'A place where we can be happy'
The VFW post in Hyde Park, which was chartered 57 years ago and fell onto hard times, is now in the midst of a revival.
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002
HYDE PARK -- In an area dominated by $400,000 homes, the little stone and cement block building could look to some like the gap in a beauty contestant's otherwise perfect smile.
|[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
The family of Russell P. Harris, who was killed in World War II, donated the land for the post. Harris, a Plant High graduate, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
The dirt driveway and rugged landscaping contrasts with the manicured lawns and fresh paint jobs de rigueur in such a tony neighborhood.
The one-story building might not look like much from the outside, but it contains a treasure trove of history, the kind delivered from a bar stool by a man with a tattoo and gnarled hands, the kind that garners knowing nods and "Damn straights!" from the others sitting within earshot.
Some of the resident historians come to remember. Others to forget. They tell for the umpteenth time the funny story about the guy from Nebraska with the lopsided ears or how the swimming cow came to its unusual demise.
The sad stories remain their own private domain, unearthed only by the comfort of common experience and perhaps the lubrication of a few Pabst Blue Ribbons.
"Many of us were in places that were very unhappy," said Bob Storey. "This is a place where we can be happy."
For decades, a similar tableau has played out in the building. The current denizens hope to add to the memories.
Welcome to Hyde Park's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4321.
* * *
Terry "Mac" McMillen walks in through the post's screened door, the one without a handle, each day with a well-defined goal: Keep the place running. By doing that he knows the bigger goals of helping veterans and serving the community will fall into place.
McMillen's Army career took him to Vietnam in the mid 1960s as a draftee and the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm as a member of the signal corps. In between, he saw the world. Egypt, Germany, South Korea, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain and a stint in Tampa.
|Terry McMillen, organizing things behind the bar, is credited with reviving the post. One bartender calls him "the best thing to happen to this place."
His 24 years in the military helped McMillen hone an ability to scavenge for needed items at the right price. He installed coolers and extended the bar. He found an ice machine and some photos and posters to spruce up the place. A jukebox sits in the corner. Members can play pool and darts for free.
These days, he dreams of building a granite monument outside the post dedicated to all the men and women who have served in the military.
"It would be a beautiful site," said McMillen, who has added a beard and several pounds since retiring from the Army in 1992. "Something to be proud of."
Many of the post regulars credit McMillen with pulling this piece of history out of the ashes.
Lisa Selindh, who tends bar a few times a week, affectionately refers to McMillen as "The Macdaddy" and "the best thing to happen to this place."
McMillen has made the post into a unique destination in this part of town, she says. It isn't like the chain bars or haughty places available nearby. Sure, she has to unplug the second-hand ice machine when it makes funny noises. But what the place lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in charm and a feeling of family, she says.
"If your car breaks down, these guys will help you out," she said. "When your feeling down, these guys will pick you up."
Some nights, Selindh serves a lone veteran, one who sits at the bar and keeps to himself. She knows the look of distraction. He'll order a beer, maybe bum a cigarette. The jukebox stays off, replaced by the rumble of speeding cars on the nearby expressway.
She has learned to deal with their moods. She talks. She listens. She jokes. She knows sometimes not to say anything.
She knows how to keep the more bawdy ones in check. They all must comply with her no-cussing policy. Violators pay her cash or buy her a shot.
She serves beers that cost $1.50 at most. Liquor drinks go for $2 to $3. The last Saturday of every month is dollar day, when a buck buys them all. Even those prices are just a suggested donation.
|Veterans line the bar at VFW Post 4321 in Hyde Park on a recent Sunday afternoon to watch the Bucs game. The post has been at 2010 W Morrison Ave. in Hyde Park since 1945, when it received its charter.
Selindh, 28, doesn't need to work at the post. She has a good job at Capital One. She's not a veteran, either. She just enjoys the company and likes the idea of lending a hand to those who served. The post benefits the community, she says, but more importantly it serves the veterans.
"Hey, even if only a couple guys show up, I learn more in here than sitting around at home," she says. "You don't find these stories in books."
* * *
The post opened, like VFWs around the country, as a tribute to a fallen veteran. In this case, Russell P. Harris of the U.S. Army Air Corps, who was killed during World War II. His family donated the property at 2010 W Morrison Ave., and the post received its charter in August 1945.
A wave of World War I and World War II vets kept the post vibrant in its earlier days. A few years later, the Korean War vets helped swell the ranks. In those days, the sounds of Glenn Miller filled the building. The members would discuss the merits of President Harry Truman canning Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination.
For several years Rita Stubblefield and Pat Dunning kept the place going. A picture of a uniformed Dunning, who served in the Women's Army Corps and worked as a cryptographer, coding and decoding messages to the front lines during the Korean War, remains embedded on the laminated bar.
But the post fell on hard times in the 1990s. Membership plunged and burglars made off with beer and liquor, the window air conditioner, two color TV sets and a microwave. They also took the speakers, amplifiers and microphones used for modestly lucrative bingo matches.
Eventually, the post closed. The phone number no longer appeared in the white pages. Neighbors began to wonder if someone had bought the property.
Then McMillen and another post member, Bill Russell, arrived on the scene. The duo vowed to get the place open again. They thought veterans in the area should have a place to go. They were also distressed that a building that represented the U.S. military had fallen into disarray.
|Veterans Bob Storey, left, and Terry McMillen serve breakfast on Sunday morning, now a weekly event. They ask only a donation and bring the leftover food to the homeless in downtown Tampa.
After a quick makeover, the two men opened the post seven days a week starting in May 2000. Since then, McMillen can remember only one day when it was closed and that was for maintenance.
They started Friday night darts and Saturday karaoke. On Sunday mornings, the post hosts a breakfast open to the public. A donation buys pancakes and omelets and other tasty creations. McMillen often drives the leftovers to the homeless guys in downtown Tampa.
The post also sponsors local ROTC programs and the Voice of Democracy essay writing contest. The members raise funds for the VA hospital and help citizens dispose of old flags. This holiday season, they plan to give away Christmas trees to disadvantaged families.
"I'm happy that we have it going again. I like the service we perform," McMillen said. "But it's not without struggles."
* * *
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Eddy Uritza and Bob Storey drink a few beers while watching the Dolphins play the Bills on a snowy field in Buffalo. They talk football and world politics, waxing on about how a war with Iraq might play out. They joke around a lot; laughs come easily.
When prompted, they'll talk sparingly about their military experience. They'd rather spend the time razzing each other.
"Yeah, I was in Vietnam in '68, '69," Uritza says. "U.S. Army, 25th Infantry."
"We won't hold that against you," counters Storey, a U.S. Marine from 1968 to 1972.
The immediate future of the VFW lies in signing up Vietnam veterans like Uritza and Storey.
For the most part, U.S. service members who earned an overseas campaign or expeditionary medal are eligible for VFW membership, as are those who served in Korea after 1949 and those who receive hazardous duty pay but are not stationed overseas. The worldwide membership totals about 1.9-million, with 68,382 in about 280 Florida posts.
For decades, World War II vets made up the bulk of that membership. As a group, they returned from Europe and the Pacific as heroes. It was natural for them to continue their connection to the military through groups such as the VFW and the American Legion. But World War II vets are dying off at a rate of about 1,500 a day nationwide, leaving Vietnam vets as the next biggest single group eligible for VFW membership.
Vietnam veterans, however, received a much chillier reception upon their return stateside, a reason sometimes used to explain why they were less likely to join military service groups. (Some observers point out that veterans of the Spanish-American War in 1898 received a similarly frosty welcome home, which helped prompt the creation of the VFW in the first place.)
|Veteran Joe Dempsey lights a cigarette while having a drink and socializing with other vets.
Others see it as generational. Many Vietnam vets grew up in the so-called "me" generation that championed individuality, not membership in clubs. They are also part of many two-income homes with less time for activities outside of family. Another theory is simply age: Many veterans don't join the VFW until they near civilian retirement, a milestone Vietnam vets are about to enter en masse.
"We owe a lot to our World War II veterans," said Jerry Newberry, director of communications for the VFW. "But we have to look to the future. The torch has been passed to the Vietnam Veteran."
Post 4321, too, has seen a dip in membership, especially now that the surge of patriotism after the terrorist attacks last year has faded. The post boasts 198 members, McMillen said, but a busy night these days can mean just 10 visitors.
"I think you'll see more of us Vietnam era guys joining up," said Uritza. "We're going to get bored sitting around the house and wives are going to be begging their husbands to find something to do."
Either way, when the real estate agents or developers stop by from time to time to inquire about the post selling the property, McMillen repeats the same simple answer.
"This post belongs right here," McMillen said. "It has a past full of memories and a future to add to them."
-- Times staff writer Graham Brink can be reached at 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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