Sunday, August 16, 2009

Paying Dues at the Legion

My parents made a point of never keeping alcohol in the house, a habit I vaguely follow, too. I have a six-pack of Old Speckled Hen sitting around the past few months, only drank one, a few cans of Guinness and a few bottles of Bass – those have been sitting in there at least a year or two. I keep alcohol in the house … but rarely drink it. It’s one of those “thrill of purchase” things to buy a six-pack every now and then.

I’ve never seen Mom drunk. In the 70s she used to have a beer every evening, per doctor’s orders that she drink moderately to help moderate her blood pressure. Of course, we had redneck doctors, otherwise she would have been instructed to drink red wine for heart benefits, too. Mom has seen me drunk a few times, stumbling home from bars in that early 20s “still living at home” phase. Not uproariously drunk either: we’re talking quietly taking off my shoes later at night and tip-toeing to my bedroom, generally after reeling off a minutes-long piss in the upstairs bathroom. And, lest we forget that first drunk, as documented years back in – if you got a better first-drunk story, I’d love to read it.

I also recall once puking on the lawn at 2:00 in the morning, crawling a few feet away and falling asleep, waking up with our neighbor Frank staring and then waving at me at about 6:15 in the morning. (This was also during the regrettable bib-overall phase ... so I was wearing those and black converse high-tops ... i.e., I looked like a dick.) That’s what’s wrong with alcohol – you think you’re doing normal things – ah, just puked, it’s late at night, I’m tired, let me crawl to this patch of grass over here, ah, blades of grass so cool against my fevered brow, and nod off. But the reality is you’re passed out on a lawn next to a puddle of vomit. It aint right.

After awhile, alcohol stops doing you favors, literally and figuratively. Literally, you get past a few beers, you just end up abusing yourself, wasting hours in a strange state you vaguely or can’t remember, probably being sick the next day or at least feeling out of sorts. Worst-case scenarios, you get DUI’ed, or get in an accident while DUI, possibly causing damage to yourself or others. Figuratively, I can see in the long run, hard drinking does you no favors and only brings you harm.

I’ve never seen Mom drunk, but every now and then, I would see Dad drunk: paying dues at the Legion. That’s shorthand for Dad going out once a month and paying membership dues at an American Legion hall, I think in Mt. Carmel, PA, although I wasn't sure where he went. This was the 1970s, so he must have been a few years older than I am now, going through his 40s, since he turned 50 in 1978. As anyone in rural America knows, the American Legion in any given town is either a meeting hall with a bar, or an actual bar, often with an sign out front. In the 70s, it was a place for older World War II and Korean War vets to gather and have drinks together, often not having much contact with each other outside the Legion.

Does this still happen? I’m not sure what the differences are between the American Legion, AMVETS and VFWs, but all seemed to be roughly the same kind of places for vets to gather. You didn’t see Vietnam Vets doing that in the 70s – those guys were still in their 20s and had a real bad taste in their mouths over their war experiences, thus it might not have occurred to them to hang out at places like this filled with older guys with similarly harsh stories. I could surely see Vietnam Vets hanging out at an American Legion now, and I’m sure they do. But Iraq War vets? I wouldn’t know if Dad went to the American Legion in his 20s or 30s (he was mid-30s when I was born) – it’s possible he didn’t start going until later in life.

Seeing Dad drunk was like seeing me drunk – it didn’t fit the traditional experience of some stumbling idiot making more noise than a cupboard of dishes collapsing. No sob stories of the old man beating me with wire hangers, or getting Mom in headlocks. That shit never happened in our house, thankfully. (Sorry if it’s happened in yours.) I gather Dad liked to go out drinking in his 20s the same way I did, or millions of other people do. All I know is he only when out drinking once a month when I was a kid, and that was such an odd ritual that it hardly represented a whiskey-soaked free-for-all.

Dad always got dressed up to go to the Legion. His taste in clothes was legendary in its uniformity. When he was relaxing, he’d wear a collared, short-sleeved shirt, but it was rarely clean, always some sort of odd spot on it somewhere. (In later years, he’d just wear pocket t-shirts all the time, like we did as kids, when he’d chide us for dressing like slobs.) When working on the fleet of family AMC junkers he purposely bought to give himself a hobby, he’d wear his gray sweatshirt with sleeves and collars cut out, years before this became a trend with the movie Flashdance. The sweatshirt was cruddy with grease and oil stains – this was his usual weekend wear. For pants, he always wore a pair of dark gray corduroys, literally until they fell apart, and he’d buy another pair. He was inordinately fond of the Haband slacks store in the local mall. He never wore shorts.

I can see that I’ve picked up his fashion sense as I’ve grown older. I’m a uniformity person, too – white sleeveless t-shirt and khaki shorts, white socks, black sneakers. I wear this all summer long when not at work – in my mind, it’s too hot to wear anything more. I’ve taken the ribbings over a grown man wearing shorts, but that’s generally from guys with chicken legs. I look fine in a pair of shorts. And I’m used to wearing them from years of working out in gyms. This bothers me sometimes, as I think I should be walking around in fedora, dress shirt, slacks and expensive shoes … but it just doesn’t suit my lifestyle. Be glad I’m not walking around in loud Nascar or Ed Hardy shirts and sideways baseball hats, with attendant phony bad-ass tattoos and face jewelry. Still, I can’t help but feel haunted by that specter of adulthood I sensed growing up, even working-class guys dressed well in their leisure time.

Dad would put on a white dress shirt for the Legion, never a tie, but a dark blazer of some sort, dress pants, black socks and leather shoes – I should point out he normally wore black slip-on canvas loafers, the really cheap kind you’d find in supermarkets for $2.00 a pair. Basically black canvas sewed onto a small slab of tan rubber. I would buy these on a lark in my early 20s to mimic Dad and wear them occasionally, but I haven’t seen this type of shoes in years. (These got to be trendy in the 80s, especially when the black-and-white checkered version started appearing movies and videos.)

It was always a “what’s wrong with this picture” vibe to see Dad dressed-up like that. I got the same vibe when I saw Brother J dressed in a coat and tie for Dad’s funeral, as he normally dresses for working in a warehouse. You can see when a guy is uncomfortable in more fashionable clothes, and such was the case. Dad claimed to be more fashionable when he was younger, and he probably was, simply by dint of the times, coming of age in the 40s and 50s. It was always a major freak-out for us as kids to dig up old military uniforms in the attic and realize that Dad had a 26-inch waist … just unbelievable. I think the last time I had a waist that size was the 5th grade, and this was having a 32-34 inch waist well through my 20s. He must have grown quite a bit after leaving the army, because I later wore some of his old blazers while at college.

But we’d all be sitting around, watching Sanford & Son, or what have you, and Dad would come down the staircase like he was headed to the prom. Mom would blurt out something sarcastic like, “Oh, look, here comes prince charming,” and they’d laugh. She knew he was off to the Legion to pay his dues, because the only other reason he got dressed up was for church or funerals. I’m sure it would have been nice for him to take her out like that every now and then, but it rarely happened. They went out driving almost nightly anyway – just seemed to be more their style to hit a McDonalds, grab a Coke, then keep driving. They’d later add a mutt named Maggie that Mom picked up from the local pound to their nightly drives. (Wiped out Dad emotionally when that forsaken dog passed on quietly in her sleep one night.)

I don’t know what Dad did while at the Legion, save for have a few beers. I’m sure it was guys in the same boat, WW II and Korean War vets, working in factories, getting dressed up for one night a month to hang out and talk about their days in the armed forces. I’d have loved to hear this stuff, because Dad never discussed his war experiences at home. He’d drop bits here and there – his favorite story being the time he fell asleep on a bus in the midwest while trying to get back to the base, woke up with his head resting on a large black woman’s bosom, and they both realized the driver was going around in circles through the rain in East St. Louis.

I’m hazy on the exact story, but supposedly he was injured in a boot camp training drill. A live grenade was accidentally used with a bunch of blanks. There was an explosion, and the guys behind Dad were killed. He would have been, too, had their bodies not blocked the impact of explosion. But he took shrapnel in his lower back and legs, laying him up for a few months. In those few months, his platoon was shipped off to Europe, ending up in The Battle of the Bulge, where you were just as likely to freeze to death in a foxhole as get shot. When he came back, the war was over, so he spent a few months traveling around immediate post-war Germany, which was still a dangerous place, and took in a few days at the Nuremberg Trials, when Rudolph Hesse was on the stand. He then spent a decade afterwards traveling all over America doing mechanical work at various air fields – that much I know for sure as I’ve seen the Honorable Discharge papers, which dropped him back in Pennsylvania in the mid 1950s. His rank was some level of Sergeant, might have been Staff.

I would guess that most of the vets gathered in American Legion halls were like him – sergeants, corporals, privates – the guys who did the grunt work. I’d be curious to know how many officers would be found at the Legion bar – just seemed like one of those things the rank-and-file would indulge in far more. There would be Big Band music on the jukebox or radio. And the guys would talk, about the insanity of the service, work, families, etc. I didn’t know until I actually worked in Dad’s factory that he was fairly gregarious and got along well with people – he was quiet around the house. But knowing how he was at work, I could easily picture him having a blast at the Legion, the relaxing pull of a few beers helping out, too. He’d leave around 7:00 at night, usually get back no later than 11:00, often earlier.

And I could tell, he was tipsy. Flush in the face, relaxed, simply holding himself differently … the way we all do when we’re a little drunk. He’d walk in, take his usual place on the sofa, and quietly watch some TV. For all I know, he was seeing two TVs, but he never seemed that drunk. Even his voice sounded different, more conversational, which is the kind of thing you notice with someone who normally gives you orders. I can’t recall a single incident where anything more happened. I’m sure it was also in his head that he was in front of his kids, so he wasn’t going to take his pants off and climb a tree in the backyard. I’d say that must be an awkward situation, to be drunk in front of your kids, but judging by some people, it’s a fairly routine thing these days, and not unusual to act like a horse’s ass in front of them.

I don’t know how much his dues were, but I’m sure the whole thing was just a ruse to get away from the family for a few hours – a practice I wholeheartedly endorse for any married guy. Once a week would be even better. As kids, we always had reasons to break off on our own and do things after school – various sports practices and such. But parents were stuck. Aside from the drives and Dad’s Legion visits, they were there most of the time at night.

It should also be noted that right around that time, Brother M, as the eldest child, was going through his wild teenage years in ways none of us afterwards would replicate. But this must have scared the shit out of our parents, to think we were ALL going to do this, turn up drunk and stoned in at two in the morning, covered in clods of dirt and weeds, with a sob story about driving into the side of a hill to avoid hitting a dog. There are probably volumes of Brother M’s teenage misadventures to be told, but I only know a few, which involve essential elements like feces and vomit. Seeing as how he may be reading along here, I’d leave those stories for him to tell to avoid any potential embarrassment.

But in a lot of ways now, I feel like Dad when I drink, simply paying dues at my own legion hall, wherever that may be. We had an after-work get-together a few weeks ago that involved drinking on a rooftop of a 40-story apartment building in Manhattan, and that's quite an experience, especially as the sun goes down and the lights come on. I imagine it gets old fast if you live in a building like that, but not for people like me who rarely have that experience. I saw a few pictures of me from this thing the following week ... and I look like a very relaxed fellow, sitting way back in my lawn chair, smile on my face, BOMBED. I was bombed that night -- the host kept punching Coronas into my hand when he saw my bottle getting low, which pushed me up around the 7-8 beer limit. (I'm more comfortable with the buzz of 3-4 over the course of a night.) At that point, it's recreational for me just to get up and throw away my empty bottle, mainly to make sure I can still walk. Maybe it's from years of living in the Bronx and making sure I had my game face on when I got on the subway train late at night, but I don't think most people can tell when I'm really drunk. Plus, I can converse like a normal human being in that state, unless I'm totally obliterated, which has happened maybe a handful of times in my life.

Most other times, I'm just meeting a friend in a bar, hanging out, getting caught up, trading music, paying for our drinks, so not drinking more than a few. There are a lot of places downtown in Manhattan that have great happy-hour specials, so that's usually how it goes, right after work, getting those $3.00 pints before they magically double or triple in price at 8:00. It only adds to that Legion effect for me, although without fail, every damn bar I go to with a friend, there's only room for one at the bar, so we have to get a booth. I'm assuming most people at the bar around that time are regulars, and I've never been a regular at any bar, just never liked to drink THAT much. Even less now, much less than even 10 years ago.

What are my dues? What did I do in the war? Nothing. Jack shit. I suspect Dad would be fine with those answers. It's a shame we never sat down and had a few beers, but it seems like the drinking trains we were on in our lives just never ran down the same tracks, as he had given up the Legion dues night completely by the time I was of drinking age. I'd surely give anything to have a beer with Dad now -- or do anything, for that matter -- but it feels like his legacy does live on, in some oddly quiet way, a grown man, coming through the door around 11:00 at night, with some donuts to get some food in his belly before he goes to bed, maybe pop a few aspirins, check some emails ... much in the same way Dad would find his way to the sofa and watch the last half of Fantasy Island, or whatever else was on. I'm not sure why I'm that careful with my alcohol, but can't help but feel it's just as much genetics as any sense of manners.

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