Friday night at the VFW and the atmosphere is neighborly
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Inside the VFW Post 9261 in Oak Bluffs last Friday night, three men in their 30s laughed together, flipping quarters to determine who would buy the next pitcher of beer.
They sat at one of a half-dozen tables in the bar area next to the newly refurbished kitchen that now offers a lunch and dinner menu. Deon Thomas, a well-known Island restaurateur, provides the food and he has restored the dining room, rehanging plaques that denote the four major U.S. armed services.
Two dozen or so veterans and guests gathered in the bar are engaged in a cluster of animated conversation. They pay scant attention to several TV screens mounted on the wall above their heads behind the L-shaped bar. Winning Keno numbers pop up on one screen, classic rock whispers on another cable channel, and the Red Sox pregame announcers chatter quietly on a third screen.
It's Friday night, a party-hearty night on the Island. There are no strobes or high-decibel pulsing beats on Friday night or any other night at the VFW. There will be no punch-ups in the parking lot on Towanticut Avenue. "There's plenty of bars on the Island for all that. We provide a place for members and guests to come after work and spend time with each other," Peter Herrmann of Edgartown, the post's quartermaster, said from a seat at the bar near the front door.
Mr. Herrmann is a burly giant of a man, a Vietnam veteran with long family ties to the Island VFW community. His father was a member before him. Many of today's members are second-generation members who served in war as their parents before them had served in the war of their generation.
A handful of the patrons talk about the appeal of the VFW for them. Their comments describe a place that is important for several reasons. For example, VFW Post 9261 is a community meeting place for Islanders and long-term residents.
"It's just a good place to be, the sense of community, of being with family, is present here," Tiffany Ellis, a bartender for 15 years at the VFW, said, sitting with friends on a night off from her duties behind the stick. Ms. Ellis was recruited by legendary post member Peter "Pop" Moreis to fill in on an emergency basis, and she stayed. Ms. Ellis grew up in the Whiskey Point section of very upscale Brookline. Whiskey Point is a tight-knit predominantly Irish blue-collar neighborhood that for generations has supplied the town with workers to do its heavy-lifting — cops, firefighters and DPW workers.
That aura of community, sort of Cheers on steroids, is well-rooted. Longtime Island resident Ron Kasmouski, now living in Florida, remembers having that feeling 25 years ago. "When I came to the Island and found the VFW, it was like the neighborhood bar had come to the Island with me," the South Boston native said this week.
For second generation members, Friday night — or any night — can be family time. "I come in a couple nights a week with my dad," said Rick Bernard, a second generation post member. "He has his two glasses of wine, I have my two beers, and we spend some time with each other."
But in addition to the community aspect, there is an aspect of sanctuary that draws war veterans to the VFW. It's been said that we can only understand war when we have experienced it, and for generations of warriors, from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and assorted hotspots over the past 20 years, being with other warriors is beneficial. "You know, you can share relationship issues, problems at work, things like that, with your local bartender, but you can only really talk about war with people who have been to war," Mr. Bernard, an airborne soldier who fought in Panama, mused.
Most of the older vets come from a generation in which therapy and "talking about it" was an alien concept. And in fact, conversations with vets at the VFW on Friday night and prior conversations with national military groups indicates that most veterans do not participate in VFW or American Legion activities for 15 years after their service.
"That's true, I think. I joined the Post in 1966 after service in Vietnam, but I didn't start coming here until the early 1980s," Mr. Herrmann said, a sentiment echoed by former post commander Peter Nickowal, a past post commander and Vietnam vet.
"We don't get a lot of veterans from the mid-east and Afghanistan conflicts. They come home and they join the post, but we don't see them a lot," Mr. Herrmann said. "Maybe they will come in 10 or 15 years after their war, just like we did."
While post members value the timeless aspect of their haven, they are also happy to have the new presence of a well-run kitchen, literally next door to the bar area. "We've seen a few new faces in the club. We are two separate organizations, but it's good to know that members can get a good meal close by," Mr. Herrmann said.
Later in the evening, bartender Brian Dube, 26, a son and step-son of post members, reflected on his two and a half years working at Post 9261.
"At first, it was strange being around these old farts. But as I got to know them, I learned a different perspective on how to live life the way I want to live it. I understand that I have the time and a good perspective to live life well."