Outside, the reluctant spring sun warms the crowded parking lot and car interiors, and radiates off the grass in the nearby field. Walkers stroll on the river trail, leading dogs, celebrating Easter with infrequently seen relatives. Spring, at long last, is here. I presume the veterans bar would be similarly busy, lively, and energetic. The season is contagious; and I like it.
But the interior was different. Every last window is shut, every shade drawn and every blind closed tightly. It reeks of smoke, and save for the occasional guffaws coming from a table of men more than a quarter century my senior, there is little sound. Overhead the fans stir the smoke of every other man’s cigarette, and that of the bartender, and the cook. At the electronic poker machines in the corner, two older men set their ashtrays atop the devices and alternate between long drags and listless button pushing. I order my diet Coke and sit there. Nobody talks to me.
Three opened Cokes also sit before me on the bar, along with a half full handle of whiskey. A sticker on the neck announces its owner: Melvin. He pushes back his chair behind me, leans around me at the bar, pours a bit, cuts it with the Coke, and returns to the poker game behind me. More guffaws. From the other game in the back room, a small man stumps up and doesn’t stop until he’s behind the bar itself. He asks for a beer, a pack of crackers, and chips for himself. They’d sent him to get provisions. Juggling the stores and a smoldering cigarette, he tells the bartender what item goes on whose tab and wanders back to the game.
In the TV in the corner, a dozen golf announcers quietly chatter about the complexities of this particular green or that sand trap, and Tiger Woods is playing horribly. Those images fuel the conversations around me. Nobody speaks to me still. Those that do speak never get much beyond the imagery of the TV and the local weather. On the far wall hangs the POW/MIA flag. “You are not forgotten.” I’m not so sure.
There are old people here, and old wars, and old veteran hats, and flags hang everywhere covered in a layer of dust, and more handicapped parking spaces outside than a major store. Those who aren’t in poor shape seem to be working hard to get that way. Melvin walks up. “I’m done Sharon.” He slides the whiskey handle back towards her and slumps hard into his seat again.
There was youth here once, when the war was fresh in everybody’s mind and they were heroes or hated and the trauma had arrested any further maturity. They were all in it together. They could all talk about it a little and drink about it even more. But it was okay to talk about it back then. They were brothers. Now they’re just drinking buddies. I used to worry that they’d read this if I wrote about it, but I know now that none of them ever will. It’s not what they do. They watch the TV and play the poker machine or gamble in the back, or fiddle with the jukebox, or talk about the weather. They want to read about our war no more than they want to talk about their own. Those dreams died long ago. They medicated them. This bar isn’t full of war heroes. It’s full of those still bleeding from the war.
It was the jobs and responsibilities, and the conviction that nobody really cares anyway. There was purpose once, and it was grand and patriotic, and now there’s the house you grew up in and friends who don’t know you anymore and the purpose vanishes like sand sprinkled into a stiff wind. “It’s over now,” they admit. “The best, the worst, the most memorable and the most beautiful…it’s already behind us. We’ll rally still, but in unified defeat. We’ll never talk about it though. We toast and drink and toast again, and stagger home late. We’ll be back tomorrow at 2PM when the grill opens.”
“I’m a professional drunk,” announced the commander to me one day, and I lost all interest in talking to him. There’s one flag missing here, and one that I think should hang about all the others: the white flag of surrender. Life has left this building, and the souls of those within it. Maybe they grew tired. God help me if I end up like this.
In my heart, I see in the hand of every man a shovel, and they are laboring hard. Having buried friends and brothers and comrades and then dreams and ambitions, they have begun to dig their own plots now. If I abide here, I will start digging soon. I pay for my Coke and leave. Outside, the sun is still gorgeous and my clothes reek of stale smoke. This is not a safe place; it is a dead place. I’ve just departed a funeral.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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