Saturday, April 22, 2006


Shortly after entering Maryland, Ed directed me to exit the interstate at a sign that read Fort Meade. We drove for about ten minutes, then started seeing the signs that said we were entering a military reservation. I felt a little uneasy as we were just returning from a large anti-war protest and we were approaching the home of the National Security Agency. I would think that there would be extra guards, etc. around Fort Meade and I didn`t know what their standing orders were.

Whatever, Ed directed me down some back roads, I had no idea if we were on or off base. On a lonely road, not a building in miles, I could see some lights ahead on our right. Ed told me to pull in and I entered a small dusty parking area, just one other car parked, a Chevy Bel-air. The small one story building was obviously a bar, neon signs in the windows advertising Budweiser, Schlitz beer.

Before leaving the car I checked on Mike, let him know we`d be right back, put a jacket over him and locked the car, leaving the windows slightly ajar. As we walked to the bar`s entrance I reached for a cigarette in my pack and realized I was carrying the last of our joints in my Marlboro pack. I showed it to Ed, then field stripped it, scattering the marijuana to the winds. I just wasn`t going to sit in a bar at Fort Meade with a joint in my pocket!

Ed seemed to understand and led me into the bar, just one small room. To the left was a shuffleboard table and a pinball machine for bowling, standard equipment for any neighborhood bar in America. It seems wherever men congregate, there are ways to compete.

I knew the rules, had spent many an hour on the bowling machine. Six of you would put your coins in, bowl ten frames on the machine. The lowest score, to the general derision of the others, had to buy the next round of beers; the next lowest had to put in the coins to play the next round.

Back in our local bar in Philly, the players fell into two catagories: First, there were the regulars, players who took competition seriously, who couldn`t stand to lose no matter the game. These were guys who would spend hours perfecting the slide of the quoit on the machine, just practicing so they would never have to buy the next round of beers. It wasn`t the money for them, just the feeling of being a winner. Then, the rest of us, usually three or four, who would take turns losing, buying beers, inserting coins. I always felt a sadness when seeing the elated faces of the first group, their excitement over getting free beers, winning in a game that was preordained. A sadness over what must have been missing in their lives that they could invest so much time and energy for these fleeting moments.

In the middle of the room were three worn tables to sit, laminate worn, chairs old and rickety. To our right was the bar, about twenty feet long, maybe ten or twelve high backed chairs. The only other person in the bar was the bartender, no patrons. He was a tall black man, well built, with a slight belly that all bartenders seemed to carry. He looked at us warily, two freaks entering an empty bar, then his face seemed to light up as he recognized Ed through the hair and beard.

“Ed, what`s happenin`?” he said, offering his hand, then coming around the bar for a bear hug. He held Ed at arm`s length, smiled, “You made it back.”

“Told you I would, Breeze. And I told you I`d stop by when I did. By the way, this is a good friend of mine; Vince. Vince, this is Breeze. He`s the guy that filled me in on what to expect in Nam, how to stay alive. A good man.”

I shook Breeze`s hand in that new convoluted way we all did, then sat at the bar as Breeze poured three mugs of beer. “I guess you two were at the rally? Wish I could have made it.”

Ed raised his mug in salute and took a sip. “To everyone who served” he said, as we repeated the mantra and drank to the heroes who had sacrificed themselves in so many ways in service to their country.

I grabbed my mug and walked to the jukebox, giving them time to talk. I was out of place in that conversation, hadn`t earned the right. There was some Marvin Gaye on the jukebox, “What`s Goin` On”. I put a quarter in and sat at one of the tables, listening to the rage in the man`s soft voice, waiting for Ed and Breeze to catch up.