You can still smoke in a VFW bar. More likely some bylaw for private clubs than payment for services rendered, but the small room tucked in a brick building on Kedzie has taken advantage of that.
The long, thin and surprisingly well-lit room was caked thick with the smell of smoke, the smell of years of smokers. The place was bright and clean, the minimal decorations on the wall military- and manly-themed. A few TVs played an action movie for the veterans scattered through the place.
About the two-thirds point down the bar, a man with kind eyes sipped from a beer bottle. He wore a Navy cap and a sandy, walrus-like mustache that drooped over the bottle with every sip. The eyes were a pale, watery blue.
He enlisted during Vietnam to get out of Chicago.
It was the race riots of the 1960s that got him out. At 4 foot 10 “and 90 pounds soaking wet,” the man was a target at his high school on the North Side.
He dropped out after one particular attack, heading the next day to an Army recruiter instead of class. Even in the thick of the Vietnam War, the recruiter wouldn’t take him because of his size. The Navy took him, just in time for a growth spurt that would carry him to all of 5 foot 5 or 6.
The man smiled as he took another sip of beer.
He spent 1969 to 1975 in the Navy, most of it as a cook on the USS Yellowstone. It was the second of what would be three vessels to bear that name.
“Seven guys feeding 900,” he said, a wistful smile crossing his face.
The Yellowstone was a destroyer tender. That’s a ship that doesn’t kill, doesn’t wound, doesn’t launch planes or fire torpedoes. Its job is to repair and maintain the ships in a flotilla of destroyers. The men — and they were all men then — of a destroyer tender are the providers. They’re the caretakers, all 900 of them.
And this man was one of seven who fed them.
The story gets light on details here. Another veteran at the bar asked that I leave. I would later delete the file containing the interview, keeping a different file by mistake. This story hasn’t been my finest hour.
But when I think of that man with the walrus mustache, sipping a beer in a room caked with years of smoke, I feel proud and humbled at the same time.
His war stories weren’t leaping in, all guts and glory and John Wayne jingo. He earned that Navy cap by taking care of people. The man earned his spot at the bar not by madness and mayhem, but by taking care of the caretakers.
At that VFW bar on a cold slip of Kedzie, there were a lot of men there some would call heroes. I met one I consider mine.