PUNKIN CENTER Most of the country took note Sunday, April 15, when word of R. Lee Ermey’s death, at the age of 74, spread across the internet.
Fans of the rugged, hard-talking actor were saddened.
For Houston Lee “Junior” Ford of the White Swan-Harrah area, the news was “devastating.”
Ermey’s life-long friend received a call from another friend Sunday afternoon informing him of Ermey’s death.
R. Lee Ermey
Here are a few photos of R. Lee Ermey, the famous actor many call "Gunny."
Ford immediately called Ermey’s youngest brother, Terry, 67, in Northern California. Terry told him "Ronnie," as Junior and Ermey’s five brothers knew him, died of complications of double pneumonia.
“He caught that terrible flu that swept across the country. It led to double pneumonia. He couldn’t breathe Sunday morning. He died at about 2 in the morning” Ford said. “I got that same damn flu. I had it for a couple of months.” Ford started to feel better about Ermey’s death when he heard from Terry that Ermey will receive a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
Monday night, Terry Ermey told The Daily Sun arrangements are being made for the Arlington funeral. He said Donald Trump Jr. called to offer condolences Sunday afternoon.
“Ronnie and Donald Trump Jr. became friends because they were teammates on a competition rifle team for the National Rifle Associaton,” Terry said.
Donald Jr. is a member of the National Rifle Association. Ermey was a board member of the same organization.
“It was not just a casual friendship,” brother Jack Ermey said Tuesday afternoon.
“They’ve been friends for many years, from way before Donnie’s dad decided to run for the presidency. Donnie always said he was grateful Ronnie was on his team.”
Donald Jr. called Ermey’s agent, Bill Rogin, Sunday afternoon to offer any assistance the family may need in getting back to Arlington, Terry said.
Jack Ermey, who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. clarified that only the funeral will be at Arlington. R. Lee will be flown back to California afterward for cremation.
“Marianila, Ronnie’s wife, will keep his ashes until she dies. Then she’ll be cremated, and their ashes will be mixed for final burial,” Jack Ermey said.
The family doesn’t know the funeral schedule yet, only that it will happen within about 30 days.
R. Lee Ermey was the second of the six sons of Jack and Betty Ermey. All six of them became friends with Ford. They played together, worked together as field hands and got into trouble together.
“We ended up being like brothers,” Ford said.
Ford met the six brothers at his home, a converted warehouse, on Gurley Road, near Punkin Center for the first time in 1956.
Although Granger and Zillah both claim Ermey as their own, he actually grew up a half mile from Junior’s home and Punkin Center, which is about two miles north of Granger and three miles east of Zillah. His family lived in a house, which was accessed through the Sunnyside Canal bank road.
“Three of those boys came into my yard on used bikes,” Junior said. “They said they’d just moved here from Kansas. Like all kids who move to a new place, they were looking for other kids to buddy up with.”
Ford was 11 that year. Ermey was 12. One Ermey brother, Ed, was older. The younger brothers were Jack, Michael, Steven and Terry.
Ford has a thousand stories from those years. He thought back on them often as Ermey started to rise in the world of movies.
“He visited sometimes. Mostly we talked on the phone,” Ford said. “In later years, we didn’t communicate as much. He was very busy.”
Ford saw some of Ermey’s films, but he is not a movie buff. Like him, his mother went to see Full Metal Jacket, which was the talk of the nation after it hit the theaters.
“She was mad,” Ford said, “She said she was going to talk to Ronnie next time she saw him. ‘We don’t talk that way. We don’t use those words’, she said.”
Ford’s mother was speaking of Ermey’s role as a Marine drill instructor. Apparently, she didn’t know Ermey learned that role as a real drill instructor at times during his 11 years with the U.S. Marines.
Ford added that Ermey’s mother, who clerked at the Punkin Center Grocery, called him Ronald when she was angry with him.
The Sunnyside Canal was a play place for Ford and the Ermeys. They swam in it often.
“We even tried to water ski, towing with an old car,” Ford said. “That didn’t work out well.”
There were other nutty escapades. One was in the same canal during the dry season. They found a willow tree they used to catapult themselves to a sand bar in the canal. One of the kids got on the tree; the others pulled the tree down, let go and catapulted the first kid.
“Ronnie was a daredevil. He wanted a bigger tree, so we found one. When we let go, it slam-dunked him. We all thought he’d been killed and ran down there.”
Ermey was knocked out, but he escaped without serious injury.
Ford and the Ermey boys had their first smokes together. When they could get their hands on a pack of Lucky Strikes, they went to nearby asparagus fields or orchards to smoke.
“We’d make campfires and smoke in a grape vineyard at night,” Ford said. “We were told you could smoke dry grape vines. We tried it, and it worked. But we woke up the next morning with swollen lips.”
In Sagebrush Canyon, near their homes, the seven brothers found a 50-gallon barrel, with an open end — and a slope. Terry went first and made it to the bottom just fine. When it came to Ermey’s turn, he took the barrel to a longer slope.
“We started him rolling, and down he went,” Ford said. “About halfway down, he started to come out of the barrel and got pretty well beat up.”
“He wouldn’t turn down a dare,” Ford added.
Some escapades were benign. Terry recalled all of them riding a long string of bikes from Granger to Toppenish, Toppenish to Zillah or Zillah to Granger.
“We used to raft the river together on inner tubes,” Terry said. “We’d start at the Toppenish Bridge and go to the Granger Bridge. Somebody would meet us there and pick us up,” he said.
Terry learned to swim in that same river, although he protested the way his brothers taught him.
“They threw me into the water and let me go,” he said. “It was a real struggle, but I finally swam to the river bank.”
Ford remembers Ermey as the James Dean character in Rebel Without a Cause. He wore sideburns and cowboy boots. He also dressed like Elvis at times.
School was a struggle for Ermey, Ford said. He didn’t like attending and often skipped out. He went to Granger, Zillah and Toppenish.
“All the schools he attended kicked him out,” Ford said.
He remembers two of the times Ermey ran away from home. He just doesn’t remember the order.
On one occasion, Ermey hitch-hiked all the way to his grandma’s house in Kansas. She called his mother to say where he was and that she was sending him back. He had suitcases of blue jeans and “other things” for the boys when he got back, Ford said.
On another occasion, Ford and Terry Walker went with Ermey. They knew their own Fonzie, Fred Ludington, worked on a ferry down on the Columbia River. Ermey checked maps for a route to Roosevelt, and the three started their walking runaway.
“It took us all day and night to get to Bickleton,” Ford said.
At Bickleton, Ford had had enough and walked back to Punkin Center. He had no reason to run away. Ermey and Walker went on, ending up with jobs at a sheep camp on the Horse Heavens. They lived in a sheep camping trailer until family, including Ford, arrived to retrieve him.
“You know why he went into the Marines, don’t you?” Terry commented. “He ran away so many times that mom and dad took him to a judge in Toppenish to ask him to put Ronnie in jail. The judge gave him a choice, jail or the Marines.”
Ermey had seen a Marine in dress blues on a recruiting poster and chose the Marines at the age of 17. Ford learned of all of this after Ermey had signed and left the Yakima Valley.
Eventually all six brothers served in the military simultaneously. Three served in Vietnam, where Ford said, Ermey was hit by shrapnel twice.
Ford said the Marines turned out to be the best thing for Ermey. The next time he saw Ermey, after joining, Ford said he was changed.
“When he came back, we had a party for him at his parents’ home,” Ford said. “He was different. The Marines had made him into a man.”
Ermey served 11 years and had several stints as a basic training drill instructor.
When his brother Steve joined the Marines and went to Camp Pendleton for basic, he ended up with a drill instructor who was not Ermey. But Ermey paid him a visit, and Steve felt at ease.
Then Ermey said: “Steve, you’re my brother. I expect more out of you than anybody else.”
Ford said Steve became a highly-decorated Marine. He was one of five Marines who survived a Chinook helicopter crash into a Vietnam mountain.
After Vietnam and his years in the Marines, Ermey took up residence in the Philippines, where he decided to check on an opportunity to be an extra in Apocalypse Now. He didn’t act, but he was signed on as a technical advisor for the war film.
According to Ford, Ermey went on to a series of small parts in inconsequential movies, including some spaghetti westerns.
“They filmed him in English and then dubbed in the language that was intended,” said Sally Ford, Junior’s wife.
Terry said he and his brothers were proud of Ermey’s budding film career. He told them he was “… going to be a star,” and they didn’t doubt him.
“Mom and dad were really proud of him,” Terry said. “When he came to Yakima or Toppenish, they introduced him as their son, the actor.”
With Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in 1987, Ermey became the star he said he would be. This time it was Kubrick who signed him as a technical advisor to a war film.
“He was showing the actors how to be a Marine drill instructor when Kubrick suggested he should play the role,” Ford said.
Overnight, Ermey became the meanest, most foul-mouthed drill instructor in history. And he became a sought-after actor.
In one of their visits, Ford asked Ermey if he liked making movies. He said there certainly was a lot money.
“He told me making movies was like walking in the park,” Ford said.
Sally Ford added that Ermey was well-liked in the industry for his work ethic. While other actors stumbled and fumbled, he had his lines down pat before shooting.
“He said, ‘They pay me a lot of money; I’m going to give them all I’ve got’,” Sally said.
Ermey also became one of the most recognized ex-Marines, and he was proud of being a Marine until the day he died. Not in step with the rest of Hollywood, Ermey found a better place to live, a California desert much like the Yakima Valley.
“He started with nothing and ended up at Arlington National Cemetery,” an incredulous and overjoyed Junior Ford said.