The Star-Spangled Bender

Hold on to your liver! An RFT salute to the coolest local watering holes you've never heard of.

 Introduction: A Shot and a Beer

Teddy Roosevelt Jr. stood on the podium at the Shubert-Jefferson Theatre in downtown St. Louis on May 8, 1919, addressing 1,000 fellow World War I veterans who'd come to town for the first caucus of the brand-new American Legion. At the age of 31, fresh from Paris, Roosevelt had his father's bulldog face, only less craggy. A year before, while fighting the Germans at Soissons, he'd been gassed during battle, then took a bullet in the leg from an enemy machine gun. But in November the Germans had surrendered, and now, with the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles, a new world was taking shape.

"We will be facing troublous times in the coming years!" Roosevelt bellowed to the assembled throng. "And to my mind, no greater safeguard could be devised than those soldiers, sailors and marines formed in their own association, in such manner that they could make themselves felt for law and order, decent living and thinking -- and truer nationalism!"

Glen McAdoo is a regular at VFW Hall 8996, also known as the V Lounge, in Collinsville, Illinois.
Jennifer Silverberg
Glen McAdoo is a regular at VFW Hall 8996, also known as the V Lounge, in Collinsville, Illinois.
Mike Turner of Gateway Downs entertains the assembled masses with mouse races at American Legion Post 444 in Florissant.
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike Turner of Gateway Downs entertains the assembled masses with mouse races at American Legion Post 444 in Florissant.

The Legion's inaugural caucus was a rowdy one, filled with drama. Similar organizations had preceded the Legion -- including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, founded in 1899 -- but none had united all soldiers, officers and ground-pounders alike, from all branches of the military. Should they really go ahead and admit all enlisted men? (Yes.) What of the foreigners, the "alien slackers" who, before the war, had renounced their citizenship rather than serve in the military? A Polish-American hobbled to the podium on crutches to decry them, which led to a resolution demanding that Congress pass a law to deport them. And what do we name the units? Posts? Dugouts? Billets? ("Billets" was rejected for excessive Frenchness.) Someone even had the nerve to suggest that the Legion take a stand in favor of Prohibition.

Heaven forfend!

The surviving paperwork doesn't indicate whether the proto-Legionnaires discussed the notion of raising funds by holding Lenten fish fries, G.I. Joe Breakfasts and bingo nights, not to mention mouse races. Nor does history record the passing of a resolution declaring that no beer shall cost more than a buck and a quarter or that a majority of bartenders be named Rita.

Nearly a century later, though their numbers continue to dwindle as members succumb to the ravages of time, the American Legion and its cousin the VFW party on. Yet to most of us, their presence is invisible. We drive past posts every day, but they hardly register on our consciousness.

With that in mind, we set out to explore the local landscape of VFW and American Legion posts, specifically the bars therein. We were afraid we'd be walking into Old Fogeyville, but what we found sent us reeling -- and it wasn't the bargain-priced beers that did it. (At least we think it wasn't the drinks.) Simply put, these establishments are the coolest watering holes in town. The tables are clean, the bartenders are (usually) friendly and the patrons are a hoot. And, yes, the booze is cheaper than dirt.

While we were at it, we figured we'd compile our by-no-means-scientific carousal into a guidebook of sorts, taking into account everything your neighborhood post has to offer, from food and beverage selection to live-entertainment lineup to how likely it is you'll sit next to some guy who'll pull up his pant leg and show you his scar. (Try as we might, however, we couldn't include them all. Some posts aren't open to the public or don't keep regular enough hours to make a tour stop feasible.)

Without further ado, then, a highly subjective survey of some of the best American Legion and VFW posts in the area. -- Randall Roberts

Key to Ratings
We judged our local posts on a scale of one to four Purple Hearts, according to the following criteria:

( = Medal of Valor; = drop and give us twenty):

Quarters: The lay of the land
G.I. Bill: The price you pay for liquid courage
Grub: Got anything to eat around here?
Special Ops: Extracurricular activities
Show Us Your Shrapnel: Will they?
Overall Rank: Not an average of the above but the overall impression

VFW Post 1699

621 Water Street
Cahokia, Illinois

Vietnam veteran and veteran bartender Wayne Gerringer draws a frosty stream of Miller Lite into a chilled glass mug and sets the end product -- price, 75 cents -- on a knit American-flag coaster handcrafted by the crochet experts of Post 1699's women's auxiliary. "You picked a pretty dead day to come in," says Gerringer, peering at the lone video-poker-playing patron near the trophy cases in the back of his post's cavernous bar.

There are times, however, when Gerringer's bar resembles a scene from Patrick Swayze's Roadhouse. In fact, whereas Gerringer used to volunteer his behind-the-bar services, he now gets paid, because, as he'll tell you, "Business has picked up."

Standing beneath a plaque that reads, "We Enforce Bobbitt's Law: When Enough Is Enough, We Cut the Prick Off," Gerringer will also tell you that beer prices on the other side of the river are "ridiculous." Even in Cahokia, he misses the glory days of nickel drafts. "Cheap beer ain't like it used to be," he says. "You can't give it away like you used to."

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