Black Monday

Beer, conversation, an assault at the VFW hall on Memorial Day

After a long Memorial Day of food and drinks, post 1170 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars seems sleepy and slow when we arrive.

Not for long, though. If Wanda the bartender hadn't gotten in the middle of things after the war hero and ex-boxer slapped me across the face, I might be dead, or at least messed up.

My assailant, whom I'll call Wilson, has a bloodstream long on alcohol. He doesn't like my appearance, I guess. Why he slapped me, I don't really know. But it has something to do with the fact that I was looking at one of the signed photos of him that was lying on the bar.

Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I'm a white guy with my white girlfriend having a beer in a black VFW hall, late on Memorial Day.

The bar in Post 1170 on Jackson near 16th Street is nondescript in a neighborhood of railroad yards, industrial spaces and government housing. Inside the brick building there's a modest stage for entertainment, small tables on nut-brown carpeting and a pool table. There's a sign hanging that lists its lifers, officers and the deceased. In the southwest corner of the room, there is the bar.

Anyway, this guy, the fighter, Wilson, is mean. He could be shell-shocked, punch-drunk or just drunken mean. Or maybe all three. Wilson has sharp eyes, deep forehead lines and some girth on him.

After Wilson slaps me, Wanda, who looks like a young Ella Fitzgerald with plenty of sass to spare, puts Wilson back in his spot at the bar in no time. Nobody fucks with Wanda, and she is satisfied that I wasn't "going to start shit."

"He's so drunk, you could blow him over, anyway," she says.
Gladys Knight & The Pips comes over the jukebox, and a guy I'll call Adams, sitting next to Wilson, signals me over. I go and sit next to them. Adams sits between Wilson and me. For a moment, I think they're going to lay into me with something. They don't.

And I have nothing against Wilson, though he obviously dislikes me. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I loathe racists, but I know what it is to be drunk and mad. And I want to know their take on Memorial Day, their place in all of it.

Both say they didn't like the fact that I'd been taking notes, writing in my notebook. They want to know why. I thought about those who died for freedom and the whole idea of Memorial Day, and I wonder: Could these two ex-freedom fighters really be alarmed because a man writes in his notebook?

I tell them I write for New Times and want to interview some veterans on Memorial Day, and that my girlfriend is a student at ASU. They both looked surprised.

Adams says he served in the Air Force for 30 years. Says he saw some action in 'Nam and now teaches elementary school. Witty, articulate and groomed, he seems tolerant but embarrassed of his drunken pal.

Wilson, Adams says, is a decorated war hero.
"He got wounded, he had shrapnel coming out of his body."
Then Wilson leans over and starts in. And in his condition, he obviously must be handled with the delicacy of a live grenade, because one wrong word and--boom. So I just nod along and let him ramble into my recorder:

"I ain't a damn hero. I ain't a damn hero. . . When you are out there, it ain't about no damn hero; it's about what the hell can you do? . . . And then I see a mutha fucka like you. And I gotta say, you wanna get it right? I did two goddamned years over there, son of a bitch, and I'll tell you right now what you have there is chemical warfare, and they killed all them kids with those chemicals. And people are dyin'.

"Mos' of your problems over there in Vietnam was racial. Let's talk about what's real. A lot of the fights was blacks against whites, a lot of it. If you was right in the middle of what was goin' on, then you saw. Do I get a job--a black Vietnam vet--do I get a job? I went through the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and they say they'll break you down. And I said, 'If you break me down, where can I get it back up?'"

Wilson points at me, wobbles a bit, and squints his eyes tightly to emphasize his point. "When I seen you lookin' through my shit, I was pissed. You don't understand."

I tell him I understand. I tell him to take it easy; I am not the enemy. I am just some guy, harmless. He relaxes back into his stool.

Adams has been patiently waiting for Wilson to finish. Now he talks.
"There's a lot of things good about the service, and if you take advantage of it, you do," says Adams, the voice of reason. "I did. I've been in 44 countries. I'm not pro-war or anything like it. In the early days, there was no way I could have gone to school; there was no money. Because of the GI bill, I have been able to buy a home. To teach. To do all the things that got me out of the projects."

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