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!"
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.
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
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."
As far as his own consumption goes, Gerringer steers clear of the tap handles, on the grounds that draft beer, unlike the packaged variety, causes headaches. "It turned on me," he says of the demon draft. "I get a headache sometimes while I'm drinking it.
"Of course," he adds after a moment's reflection, "if you only drink one or two, like you're supposed to, you won't have those problems."
Spoken like a true warhorse -- a title befitting many of the 200-plus members of Post 1699. The granddaddy of them all, according to Gerringer, is one Elmer Crouch, an Air Force veteran who pulled off the unlikely trifecta of fighting in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Nowadays, Gerringer says, Crouch likes to collect military uniforms. In his heyday, he apparently liked to fight in them, too. (MS)
Great big bar; cheap, cheap beer
Pizza, pretzels and popcorn -- we'll drink to that
They've got a barbecue coming up -- but then again, who doesn't?
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
If hat-trick Elmer's in the house
VFW Post 2184
6327 Lemay Ferry Road
The vets lined up at the bar on this weekday afternoon mainly served in Vietnam, which gives this post a younger look than most. Along with Thursday bingo night, 2184 offers karaoke on the weekends and the occasional Saturday turkey shoot at the range out back. (Translation: target practice; winner gets a bunch of meat. Barbecue typically ensues.) The building itself isn't much to look at -- just a couple of rooms, plus a bar. But where other posts decorate their walls with historical photos of peace-accord signings and patriotic banners, it's all NASCAR here.
"We've made it that way over the last four or five years," explains bar patron John Henry. He points to a scoreboard he designed and built to keep track of standings for an in-house NASCAR pool. "This is a nice VFW," he says, and points to Rita the bartender. "She doesn't allow any bullshit, so there aren't that many confrontations around here. She's in charge, and she'll let you know it." (RR)
$1 drafts -- and definitely worth $20 to buy the bar a round
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
Rita ain't going to show you jack
American Legion Post 101
2721 Collier Avenue
"We serve something called a G.I. Joe Breakfast here," says bartender and post first vice commander Jim Reilly, in reference to 101's annual feast. "You know about S.O.S., right? Yep, shit on a shingle, what they used to serve as rations -- chipped beef on toast."
The bar at this humble, easygoing post, tucked behind the Schnucks at Manchester Road and Brentwood Boulevard, is lined with men in their fifties and sixties, a good-natured lot. Weekdays here are a game of musical chairs: Most of these guys are off-duty 101 bartenders. The daytime bartenders get paid in beer and soda, and a few times a year they all go down to Tucker's Place, a steak joint in Soulard, for a nice meal. They don't even have to leave for lunch, because the kitchen -- that's Nancy's Country Kitchen -- serves it (and dinner) weekdays.
Like most posts, 101 has a pool table and a jukebox. The upstairs of the '50s-era two-story is dominated by a glorious meeting hall, with a stage tailor-made for low-budget theater groups and performances. Anheuser-Busch owns the VFW and American Legion's tap handles. (The more highfalutin posts might serve A-B's Amber Bock.) "We got a wider selection of drinks at this bar," brags Reilly. "We serve Stag. And how many places you know that serve Zima?"
Reilly is especially moved by one particular print on the wall. It's an image that hangs at several VFW and American Legion posts around town. Set in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the painting depicts a distraught man dressed in shirt and tie, leaning against the polished black granite. If you get up close, you can see the ghosts of his compatriots, clad in their fatigues, reaching out from inside the wall to touch his hand. Another poster, a reprint of an advertisement from World War II, depicts a sexy babe in a painted-on Navy uniform. "Gee," she says, "I wish I were a man. I'd join the Navy."
The post is an active one, sponsoring two women's volleyball teams -- "We got the same girls as we did twenty years ago," Reilly laughs -- and a baseball team. And every July 4, the members hold a flag-disposal ceremony. If you've got a flag and you want it destroyed in the proper manner, these guys know the rules. "I want you to mention that it's a very impressive ceremony," Reilly urges. (RR)
The upstairs meeting hall is a gem local bands would do well to check out
A buck a glass
Three words: Nancy's Country Kitchen
For the flag-retirement ceremony, the sports and the G.I. Joe Breakfast
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
VFW Post 3500
1717 Big Bend Boulevard
Fun fact: Barwise, it's hard to tell them apart, but there is a difference between the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. The former is open only to veterans who served in a war zone during an armed American conflict, whereas the latter is open to all veterans who served during an armed conflict, regardless of where they were stationed.
To walk into VFW Post 3500 on a Thursday evening is to be transported into the rec room of a MASH unit in the Korean War era. Like most vet halls -- which are, let's be frank here, bachelor pads writ large -- this one lacks any hint of a feminine touch. The overriding color is light brown, like dry dirt. Light-brown beer-and-wood-paneling vibe. Conversational highlights: "This fucking hoosier fell off the truck!"
"Man, those dumbfuck redneck hoosiers. You gotta think about the consequences. You can't just do shit and think you can get away with it."
"You either go to jail, get a job or join the Army. Don't matter which."
During Lent, Post 3500 (like most posts) throws a Friday-night fish fry, and if Terry Bryant's there, he might show you the scar where he recently had to have shrapnel removed from his calf, 50 years after it was put there. Bryant says he was discharged because he went crazy. He's smiling as he says it, so it's hard to tell whether he's kidding or not. Probably not. (RR)
If you see a guy with a pistol, don't return fire; he's probably playing the Deer Hunting USA video game
A buck for a Busch in a very frosty glass
Besides the snacks and microwave pizzas, there are barbecues and fish fries galore
A golf tournament in the summer, plus those cookouts
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
VFW Post 3777
900 VFW Drive
If you hit the Festus VFW -- and you should hit the Festus VFW -- find Alabama.
Alabama Murray is Post 3777; he has worked here for 47 years, so he knows every nook and cranny of the spread. He knows that across the street there used to be a place called Hillbilly Park, where George Jones and Ferlin Husky played their country music back in the '50s. He knows that this post was founded in 1939, and that at its prime, in the '80s, when the WW II guys were hitting retirement age, 3777 swelled to 2,200 members, making it one of the biggest posts in the nation. They're down to 1,000 now.
"For a while, we were losing eight guys a week," says Murray in a thick country twang that ain't from around here (he grew up in North Carolina). Down at the lake, a crane swoops over the water like a stealth bomber. "Last month," he says, "we had a bunch of eagles down here. First time I've seen that many of them around here. They fly in from the river bluffs. Man, were they pretty, and big."
Says Jim Reiner, Post 3777's quartermaster: "We are the elite." He's proud of the VFW, and of his post, and rightly so. This place has it all: barbecue pits, a freestanding meeting hall, a field that last Labor Day hosted the 77th Annual Missouri State Horseshoe Tournament, even a lake stocked with fish.
And the bar! A horseshoe-shaped bar dominates the basement, augmented by a big-screen TV and a bumper-pool table. And a piano bar, where Bobby Schuessler plays every Friday night. There's also a room given over to washers -- basically indoor horseshoes -- twice a week. On a Tuesday night, twenty teams pack the place.
If you want to make a night of it, this post is one of four clubs of its ilk within a mile: There's a Legion down the way, as well as Elks and Eagles clubs. (RR)
Fifteen -- count 'em, fifteen -- acres
Ninety-cent drafts; fully stocked bar
Snacks, plus the occasional fried-chicken dinner or barbecue, and a Sunday fish fry during bingo
Washer leagues, Bobby Schuessler, karaoke, bingo on Sundays. Oh, and buy six raffle tickets for five bucks: winner gets "1 dozen roses, 1 box candy, dinner for two at Ryan's Steak House."
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
Like the man said: Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger
American Legion Post 103
3212 Sutton Avenue
"We're the only bar in the area that's only open two days a week," says Tom Miskel, adjutant for Post 103. Peculiar hours are a hallmark of American Legion bars. So are old people, a fact that Miskel has no qualms about making light of.
"This is the geriatric bar of Maplewood," he says of the no-frills drinking den next door to Bible Baptist Church.
Indeed, faith and freedom are in abundance on Sutton Avenue, and it quickly becomes apparent that family -- the third and final tenet of President George W. Bush's poll-tested American Dream -- is in the house, too: One of volunteer bartender Evelyn Detert's sons fought during the first Gulf War after having served as a border guard in Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. Were it not for a recently discovered health problem, her grandson would be "firing missiles out on the Red Sea" right now, Detert says. "It's kind of hard to find a job doing that over here," she quips.
The Maplewood Legion bar has a minimalist feel throughout. The billiard parlor, with only a smattering of what might pass for décor, and a tiny pack of wry, battle-tested hustlers, looks as if it could stand in for the Viper Room on the night River Phoenix died. If you don't like scotch and whiskey, you're out of luck, because that's the extent of the liquor selection. A homemade sign out front alerts the public that they can come on in and drink cheap beer ($1 drafts, $5 pitchers) on weekends. You can grub mighty thrifty, too, provided your stomach is hardwired to the culinary whims of Miss Evelyn, who doubles as the bar's cook for Sunday brunch, filet mignon fundraisers and what she calls "Sunday dinner at Grandma's."
"You eat what I cook, and you eat all you want for five dollars," Detert says of the Sunday serving.
Beats King Louie's, at least for those on a tight budget. (MS)
The billiards room is positively cinematic in its aura
Like your parents' liquor cabinet when you were a kid: You drink what's in there, or you don't drink at all
Sunday dinner at Grandma's
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
VFW Post 3944
On Friday nights, Post 3944 looks like a wedding reception. For reasons we'd prefer not to contemplate, this North County post is a veritable hotspot. Walk in the door and you're instantly veterosexual -- an easy transformation when soldiers' daughters are manning the karaoke microphone.
This post is the most age-diverse of the whole local lot, with young, hair-teased suburban vixens intermingling breezily with thrice-married Gulf War vets. The horseshoe bar is smartly situated next to the main hall, where couples slow-dance to "Purple Rain" and the theme from Titanic between cheap shots of flavored schnapps. On the dance floor, the electric slide is considered not cheesy but apropos.
And at the karaoke mike, amateurs need not apply. The bachelorette party that wants to get blitzed and belt out an off-key version of "Tell Me More" from Grease can grab a collective muzzle and sit their fannies on the Formica. Just as they did in the foxholes, at Post 3944 the veteran crooners demand your A game. Come correct, or don't come at all. (MS)
The requisite $1 Busch drafts -- but Jell-O-shot aficionados will feel right at home, too
Lent, shment -- Friday fish fries here extend year-round
Karaoke par excellence
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
VFW Post 4105
410 Rue St. François
Thursday bartender Rita Kloessner says 2 p.m. is usually rush hour here, but on this day, Post 4105 in Old Town Florissant is pretty dead. On the TV, the Red Sox are playing the Rangers, but among the three patrons at the ten-seat bar, the talk is of gambling. "Did you know Harrah's has penny slots?" one says with a sense of wonder. "I've never seen a penny machine before."
Post commander Bob Dilg is gone for the weekend, fishing at a tournament down south somewhere. From the looks of things, they'll survive without him. The post pays its bills and donates to charities by way of a Wednesday-night bingo game. They also rent out their hall, which is up a small flight of stairs. Of course, if a vet dies, use of the hall's free, even if the deceased wasn't a member.
And this is, at its heart, what the VFW is all about. Sure, veterans are a powerful lobbying group nationally, with very strong opinions. You want to hear passion, walk into a VFW and ask about Iraq. But on a local level, it's all about brotherhood, community. When you see photos of veterans together, there's a sort of sacred intimacy at their heart. One in the Globe-Democrat from 1919, when the 138th Infantry was marching down Washington Avenue, depicts two soldiers tucked away in a downtown alleyway, sitting together, knees touching casually, one of them with a laser gaze locked firmly on his compadre's eyes. They're as effortlessly intimate as little kids. (RR)
Uncle Sam sign on bar: "PLEASE don't drink and drive. A good veteran knows when to say when."
$1 Bud drafts -- in frosted mugs!
Fresh popcorn and free pretzel sticks
Monthly steak dinner, yearly pig roast
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
American Legion Post 111
Tuesday-night bingo is serious business at Legion Post 111. The bar, though tidy, is an afterthought of sorts, a place for the bingo-pit workers and fluorescent-felt combatants to sneak a nip and check in on the Cardinal game.
On one such Tuesday, an attractive housewife type in a denim skirt nurses a Bud Light as one of the post members tries to fix a broken cash register.
"Why won't you fuckin' ring?" he says. "It's all bullshit."
No matter, though, as our man cools down and cracks a beer of his own (no drafts at Post 111). Who needs a cash register when your bar resembles someone's kitchen stash, anyway? It's all about utility in Legion bars, where the pace is easy like Sunday morning.
Legion Post bars do not fall victim to the pop-culture whims of modern Americans -- a point that the old-timer behind the bar slams home by turning off American Idol almost as soon as it starts. He's wearing a shirt from the 82nd annual Legion convention in Milwaukee, the substance of which consists of iron-on anime depicting a mug of beer, a hot dog, a crotch rocket and a sailboat.
Oozing similarly minimalist machismo, display cases along 111's west wall display rifles, trophies and military artifacts. A mustachioed bingo worker with a money apron and a shirt that reads "I Came, I Saw, I Duct Taped" strolls in to grouse about Tino Martinez's struggles against the Brewers' Ben Sheets.
It's a long season, though, long enough for even that bum cash register to work out the kinks. (MS)
Like walking in from your buddy Quincy Claypool's driveway to find that homeboy has converted the garage into a bar. Neat idea, Quince!
Canned beer's all they've got. Beats cream soda.
In the bingo parlor, but not so much as a stray Ruffle behind the bar
Check out the rifles in the trophy case
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
Too sparsely populated for show-and-tell. These guys are moving on.
VFW Post 4223
215 Military Road
On Sunday afternoon -- the only day the bar at Post 4223 is regularly open -- Vietnam veterans Ken Unger and Tom Illert are the best of drinking buddies, standing side by side behind the bar as they watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. take off at the sound of the starter's pistol on TV.
During the workweek, their lives couldn't be more different.
For Illert, a parking-garage repairman who traverses the nation for his keep, Operation Iraqi Freedom is all about unfinished business.
"To be honest, I think little Bush is cleaning up for his dad," says the stocky, energetic Illert, clad in shorts and a black "For as Long as It Takes" 9/11 memorial T-shirt. "Since we started the war, our lives haven't deviated here in America."
But in battle, lives get deviated, sometimes permanently. Unger, who lives off the disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder he's collected since returning from Vietnam, knows this as well as anyone.
"Peace would have been the right solution," Unger argues. "Right now, our main focus should be to support our troops. I hope we don't go into Syria, but it doesn't look promising right now."
A decorated Marine who earned a Silver Star after two tours, Unger is wholly unenthusiastic about the prospect of war. He knows its pain firsthand and wouldn't wish it on any other soldier.
"Normally we don't talk much about what's going on [in Iraq]," he says of the regular Sunday-afternoon powwow. "But there are lots of young men and women over there who won't be able to handle what's going on." (MS)
$1 drafts, $2 shots, $4.50 pitchers, $24 cases of Bud. A few dusty bottles of hard stuff sit behind the bar, but it's mostly for show. NASCAR races are long -- all the better to pace with twelve-ouncers.
It ain't advertised, but bartenders might whip you up something if you ask nicely
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
VFW Post 6137
4265 Delor Street
Pounding beers at South City's clean, well-lit little VFW bar is probably not unlike what one would experience if he were to take over the break room at a Walgreens and party down with a dozen roadies from the Allman Brothers Band. What with all the war-hero-paraphernalia-laden leather vests, there ain't a clean-cut brother at Post 6137 during happy hour, save for the bartender, Frank, and a colleague who refers to herself as Mary the Bitch.
Behind the bar, in her honor, is a sign that reads "Bitch Parking Only," which sets the tone for the energetically profane patter on a recent unseasonably sweltering spring day.
"Comb your fuckin' hair for once," one of the grizzled patrons shouts at Frank as he leaves a foreign coin in the feisty retiree's tip jar.
Frank says he gets all sorts of foreign currency -- Hungarian, Vietnamese, Chinese, what have you -- in that jar. But that's the least of his worries. Tonight, and probably every other night, the natives are giving him grief about how the Busch draft's too warm. Never mind that it's only costing them 75 cents a pour.
"I don't give a shit -- I'm not drinkin' it," Frank fires back, smiling.
Mary the Bitch is the only female patron in the bar, until about seven, when four women of advanced age stroll in.
"The go-go dancers have arrived," a patron quips.
There are no sacred cows on Delor. Everyone's a target for these old soldiers, just the sort of no-holds-barred strategy that undoubtedly served them well on the battlefield years ago. (MS)
75-cent Busch drafts -- and plenty cold, despite what the peanut gallery says
TJ's Pizza is quick and easy
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
Not for the faint of heart
American Legion Post 162
9305 South Broadway
"I like a good beer buzz early in the morning," native Missourian Sheryl Crow observed in one of her early hits. Just south of the St. Louis city limits, in the blue-collar hamlet of Lemay, American Legion Post 162 does Crow proud.
The driveway that leads up to this particular post's hillside perch sneaks up on the motorist who isn't in the know. Once the post is located, the BB shoot advertised on the bar's corkboard gives a visitor the feeling of drinking in a summer-camp treehouse. This is enhanced by the mysterious beachside vibe one gets when driving south on Broadway past Carondelet Park.
Although stubble-faced bartender Rich Collins, who sports a Richard Petty tattoo, assures us that "any time the door's open, this bar's open," Post 162 only advertises two drinking shifts for public consumption. One is Thursday evenings; the other is the current Tuesday-morning tipple, which has drawn Irvin "Cotton" Schaeffer and three chums for an early-morning game of pinochle.
Chewing on a stogie and sporting khaki cargo shorts, sockless footwear and a Ron Jon Surf Shop fisherman's hat, Cotton Schaeffer cracks a wide grin at the pinochle table as two civilian patrons at the vinyl-cushioned bar nurse 80-cent drafts of Busch and premixed Manhattans. "He's kicking butt," says John Oberkirsch, who used to play minor-league baseball in the Cardinal system.
When the TV set is on, Redbird's pretty much the only language spoken here. But the Cards rarely play weekday mornings, leaving the boys at the bar to their pinochle and the sleepy South Broadway Post as a breezy coastal respite, actual proximity to the ocean be damned. (MS)
Extra point for the ancient mini-bowling game and the disco ball in the adjacent event hall
80-cent drafts of Busch canceled out by premixed Manhattans
Post sponsors BB-gun shoots for youngsters. Good or bad?
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
VFW Post 6274
115 Mimosa Lane
The way the new Army commercials have it, you more or less join the military with a grossly overblown self-image of what you mean to the armed forces. In the ads, you're already a war hero, right? It's all you, baby! That's a pantload, and the humble fellow at the end of the bar at Post 6274 knows it.
"Man, I'm broke," he laments. "I have 28 dollars to my name and five dollars in my pocket. I just bought a round of drinks for the folks at the other end of the bar."
Flush or broke as a joke, it's all about the pack, no matter where you are.
Behind the bar at Post 6274 is an old newspaper clipping that dubs the establishment "The Beautiful Bar." It's an apt assessment; this place has all the refined trappings of a fully functional sports bar, from the new version of Golden Tee to the shuffleboard game to the Cardinal pennants.
"I didn't like Bette Midler until I saw her in concert," one barfly observes thoughtfully. "She was very good in Beaches."
"Beaches, or bitches?" quips the other.
A bona fide diva, Midler's an army of one. Generally they don't like that type around Post 6274 because, as everyone knows, there ain't no "I" in team. (MS)
Understated military décor, in keeping with the sports-bar vibe
$1.25 for a schooner of Busch is a tad spendy compared with the prices at other posts, but there's a solid selection of high-octane booze
Bingo, golf tourneys -- standard-issue suburban sterility
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
American Legion Post 397
934 Rue de la Banque
There's a simple reason the Legion and the VFW are dominated by older veterans. The younger guys have other commitments. When the nest empties, though, a new community is waiting, full of guys with a shared, life-altering experience. And it's not even about talking about the war; it's just about being around some guys who understand.
"Every time I come up to a guy who's young," observes Jack Fink, commander of Post 397, "if he just got out of the service, he's still walking tall."
There are approximately 4800 Legion members in the 10th District of the state Legion system. That covers the 28 posts in St. Louis County, most of which are either closed posts (vets and their families only) or barless and therefore not open to the public except on special occasions. Of those 4800 Legionnaires, about 400 belong to Post 397. Most members here, and everywhere, are simple card-carriers: Their sole annual Legion activities consist of writing a check or two and maybe hitting the bar, which here is clean, well-tended and about the size of a 7-Eleven. It's also the only area Legion bar that's open seven days a week.
"A lot of people have got this misconstrued idea that we sit in our Legion post, get drunk and tell war stories, and that's far from it," says Victor Stragliati, commander of the entire 10th District. "Last week I was in Jefferson City. We took about eighteen high-school students up for State Government Day. We also sponsor the Boys State and Girls State Program, where they set up a state government and run it for a week. President Clinton was a Boys Stater."
Another common Legion chore is honor-guard duty. The state pays a post $100 for conducting the ceremony at a vet's funeral, and much of that money ends up going to charity. (Last year, the 10th gave upwards of $600,000 to various causes.) "I'm working on 400 services for honor guard," Fink says proudly. "When a veteran dies, a lot of times the family wants a memorial service at a funeral parlor. My pin now on my uniform shows 300, but I'm getting close to 400. We got one guy, Jim Wilson, he knows the spiel by heart. He's got 1,200 services. Of course, he is a WWII veteran."
And the young guys?
"The biggest problem is, the veterans are out there, but they're not being asked to join," says Fink. "And that's what we've got to do, is get out there and recruit. Nationwide, we're losing 11,000 a day from World War II and Korea. If this continues, some of these posts are going to fold. But they're not out there recruiting. You have to talk it up." (RR)
If you can stomach "Dream Weaver" on the jukebox, you're set
The bar's well stocked
Don't call it grub: call it "cuisine." This place sports a restaurant.
Annual G.I. Joe Breakfast, golf tournament; a lot of honor-guard work
Show Us Your Shrapnel:
But don't believe the guy who's sitting under the sign that says "Liar's Corner"
VFW Post 6372
6113 Forest Boulevard
Washington Park, Illinois
Tim's seen better days, but the bottle makes him better.
"I'm just trying to survive this cold, cruel world," says the camouflage-clad vet as he nurses a longneck Bud Light. Nearby, Jerry the bartender pours a few Pepsis for his three-man klatch near the tap handles at center bar. The beers go for about a buck, as do the hot dogs ($1.25), kept edible on the rotisserie beneath a sign that bears the slogan "Put your heart in America, or get your ass out."
Jerry says membership at the Washington Park post has thinned considerably over the years, in stark contrast to the vast proliferation of strip joints in this hardscrabble little town. The A-frame structure distinguished by the large "V-F-W" lettered on its shingled roof provides a swell gander at Dollie's Playhouse across the way. In Washington Park, all economic energy is poured into the tawdry tease, with street signs and infrastructure crumbling around the shacks that house the town's dominant trade.
In the gravel lot of Post 6372, most of the automobiles are well kept, if not brand spankin' new. Inside, a jar of pickles sits atop the bar and a plethora of video games dot the walls. The patrons drink Pepsi because they know the slippery slope that can trip even the casual drinker should he or she tip just one small glass of anything more potent before the long drive home.
"I ain't never had one of them DUIs," Jerry proclaims.
"Me neither," says a patron, bouncing his baby granddaughter on his knee. "I guess I'm lucky. Guess you are, too." (MS)
An oasis of reality in flesh-fantasy land
We thought Schnapps was for wusses. Guess not.
In Washington Park, staying afloat without lap dancers is an accomplishment in and of itself
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American Legion Post 444
17090 Old Jamestown Road
"The American Legion is like a fisherman: You throw out a net and see what comes back," says Bill Clodfelter. Unfortunately, at the biggest and most picturesque of the 28 local Legion posts, the yield these days is pretty thin. The troops are getting old, says Clodfelter, and none of the younger guys is stepping in to fill the hole. In its monthly newsletter, Post 444 practically begs members to run for officer positions: "Ladies and gentlemen, these jobs are not that difficult."
Legionnaires all over St. Louis are eagerly anticipating the American Legion's national convention, to take place in St. Louis, this August, for the first time in 50 years. More than 20,000 vets and their spouses are expected.
Overlooking the Missouri River in Florissant, Post 444 was some rich guy's private residence until the Legion bought the land in 1965. To get here from the city, you wind through the North County countryside until it seems like you're lost and there's no way an American Legion post could be way the hell out here, and then there it is, a four-building complex set amid trees and a vast expanse of lawn. Don Voss, the post's first vice commander, says 444 gave $60,000 to charities last year. The money comes from dues (which average $25 a year) from the 700-plus members, hall-rental fees and various fundraising efforts. Bingo night every Sunday lures in at least 60 players, sometimes more.
But on this April Saturday, bingo's not the draw. No, tonight it's mouse racing, a charity function being held in one of the outbuildings, brought to you by Mike Turner, operator and proprietor of Gateway Downs Mouse Racing. (Exactly what it seems: Line up six mice, wager on which will win, drop the gates and watch them scramble to the finish.) Only about 50 mouseplayers have shown up for tonight's event. At last year's event, Turner says, the hall was packed. His company does a lot of benefits at Legions and VFWs, and he has watched as the numbers dwindled. Tonight they'll be lucky to break even.
Bartender Bob Braun served in the Army in Korea. "I was just a ground-pounder," he says. "Carried an M-1 rifle, nine-and-a-half pounds." Now he volunteers at Post 444, dispensing cans of Busch at a dollar a pop.
Inside the compound's main residence, a handful of members are playing poker in the living room. The back of the house overlooks the river. There's also a billiard room with a red-felt pool table and a few meeting rooms, as well as a glorious bar that's open to the public on weekends. The place is beautiful -- it'd almost be worth going to war in order to join this club. (RR)
Only drag is that Post 444 is open to the public pretty much only on weekend nights
No draft beer, just cans
A grease-feast on Sundays
Besides the Sunday bingo, the spring fish fries and the seasonal meat shoots, there's the annual mouse racing -- and a nice wedding deal with a ceremony overlooking the river
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Tell one of these guys they've got a nice place out here and he'll just laugh knowingly and say, "Yep"
VFW Post 8677
5325 North Illinois Street
Fairview Heights, Illinois
For revelers who've come for their weekly dose of piano man Marty Heiman's cocktail-hour mayhem at VFW Post 8677, April 21 is a blue Monday indeed, as the news filters in that legendary chanteuse Nina Simone has passed away. But over the course of the next few hours, Mr. Heiman, his keyboard and three very special ladies make it clear to all in attendance at the jam-packed bar that Simone's spirit will wail on for a good many more decades.
Seated at his electronic keyboard in a blue button-down, paisley tie and musical-note suspenders, Heiman is a dead ringer for coach Lou Carnesecca of St. John's University, back when they were known as the Redmen. According to his regular singing partner, Gail Broadhurst, Heiman played at the old Spanish Door Lounge in St. Louis "100 years ago" before relocating to the east side of the river, a move that has proved more lucrative for the pair.
If the duo were a hip-hop team, Heiman would be the MC and Broadhurst -- who resembles a full-figured Hanoi Jane Fonda with an eye patch -- would be the hype man. Among those whom she coaxes to the microphone to sing standards from memory are 83-year-old Dorothy Eck and Eck's granddaughter, high-school teacher Carrie Casper. After taking a drag from a filter-tipped cigarette, the rail-thin Eck pumps out a sultry version of "It Had to Be You" in a husky alto that sounds like it belongs to a woman half her age.
The twentysomething Casper is next. Vivacious, curvaceous and boasting a killer smile, she's the sort of woman cartoonist R. Crumb would salivate over. As she makes her way through "Silver Dollar," which her grandma used to sing her to sleep with when Casper was a wee tot, it's clear that she's inherited at least one trait from ol' Dottie. Ah, that voice. And when she spews the lyric "A woman goes from man to man," there's no doubt she could do just that in this bar on this night if she so desired.
"Can I get a little piece of tail?" Heiman hollers at Casper between verses.
"Not even a little piece of tail, Marty," she replies sportingly.
Though Post 8677 has plastered the requisite dose of Americana on its walls, this is the lone stop on our tour where it's entirely possible to forget that you're in a VFW bar. That is, until you realize that Pabst Blue Ribbon drafts cost a mere 60 cents a glass. Thus Marty's Mondays achieve absolute synergy between vets and civilians -- a bona fide scene unto itself at one-fourth the going rate. (MS)
Dim lighting, video gambling games galore and the requisite American flag behind the bar
60-cent drafts of PBR. Any questions?
Blue-plate specials nightly; also something called a "Chicken-Beer Dance" (Ludacris would be proud)
The piano-bar shtick is without peer on the local military-tavern circuit
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VFW Post 8996
(a.k.a. the V Lounge)
Black Lane near Collinsville Road
and Fairmount Park Racetrack
Horse tracks are magnets for tumult, and the V Lounge attracts its fair share on any given Saturday before post time. Here, a lanky loser with a "Red Rocker" Sammy Hagar concert T-shirt can be found loudly laying into his girlfriend before storming out of the bar as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps" blares from the jukebox. With its gravel lot, proximity to Fairmount Park and rural-lake-cabin ambiance, one could imagine the V Lounge as the sort of place where tyrannical patrons such as Red Rocker Boy are taken out back and shot.
If any Post bar embodies the quirky, separate-but-equal coexistence of veterans and civilians, it's the V Lounge. If you're a peacenik who has a problem with a bumper sticker that reads "Jane Fonda: American Traitor Bitch," you're better off parking at Ardie and Tiny's down the road.
At the V, amid antique Busch beer lamps suspended from wooden rafters, a sharply dressed geezer who looks like Martin Landau enjoys his pre-race drinks alongside a burly veteran wearing a POW-MIA T-shirt. Though overt animosity between the two starkly disparate gents is absent, there's not the slightest illusion of egalitarianism. Make no mistake about it: The Landau double, though welcome in the lounge, is on the vet's home turf -- and he will play by the war hero's rules. Dishonorable discharge from the V is the only alternative to respect. (MS)
Dollar drafts of Budweiser, plus ample Wild Turkey. Gobble, gobble.
A full array of cold medications and pain relievers
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If you don't see a scar, there's always that Hagar concert T. Woo-hoo!
American Legion Post 961
2870 North 44th Street
Fairmont City, Illinois
Judging strictly by the sheer number of street signs announcing its geographic imminence on the cruise in from Pontoon Beach, one would assume East St. Louis is the commercial center of the Metro East region. Marine Corps veteran and retired East St. Louis High schoolteacher Clarence Ellis knows this once-legitimate premonition to be the stuff of modern myth. But that doesn't keeping the bright-eyed gent from trying.
Fresh from a meeting with a couple of local cops to see what they can do about restarting the East St. Louis American Legion post, Ellis settles on a stool at Fairmont City's Post 961 and orders an end-of-the-day bottle of Bud from longtime volunteer bartender Carmen Arriola as a crew of fellow Legionnaires dye Easter eggs for area tykes to hunt down the next day.
"How you doin'?" asks post adjutant Jamie Menendez.
"I'm alive," deadpans Ellis, who taught shop to Menendez back when Jamie was in high school and Ellis was a green 28-year-old classroom instructor.
Nearby, two young Mexican men clad in what look to be auto mechanics' uniforms throw darts and knock back Bud Lights.
"With all the different races in this country, our main goal is to make people feel like free Americans," says Menendez.
A town of 2500, Fairmont City is a microcosm of rainbow idealism, boasting a healthy influx of immigrants seeking nothing more or less than the American dream. As the burg has grown increasingly Hispanic, so has Post 961. With the light down low and the tequila cheap, this is the perfect place for the weary passerby to recharge his batteries with a quick snort of Cuervo (hold the training wheels) before life's next labor -- a friendly reminder that he's alive and free, which, let's face it, beats the hell out of a dirt nap. (MS)
Dark and dusty in the finest tradition. Jukebox tinged with a heapin' helpin' of salsa.
This place just makes you want to sweat and shoot tequila. Dollar drinks in abundance.
Good luck, unless you fancy hard-boiled eggs
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Ain't no secrets in a small town, which makes vets apt to spin yarns. Multiethnic crowd something of an anomaly for area posts.
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