CALISTOGA , Calif. - Louis and Alice Vermeil, they've been together so long, in sickness and in health, they can communicate in nods, in winks, in shrugs, in half-sentences.
When Louie wants a fresh cup of coffee he thrusts his mug in Alice's direction and says, "More mud, bud." And when Alice, flustered in her remodeled kitchen, forgets to push the on-switch on the microwave oven, Louie says, "If brains were gunpowder and yours blew up, you wouldn't have enough to mess your hair."
Alice just sighs and says, " Maybe that's why you call me at the dress shop every time you can't find some silly auto part."
And for all Louie's pretend-grumpiness and for all Alice's feigned martyrdom, there is enough love in this old house on Washington Street to fill a stadium.
"A football coach told me that," Louie Vermeil says. "We'd make a mistake and he'd scream, 'If brains were gunpowder and yours blew up, you wouldn't have enough to mess your hair.'"
A football coach. Louie Vermeil remembers. And when he coached football unofficially he screamed too. And now his son coaches football and screams.
Louie and Alice are going to the Super Bowl to watch their son's team play, even though Louie dreads flying and hasn't taken a vacation since 1946.
We are at the dinner table, drinking a Beaulieu Pinot Chardonnay out of pewter cups. Alice is scurrying about the kitchen, crumbling bacon into a spinach salad, peering into the window of the microwave, getting used to electricity after years of cooking with gas.
A dappled boxer snuffles about on rickety, 13-year-old legs. Moonshine is his name.
Louie is still in his work clothes. Black T- shirt, overlapping grease-smeared chino pants. Work boots with a tread deep enough to go through four feet of snow.
He peers out through the thick middle band of trifocals. He speaks in a voice sharp enough to cut through the whine of an acetylene torch.
There is not an ounce of sham about him. If the San Francisco Chronicle shows up the next day for pictures, Louie will change his shirt and nothing else.
Not the work boots, not the half-moons of garage dirt under his fingernails, not the blunt assessment of what is wrong with America.
"Morale is so low," Louie says, "it would need a running high jump just to kick a snake in the ass."
Robert Louis Stevenson once lived in this old house. Yeah, that Robert Louis Stevenson. And when you drive up Highway 29, there's a billboard telling you that you are entering the Napa Valley, and a quote from Stevenson abut wine being bottled poetry.
Louie Vermeil is poetry too. Walt Whitman poetry. Thick-soled boots and grime, work from sunup to sundown poetry. You go in search of Dick Vermeil's roots and you discover what America once was . . . a man hammering with his gnarled hands, turning out fine workmanship at fair prices.
Louie's got a chunk of steel where his right hip used to be. He has stubby fingers, curled into a stiff handshake by too many hours in a cold, damp, dark garage. Arthuritis, Louie calls it.
Vermeil. The name is French, and translates into the gold ornamentation you find at the Versailles Palace. His father was French.
"He married a Swiss-Italian woman," Louie says. " And I married that English walnut over there. People ask me what Dick is and I tell 'em half-Scotch, half ginger ale.
"What he is, is the League of Nations."
Notice, the League of Nations. Not the United Nations, that clatter of empty
promises. The League of Nations, a footnote in Louie Vermeil's history when
America had some pride and some clout and morale didn't need a running high
jump to kick a snake in the ass.
"My grandfather came to Calistoga whole neighborhood of Mount St. Helena is full of sulphur and boiling springs . . . and Calistoga itself seems to repose on a mere film above a boiling subterranean lake."
So, some tourists come for the mineral baths and the mud baths. And others come to watch the grapes grow and be transformed into bottled poetry.
"It's changed," Louie sneers. "It's become like a tourist trap."
There's one hotel, the Mount View, but there are no phones in the rustic
rooms. "When you walk inside the doors," the pretty room clerk says, "you're supposed to get the feeling you've stepped back in time 50 years."
There are no room phones at Dr. Wilkinson's motel either, but the manager says I can use the office phone, and there is the bonus of mud, mineral and steam baths, so I stay.
Louie and Alice live on Washington Street, down the street from the firehouse and the post office, and snug next door to the Catholic church.
"I knew Dick was gonna need all the help he could get against Dallas," Louie says. "So I told him I was gonna go to church and light three candles.
"He said, 'Oh, no,' and if I walked in and lit candles, the place might burn down."
Oh, he's been to church, at least once or twice. He attended Little Louie Giammona's wedding there. And Father Gleason said he wanted a copy of the family portrait to take that day for his files.
"Yeah, but they mentioned during the ceremony that the silver candlesticks on the altar were donated by my grandfather," Big Louie says. " He was a Shriner, my dad was a Mason, my mom was an Eastern Star. We got along with everybody."
Louie and Alice get along with everybody. The town has 2,832 residents and nearly everybody knows them.
"He's a character," says Jill, a waitress at the Silverado Tavern, where the wine list has 301 entries and you can get veal with crepes that melt in your mouth for $11.50.
"I think he really only likes to work on American cars and trucks. I brought my Karmann Ghia in and he looked at it and he said, 'Well, I don 't know about that.'
"But he does good work and he won't overcharge anybody. And he's got that tow truck parked outside that's famous."
The tow truck. Louie put it together in 1930, on a model-A frame. Added a crane from a 1914 Packard. It is white and clean and frail-looking.
"So I get this call," Louie says. "Car disabled on a mountain road, off in a ditch.
"I get out there, and there's two highway patrol cars. One from Sonoma County, one from Napa County. The one guy says, 'What do ya think you're gonna do with that tow truck?'
"And the other guy, who knew me, says, 'Just watch . . . he'll toss that car clear to the other side of the road if you want him to.'"
The tow truck surprises people, with its strength, its power, its durability. Louie does too. He went to Indianapolis back in '46 because a friend told him he could watch the '500' from the pits, but he hasn't been away since.
"You just get in a rut," he says. "I just feel comfortable here. And then, staying home gets to be a habit."
Age and the chunk of steel in his hip have slowed Louie down. But there was a time when he roamed sideline to sideline the way Jerry Robinson does now.
"I grew up in San Mateo and I played left guard on a single-wing team in high school," he says. "In 1928 we had some turmoil about guys who had moved in from San Francisco. They kicked 'em off the team.
"And we had to go play Redwood City at Redwood City. Played 'em to a zero-zero tie. Pushed 'em all over the lot and damn near beat 'em.
"Those days they didn't move the ball inside the hash marks. I was the outside man on defense and they ran two plays to the right and I stopped 'em both.
"Then, they ran the other way and I dropped the guy behind the line of scrimmage. They had the same rules on punts they have now. Only the two end men could go downfield before the kicker kicked it.
"And later on, I played semi-pro for the town team. On Sundays. Just for the fun of it. You couldn't get nobody to do that today. No insurance, no nothing."
He played the game for the fun of it and later coached the high school team for the fun of it. Until his boss found out, and then the fun vanished.
"Back in '34 the high school decided to have a football team," he says. "The kids asked me to coach the line. See, the Ag (agriculture) teacher was the coach and he knew nothing about football.
"I had a friend of mine named Ernie Ward come over to help. The Ag teacher, he just turned it over to us. We did pretty good. End of the season, St. Helena only beat us, 6-0.
"The next year, a big mess, stories that Calistoga had coaches without proper credentials. I was working as a mechanic then, I'd answer the night calls, run the stock room too.
"But football season would come, I'd just take off. Well, that didn't look too good."
In 1939, he turned an old barn into the Owl garage. It is a grim building with a corrugated tin roof. Frank Giammona, Little Louie's dad, works there now.
"Dick asked him if he was sure he wanted to do it," Alice Vermeil says, grinning. "Dick asked him if he knew what he was getting into. But Louie has mellowed through the years.
Dick knew what Frank Giammona was getting into. He'd served hard time in that prison of a garage. Even quit once, for three days.
"That was a scream," Mrs. Vermeil says. " Dick came storming in one afternoon. He'd gotten into it with his father and now he was saying, 'I'm not gonna work there anymore.'
"I said, 'Fine, don't work there anymore. ' The next morning, Louie said, 'Wake Dick up, it's time to go to work.'
"I said, 'I'm not getting involved. You want him to work, you wake him.' Pretty soon, Dick came down and puttered around and asked me, 'What did Dad say?' I told him he expected him to work. And Dick said, 'If he wants me to go back to work, he'll have to ask me himself.'"
"Dick was a good worker," Louie recalls. "Good personality for dealing with the public. Neat. He'd put on a pair of overalls at eight in the morning and at five o'clock he'd still look nice.
"Me and the other boys, by 10, we looked like hogs. I taught Dick that when he did something, to do it right. I learned that from my dad.
"Sure, more than once I made him take an engine apart and put it back together because he wasn't sure he checked something. Get it wrong, it would cost me time and money."
Laura, the oldest child, was exempt from garage work. But Dick, and then Stan, and then Al, all served their time.
"There were no set hours," Stan recalled. He is a teacher at Santa Rosa JC, married to a woman who is two times prettier and eight times nicer than Farrah Fawcett.
"It was hell on your social life. You just worked until the job was finished. One Saturday night, I had an eight o'clock date with Carol. Was gonna take her to a dance.
"I got through work at midnight. But the time I got to her house she was in bed, asleep.I chatted for a few minutes with her dad and went on home."
"He wasn't as tough on me," said Al, who is a strength coach with the 49ers. "And I'm not sure that as they get older, my brothers don't make the story better.
"But my dad was tough, he was demanding. And I remember the last game Dick played in high school. They ran the belly series and that night it rained. Not just rained, but buckets.
"They lost the game, 14-7. Dick was back to punt and dropped the snap and ran. Didn't get the first down and they scored soon after.
"And when the game was over, with family and friends all around, my dad said, 'You should have punted the ball.' I remember Dick breaking into tears.
"They're an awful lot alike. As far as selfness and purpose. I don't want to call it tunnel vision, but they know what they want, zero in on it, and everything else is way out there, on the fringes.
"You could take all the mechanics in the world, my dad would compare with 'em, in his prime. He was a brilliant practical mechanic.
"And Dick is the same type of guy. Practical, determined, won't let anything get in his way. Stubborn, sure. But a sign of leadership is stubbornness. Hey, anyone can bend with the wind."
Close your eyes and it is Dick Vermeil talking, the same phrasing, the same passion. Louie taught them well. How to dismantle cars, how to build dreams.
And in the tank house, he's got an Offenhauser, and a Model A sprint car he built for racing. The sprint car is half-hidden with bric-a-brac, but he rattles back the hood to display a slab of an engine.
He explains how he poured the brass fittings to an optimum thickness and how he won the Northern California championship with it back in 1950.
"Didn't win a race, but had 10 seconds and never finished worse than fifth," he says. "The following year we were the 32nd qualifier and still won a race at Stockton."
The car has a seven painted on the side. Seven, that's Ron Jaworski's number. Louie has a color photo taken in San Diego. Dick has him by the arm, in a huddle of Eagles. Jaworski and the others are standing there, grinning. What's so funny?
"Ah, he told 'em," Louie recalls, "that if they think he can chew butt, they shoulda heard me."