own money and flown across two oceans to grill steaks for 10,000 strangers — all of them sailors aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

That’s 7 tons of beef so far, but the barbecuers, who call themselves the Cooks from the Valley, say it’s been worth every ounce. It’s their way of showing their support for those in harm’s way in the war on terrorism.

“After September 11, I said, ‘There’s got to be something we can do.’ Well, we barbecue here in Bakersfield,” said Mr. Anton, a lawyer in this Central Valley agriculture community about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

Their biggest challenge yet comes July 17, when they’re slated to serve their specialty, 12-ounce New York choice strips, to 9,500 Marines aboard amphibious assault ships returning from the Middle East. Mr. Anton and about 30 fellow charcoal jockeys will fly to Honolulu, then rendezvous with the five ships as they steam back to San Diego.

Adm. Bob Natter, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, said the barbecues give the sailors more than just a home-cooked meal — they’ve also helped boost morale by showing the troops how much the folks back home care.

“This is simply to tell the crew that the American citizens appreciate what they do for their country,” Adm. Natter said. “As a citizen, Tom can convey that much better than I ever could.”

The admiral said he was as surprised as anyone last year when Mr. Anton asked if he could go aboard the carriers and throw several thousand steaks on the barbee. But he also knew that Mr. Anton, a member of Bakersfield’s Navy League, had been doing small-scale barbecues on ships since 1986.

“I knew he was sincere and that we could trust him, and that he wasn’t doing this for his own self-aggrandizement,” Adm. Natter said.

The Navy pitches in by storing and inspecting the steaks before they’re brought aboard the carriers. The cooks buy the steaks at a discount from Harris Ranch, a top-of-the-line beef producer near Fresno, Bakersfield’s sister city to the north.

“It was their call,” Adm. Natter said. “Tom certainly is an enthusiastic guy, and it’s been entirely their initiative.”

Their next barbecue will be twice as big as anything they’ve cooked up before, but having pulled off three previous barbecues, the group considers itself well-seasoned. Their ranks include several lawyers, doctors and a federal judge, but most are small-business owners who didn’t hesitate when Mr. Anton asked them if they’d like to tie on their aprons for the sailors and Marines.

“It took me about three seconds to say ‘yes,’” said Chris Minor, owner of Electrical Instrumentation Unlimited of California Inc. here. “Then Tom asked me if I wanted to know how much it would cost, and I said, ‘Not really.’”

He said he contributed $3,000, not including his airline ticket, for the privilege of grilling steaks for the group’s first barbecue aboard the USS John Stennis, a Nimitz-class carrier that returned in May 2002 from a long deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

About a dozen volunteers participated in the group’s maiden voyage, which almost became their last when they realized they hadn’t brought enough lighter fluid.

“We couldn’t get the coals to light, so we’re sitting there, fanning like crazy to try to get them going, and there was no breeze,” recalled Bob Stine, who heads Tejon Ranch, a farming and ranching company.

Just as the cooks were preparing to abandon ship, a pilot walked by and suggested they try olive oil. “Sure enough, it burned,” Mr. Anton said. “And it was a good thing, or we would’ve had to serve 5,000 raw steaks.”

Their second barbecue at sea came in late October 2002 aboard the USS Harry S. Truman en route from the Persian Gulf to its homeport in Norfolk, Va. In April, they spent five days aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln as she sailed from the North Arabian Gulf back to Bremerton, Wash.

What struck many of the cooks was how grateful the sailors were for the steak-and-salsa meal. “They fell all over themselves when we cooked those steaks,” said Alan Hine, an agent with Walter Mortensen Insurance, who was aboard the Lincoln.

“They thought we were from God. They kept thanking us, and we said, ‘No, we should be thanking you,’” Mr. Hine said. “It was just a great experience — those kids were wonderful.”

The cooks were also on hand to witness a bit of history with President Bush’s arrival aboard the Truman. Contrary to the subsequent criticism, they insisted, his visit didn’t delay the ship’s arrival. What’s more, it was a huge hit with the crew.

“When the president deplaned, there were 2,000 sailors on deck,” said George Serban, president of Serban Sound and Communications. “And the president went for two hours and shook hands with every person on that deck.”

The barbecues have become so popular that the cooks are considering applying for nonprofit status, which would allow them to accept tax-deductible donations. By bringing their costs down, they could broaden the field of potential barbecuers to include those of more modest means.

“That way, the everyday man will be able to go out and do this, not just guys with a couple of thousand dollars,” Mr. Anton said.

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