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.
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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."
I ask Adams what he would have done had he not enlisted.
"I would be on the bench, with a bottle, like the others back in New Jersey," he replies.
What would he like to see change?
"If the government really wants to do something for the veterans, they need to arrange it so there are more veterans' hospitals. One of the things that probably bothers a lot of combat veterans is that they are denied their space, and other people who came in the service that never saw combat, never did anything, and they have the same privileges and rights and stuff. The real war heroes ought to have priorities in these places. The ones who were wounded and hurt in action."
Comparing the days when he served, when he actually saw combat, to these, Adams says the kids coming into service now are a little different breed.
"We were indoctrinated in those days to die, to die, die. People right now want to use the technology, they don't want to die, and they want to stay out of the way. Now the kids are like, 'What's in it for me?' Not, 'What can I do for the mother country; how can I save the country?' And I don't blame them. Nobody wants to die. But I'm gonna tell you this: In those days, those men charged. Those days are over."
Wilson goes off on a tangent about Phoenix's police chief. He stands up to make his point, but the main point he makes is that he can barely stand.
"You write for that cheap-ass paper? Then tell that [police chief] Harold Hurtt, [Wilson] says, 'You can kiss my ass.' When that mutha fucka made captain he had nothin' else to do with his people. I knowed him, I played semi-pro baseball for him years before. Is he a black man who is chief of police, or is a chief of police that's a black man? And I think he's a cold-blooded son of a bitch."
Wilson moves on to prattle at somebody else.
Adams still can't believe we just waltzed into this place. He says half-jokingly that when he saw us come in, he thought I was just another dumb white dude.
"Can I say something that isn't meant to offend?" he asks. "What is it about you white people anyway? Always going in harm's way. Look at Evel Knievel junior, wanting to jump that canyon. A black person would have built a bridge to the other side. White people are always going where they don't belong."
He has a point; white people can be pretty obtrusive, obnoxious and demanding of space. I tell him I think being white can be boring. He still says it was crazy for us to come down here. He says he'd never do anything like it, like walk into a bar full of rednecks.
And I tell him that entering a bar full of rednecks is something I try to avoid, too.
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