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  • When I was a wee tike, I remember my grandpa taking me to March AFB to get that “Jesus wig” cut off my head at the base barbershop. I tried telling the barber how I wanted my hair cut, and gramps just said, “Give him the works Frankie.” A few minutes later, I was high and tight with a flat-top you could use as a carpenter’s level. To show off my quaff, he took me with him to the old V.F.W. out on Alessandro Blvd. It was a simple, nondescript, square building sitting at the far end of a gravel parking lot. If it wasn’t for the etched wood plaque hanging over the open door, you wouldn’t know what the place was. It’s not like they needed to do any advertising. This was a private club and not the kind you can buy your way into. There wasn’t a red velvet rope out front; the price for admission and a "cheap drink" was heavy and paid in youthful blood.

    From the glare of the mid-day, we’d stroll out of his jalopy and enter a bar that at first was nearly pitch black until our eyes adjusted. The only light in the place came through the open door and from a couple of beer signs on the walls. What I would give to have the old Coor’s sign with the waterfall lit in such a way to make it look as if was flowing. He would order a Bud long-neck for him, one and only one because he had me and was driving, and he'd get a Roy Rogers for me and not the Shirley Temple I wanted because that's what a girl drinks. With our drinks in our hands, we mostly sat at the bar while the guys talked shop, shot the shit or said a benediction for another comrade from the post who had joined the choir invisible. These conversations even included some politics from the left and the right. There were both democrats and republicans in the mix, and they argued but did so without hatred in their hearts towards one another and out of genuine love of country and wanting to see it improve. This was the most feared voting block in the country for a long time, and even the most hell bent conservative back then knew it was political suicide to go after Social Security, Medicare and VA benefits. It just wasn't part of the political conversation of the day, and even that generation could probably never envision the day those hard fought for and paid into programs would ever be on the chopping block, but that's a different conversation for a different day.

    In the back room one time, a bunch of old codgers, ex-WWII and Korean vets, were playing poker. The sunlight from a couple of high transom like windows cut through the thick cigar smoke like rays of light out of a Christian painting onto the table and the men around it. They all had faces of tragic beauty with hard lines that seemed etched in soft stone. They either had shaved heads or sported worn fedora and Panama style hats, when they weren’t wearing their decorated V.F.W. covers. If they sported any facial hair, it was neatly trimmed and even waxed in the case of one man with a classic handlebar mustache who looked like he would rise up out of his chair at any moment and take someone on in a 50 round bare-knuckle boxing match.

    I mostly can’t remember specifics of what they said, just the general drift, but their voices croaked, crackled and even roared in thunderous booms of laughter. One of them let out an F-bomb and quickly apologized to me when gramps just looked at him sideways. I told him that maybe I should get my granny to wash his mouth out with soap like she did to me when I had used the F-word. That got me a pat on the back and a huge laugh from everybody at the table. At six years old, having your grandma drop her Marlborough, drag you into the bathroom and use a bar of soap on your tongue like she was scrubbing the stains out of some soild underwear was about as close as I could get to these beautiful old geezers in the way of war wounds.

    I remember thinking I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. I of course knew nothing about war, even the one winding down in Vietnam at that time, and I still don’t share their experience, thankfully. I’ve never been a team player, so the military wasn’t an option. Although growing up in San Bernardino should get me partial credit, the dues paying that this “greatest generation” laid down was brutal, necessary and epic in scope, like the men at that table. Part of me would still like to be like them, but the season for heroics has passed. Well, at least I got the cigar, the taste for booze, the poker skills, the hats, and I’m working on the wrinkles.

    Thank you grandpa and to all who have served.


    p.s. Thanks for the haircut, gramps; I thought I'd give it another try over 40 years later.
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