Munson: Celebrating a legend in Bancroft
BANCROFT, Ia. — Tuesday was unofficial legends day on RAGBRAI XLII.
Co-founder John Karras handed out patches to riders who completed the extra 26-mile loop named in his honor.
And the venerable 86-year-old Mr. Pork Chop, Paul Bernhard, sat in his cushy swivel chair of a throne in the gazebo next door to City Hall and let the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa flock to him in his hometown.
“You are RAGBRAI,” Sherry Mullin gushed to the ride’s most iconic vendor as she shook his hand and leaned over to compensate for his bad hearing.
Bernhard asked where she was from.
Oxnard, Calif., she replied.
“Is that where they got all them whorehouses?” he shot back.
Mullin seemed to love it.
Mr. Pork Chop’s loyal subjects appreciate his salty wit. This is a guy whose food-vendor empire, after all, is based on huge hunks of meat served with nothing more than a paper towel square.
Despite a broken hip and other ailments that have long since required Bernhard to move into the local rest home, he had a twinkle in his eye Tuesday.
Maybe it was all the kisses he received from the ladies.
The beaming faces of the faithful approached the gazebo as word spread of Bernhard’s presence.
Even Lance Armstrong slipped into the gazebo around noon to pay tribute to the man whose RAGBRAI fame arguably outshines his own. (A popular RAGBRAI anecdote from Armstrong’s heyday recalls how a rider nudged the racer out of the way to get a photo opp with the vendor.) Bernhard had his own bluegrass duo for a while to sing chop-themed tunes.
One woman was bestowed with a birthday kiss on the cheek and a full-blare version of his signature siren call: “Pork chooooooop!”
She also pressed the pork king for cooking tips.
“I get about 12 chops out of a loin,” he instructed her.
Father Eric Jensen from San Diego approached the gazebo holding his 3-year-old son, Taylor.
“This is the man that started cooking pork chops,” Jensen told his boy.
“Dad just loves coming out and meeting all these people,” said Bernhard’s youngest son, Chris, a mortgage broker from Des Moines. “It makes him about 20 years younger, I think.”
The sizzling pork smoke wafted from the trademark pink school bus parked nearby, where Bernhard’s son who took over the Mr. Pork Chop trade in 2008, Matt, 49, oversaw three corn-cob-fueled grills (one extra fired up in hopes of a 1,000-chop day).
“How much for a pork chop shower?” a passerby asked. “I feel smelly.”
The chops hot off the grills were loaded into big blue coolers and lugged over to a tent where yet another generation of the Chop clan, Matt’s son, Aaron, held a fistful of cash from the $8 chop purchases.
Is he going to take over the family business?
“We’ll see about that,” Aaron said. “Hopefully a long time from now.”
Paul Chamberlain of Altoona stood in line and reminisced about how he and his teammates in the pre-cellphone era would hold up a walkie talkie to Bernhard as he yellled “Pork Chooooooop!” to let all their fellow riders locate them.
“Matt doesn’t do (the yell) because his voice hurts after about two of them,” Chris explained.
It all started back in 1982 when the American Legion chose to cook chicken for that year’s RAGBRAI throng.
“We don’t raise chickens around here,” Bernhard resolved. “We raise pork!”
One of his few regrets: not keeping a precise tally of his total chops sold.
When asked if he had any words of wisdom for his loyal RAGBRAI subjects, Mr. Pork Chop’s quick wit shone forth yet again.
“Don’t fall down,” he said from his gazebo throne. “That cement is hard.”