THEY'RE NUMBER 1
"This is my home bar," Joe Canavan says as he looks down into his bourbon and water. "I've been bitching about how uncomfortable these stools are since 1946. That's when I heard about this place. I was working across the street from here, and we heard they'd opened a bar, and we all ran right over."
Just returned from the major conflagration he refers to as "double-you double-you two," Canavan had found a home.
"I was in the Signal Corps in China and Burma," he says tersely. Like most of the veterans who frequent this bar, Canavan is not a big one for war stories. He is here for a strong, cheap drink, and perhaps a side of companionship. He is still slim and dashing, with lots of white hair and a rakish moustache. The female bartender calls him Angel Face.
"Yeah? Well, I call him Old Buzzard," says Jim Wallace, who has taken up his usual post five stools away from Canavan. The two have been trading insults for nearly four decades, ever since Wallace joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He'd fought in Germany, where he was wounded in the hip, and then came to Denver, where he spent his entire working life at Gates Rubber Company. Now retired, he spends his afternoons drinking beer at VFW Post #1, located at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Speer Boulevard.
"I've held every office in this place," he says. "I attend the meetings and I enjoy helping people."
Canavan does not. "I had enough of that organized stuff in the unions," he says. "They ask me to come to their meetings, but I don't. I'm here for the lounge."
But the lounge is faithless: It will not always be here for Canavan. In fact, the building acquired and remodeled by Post #1 almost fifty years ago will soon be history.
In an unusual real estate arrangement, the trustees of Post #1 have traded their building to developer Bruce Berger for a smaller property one half-block to the north. Part of the deal requires that Berger remodel the new post headquarters, and the drywalling is already in progress. Like its predecessor, the new post will contain meeting rooms, offices, a small museum and a lounge. But it won't be this lounge.
"I remember when this place was hopping," Canavan says. But it isn't now. In fact, this afternoon's crowd of four is not enough to cover the post's bartenders and janitors, who haven't been paid--except in tips--since December.
"The area is bad," Canavan explains. "No businesses, no working people--and the way I understand it, the price of booze keeps going up. But I still belong here. I'm a veteran, and besides--my wife knows where to find me when she's mad. It's our 48th anniversary next week," he adds.
"Where you gonna take her, Joe?" asks volunteer bartender Dorothy Wright.
"Ah, no place. Nothing special about 48. Now 50--that might count for something."
Canavan polishes off his drink and orders its replacement, just as he will do when his home bar moves to a new home. He doesn't plan to get sentimental.
"Can't," he says, looking at the empty space around him. "We're dead now."
November 23, 1899. Denver.
A group of Spanish-American War veterans, led by General Irving Hale, who at the time still holds West Point's highest grade-point average, meet at the Colorado State Capitol to form the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Future Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton joins up, paying the annual dues of one dollar. The avowed purpose of the VFW, to be firmed up in the coming years, seems to be equal parts lobbying Washington, social life, pomp and pageantry and helping less fortunate veterans, particularly those confined to hospitals. The decision is made to name this premier VFW post after Captain John S. Stewart, who was born in Waterproof, Louisiana, and had the bad luck to be the first Coloradan killed in the Spanish-American War.
By May of 1900, VFW posts have sprung up in twenty states, with each post numbered consecutively after Denver's original Post #1. Veterans are hard at work writing up the VFW constitution in a meeting room at the Brown Palace Hotel, after which they will join in the town's first Memorial Day parade. Three months later they host the country's first VFW convention. The high point is the First Colorado Band's spirited rendition of Post #1's official song: "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."
"If we have an official song these days, I have no idea what it is," says Doc Honeywell, VFW Post #1's quartermaster in 1995. "There's still a First Colorado Band," he adds, "but most of the members are in their seventies and eighties."
And the crowd they entertain at the annual Founder's Day dinner is considerably diminished. To remind himself of former hot times in the old town, Honeywell keeps a copy of historic VFW membership figures taped to a wall in his office. In 1949 the ranks reached an all-time high of 2,461--this year's roster totals 1,194--and Post #1 was one of the largest in the nation, with a busy bar and the first Chinese restaurant in Denver.
"That was when the Lotus Room first opened, and it was a novelty," Honeywell says. "Back in those days our lobby was packed with people waiting to get in."
And a swank lobby it was. Before the post moved to its current quarters in 1946, it had occupied various downtown storefronts. This new building was quite a step forward: The former commercial bakery had been remodeled with hundreds of sheets of mahogany paneling, walls of glass display cases and a gallery of stern-faced portraits of American generals, including Patton, Nimitz and McArthur. (In later days, autographed photographs of astronauts Wally Schirra and Jack Swigart joined the lineup.) Opening off the lobby were separate men's and women's meeting rooms, the Lotus Room and, of course, the lounge. Upstairs, a ballroom with picture windows proved the perfect setting for weekly dances. A room in the basement was given over to an informal collection of military artifacts that soon grew into a museum. The place was a far cry from most VFW posts, which usually consisted of little more than a bar, a meeting room and a couple of flagpoles.
VFW Post #1 became known not just for its posh building but also for the exuberant showing its members made at parades, sometimes arriving with a ceremonial burro team and covered wagon. "A story is still circulating about the time those burros mistakenly got onto a freeway ramp and they had to try and back them off," Honeywell laughs.
The post hosted a full schedule of swearings-in and swearings-out, with a corresponding dress uniform for each function. At less flamboyant times, members visited the disabled in VA hospitals, entertained everyone from orphans to battered women to crippled children to homebound senior citizens, and developed youth programs that were both anti-drug and pro-America.
Then came the Sixties. Although many Vietnam veterans joined, others weren't willing to be associated with an openly military, openly patriotic veteran's group. Desert Storm and Somalia each brought in a few dozen new members, but Post #1's clientele remained firmly grounded in the World War II era. And many of those were lifetime members who'd paid one lump sum in dues years ago. "You don't get much cash flow that way," Honeywell explains.
And the post needed the cash. Its building, which had seemed so modern in 1946, was proving to be a financial drain, with constant and huge utility and repair bills.
Even the Lotus Room had lost its luster. "By the time I got here in 1980," Honeywell says, "you could get Chinese food anywhere. Then one of the original owners of the Lotus Room passed away, and it started going downhill."
In July 1994, the last in a series of replacement restaurants disappeared altogether--"and this last one left in the middle of the night, owing a ton of money," Honeywell says. A brief flirtation with bar food--including a short-lived Battle Burger special--didn't make much difference.
By last December, so little money was coming in that the post could no longer afford to pay its four full-time employees. "Since then they've been working anyway, as volunteers," Honeywell says, adding that part of the problem was "some financial mismanagement" upon which he declines to elaborate. "It's like this," he says. "We are not generating enough income to pay our bills. Membership's dropping. People become disinterested or disgusted, and the members get up there in age and die. I heard they're doing 21 military burials a day out at Fort Logan. Even the Korea guys are starting to go."
And only a few of the small but loyal corps of lounge drinkers are willing to hold office, a commitment that often takes up to thirty extra hours each week, what with the ceaseless rounds of meetings, hospital visits, parades and bingo games. Although some VFW posts experience tremendous competition at election time, Post #1 candidates have run unopposed for years.
But Honeywell, who has been firmly installed as quartermaster since 1991, tries not to take his job for granted.
"Only about twenty people come to our meetings," he says. "I guess I could inflate the figures--but why? Anyway, I still have to be elected every year. There is always the chance that I could be thrown out on my bazoo."
This would probably rank among the poor management decisions of all time. Working for either a measly salary or none at all, depending on who you talk to (and Doc isn't talking at all on that topic), Honeywell is on duty at Post #1 seven days a week, from six in the morning to whenever he finishes up his last vodka and grapefruit juice, which is often at closing time. In his Vietnam-era fatigues and VFW #1 hat, he will appear anywhere he is asked--most recently before a procession of Berthoud preschoolers. And Honeywell serves as quartermaster not just for Post #1, but also for District #1, which comprises the eleven posts of Denver County.
Less tangible is the role Doc plays as Post #1's unofficial master of ceremonies, greeting the largely working-class regulars as they straggle in--"Hello, General, where's your aide de chump?"--and tolerantly berating his volunteer staff.
"Hey, Dorothy," he yells into the phone. "Are you gonna be in the Loyalty Day Parade, or what? Then who's gonna clean the goddamn building? Ah, Dotty, you'll be in here fussing around by six in the morning. She will, too," he says, as he hangs up. "She works for nothing, she's president of the auxiliary, she's in here at the crack of dawn to clean up from the night before, back to tend bar at three."
"Well, I just don't like the idea of leaving Doc alone," Dorothy Wright explains a few hours later from her accustomed place behind the bar. "He does everything around here. Someday, maybe, he'll be immortalized."
"Immoralized, maybe," Honeywell says.
Two customers appear. Dorothy serves them drinks without needing to take their order. Then she settles back into place, firming up plans for this Saturday night's dance, which will feature the vocal and synthesizer stylings of Bonnie Belle.
"She's the best you can get," Wright says. "You have to reserve her a long time in advance."
"She'll be playing what people want to hear, which is the double-you double-you two music," Honeywell says. "What she won't be playing is hard rock. We'll also have the post officer installation for next year. A swearing-in."
Despite their cumulative years of VFW service--Wright joined the auxiliary when her late husband came to the post sixteen years ago--neither Wright nor Honeywell can readily recite the roster of officers.
"Well, there's a commander, a senior vice-commander and a junior vice-commander," Honeywell says. "And a chaplain, who's supposed to see to religious affairs--"
"But he quit trying to save any of us a long time ago," Wright says. "There's three trustees, and a guard who's supposed to stand there and check membership cards as the members come in."
"And there's actually a post surgeon," Honeywell continues. "He's supposed to see to the health of the membership. What does he do? Well, very little. Hand out condoms once in a while."
"Doc," Wright warns.
Post surgeon is one of the many positions Honeywell has held since he joined the post. He'd come to Denver on the run from "humidity and a few ex-wives," after serving as a medic in both Korea and Vietnam. "To me," he says, "foreign lands were foreign. It wasn't exactly the great capitols of the world. I was in Seoul when it was nothing but bombed-out buildings. Still, it was a good life. In the military, the first ninety days are hard--after that, it's a coast. I would strongly advise a young person to give it a shot. You're always guaranteed three square meals, a roof over your head and money in your pocket."
Indeed, after leaving the Army in 1975, Honeywell admits to being at loose ends. "I bounced around, came here in 1980, did figures for Safeway for a few years," he recalls. Looking for nothing more complex than companionship, he joined VFW Post #1 in 1987 and was immediately pegged as the type of member who'd accept an official office.
"Then in 1991," he recalls, "the guy who was quartermaster took off for six weeks and no one knew where he was, and I filled in, and that's where I've been ever since."
In the intervening years, hints of Honeywell have seeped beyond his office and out into the hallways, where a sign reads: Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again. A bulletin board holds a letter from former senator Tim Wirth. "Dear Mr. Honeywell," it begins, "thank you for letting me know you oppose President Clinton's AID package for Mexico..." John Wayne videos are scattered about, and cocktails are always in order.
"Our mixologists are known for making a single into a double," Honeywell says. "Did you want a drink?"
The former men's meeting room, with its dark-red-velvet-flocked wallpaper, is no longer the exclusive province of the male sex. Everyone who can prove they've served on foreign soil is welcome--which, in recent years, has allowed some women to join Post #1 and its auxiliary at the same time. (Next year's Post #1 senior vice-commander will be not only a woman, but a black woman who served as an emergency medical technician in Somalia. In another Post #1 first, she will marry next year's junior vice-commander, a Vietnam veteran, this June.)
No turnout has been big enough to warrant the use of the men's meeting room in several years. This afternoon, Dorothy Wright stands here alone, wearing her royal-blue polyester VFW auxiliary uniform, even though she advocates a switch to a skirt-and-blazer ensemble. The outdated uniform is what she wears when giving lectures on the history of the American flag.
"We come with slides of twelve historical flags, and we take turns telling about them at any school that wants us," Wright says. "We don't just have the miniature flags, either. We have the big ones. We've never had a session where the children were not just thrilled."
As Wright still is herself. "It's a symbol of freedom," she says. "Our veterans fought for us beneath our flag. During World War II, when some of the fellas you had known all your life went off to war and you started hearing reports that they would not be coming back, and these were younger brothers, neighbors, sons...well, you realized the sacrifice they made for this flag. And then you started living through more wars after that, and you were so grateful for your freedom, and you love these United States, and you love this flag."
In the hallway, outside the men's meeting room and the empty Lotus Room, the love-of-flag theme is replayed. There are flag patches and pins for sale, as well as ancient, pocket-sized sheet music for "Let's Sing Out for America--Freedom Isn't Free." Inside a glass case, an embroidered flag sets out VFW beliefs in breathless prose scattered with dashes ("Our country--hasn't forgotten what we've done--"). A stack of this month's VFW newspaper explains the official VFW position on various timely issues:
It's time to stop aiding foreign countries when our veterans at home are in need. It's time to welcome women in the military--except in cases of hand-to-hand combat. It's not time to tolerate open homosexuality in the military.
"I'm pretty sure most of us agree with all that," Honeywell says, "but I don't know--I seem to be getting more tolerant in my old age. I'm not saying my views are softening, I'm just getting too tired to fight about it."
But the next morning, tired or not, Honeywell is back by six in the morning after only a few hours of sleep--his only non-VFW-related activity. Even so, Wright was here five minutes earlier. The second pot of coffee is brewing, and a plate of doughnuts sits on the bar. Next year's commander-elect, John Holland, is in the alley dumping trash.
"Nothing gets done around here because someone orders someone else to do it," he explains, in between his third and fourth garbage runs. "I could never dream of telling someone to dump trash if I were not willing to do it myself. I have about thirty minutes before I have to go to work," he adds.
After the fifth and final dumping, Holland sits down at the bar and hands Wright a plastic bag full of party decorations. "Now, these are on approval," he tells her. "If you don't think they're right, I can return them."
Wright holds up a chain of red, white and blue metallic streamers and several star cutouts. She approves. They will spruce up the lounge admirably at Saturday night's dance. "Every year the commander chooses colors," Holland says. "Oddly enough, I seem to have picked pretty popular ones."
This will be Holland's second commandership since joining the post in 1990. By all accounts, he has been a tireless volunteer, never hesitating to march in a parade, hang up a streamer or dump a sack of trash. And yet, he says, he originally joined the VFW (at another Denver post, in 1985) "to get the lapel pin," he says. "Fact. I was a salesman, and you're a more impressive salesman if you're wearing a lapel pin. But I grew to love the energy of this particular post. If you think about it, we're an awfully exclusive group. Here's the other reason I joined," he continues, showing off a framed poster of three men in fatigues with the message Welcome Home printed above it. "No one ever said that to me when I got back from Vietnam. I appreciated a place that would display that message."
Holland went to Southeast Asia as a Marine sergeant in 1968 and spent the war working as an air-traffic controller at a helicoptor base. "You may read that as noncombat, as were 80 percent of the personnel in Vietnam," he says evenly. "I got out and grew a beard and hair to my shoulders. I was in my early twenties, and I buried my time in Vietnam. I didn't talk about it. I never stopped thinking about it, though."
Once settled in at Post #1, Holland found he didn't so much talk about his military service as quietly co-exist among military men. "If someone wants to tell you a war story, they will," he says, "but you don't necessarily ask."
Besides, though Holland could never be described as antisocial, he's not the expansive, barfly type. "I have twenty minutes. Have you seen the museum? Quick tour," he says, as he unlocks the basement door. "The collection we have is very, very good up to World War I. We have a couple of meetings a month down here, and any member is free to show it to the public anytime."
Lined with turquoise vinyl benches and scattered with yellowing newspapers, the museum smells as if it hasn't been aired out in weeks. The collection is highly personal and arranged in no particular order--cannon, flags and field gear from the Spanish-American War, gas masks and hobnail boots from World War I, Nazi insignia from World War II, tiny satin shoes from Korea.
"This is one of my favorites," Holland says, indicating a Frederick Remington portrait of a Spanish-American War soldier. "We used it as the prototype for the memorial statue at Fairmount cemetery. We buried 93 indigent members of the post there, and there's room for more, by all means. And look--a Vietnamese crossbow. People don't realize what we have here. Fact. I have fifteen minutes. Been in any men's rooms lately?"
Holland races back up the stairs. He moves quickly through the lounge and into the men's bathroom, where he proudly displays three antique urinals. "It's like an old-time enlisted men's club, the kind of amenities we have here," he says. "The new building will be better in some ways--we'll actually be able to afford the utility bills. But we won't have these old urinals."
One half-block north, Doc Honeywell peers through the plate-glass window of the next Post #1, still under construction. "This'll be my office, right here, facing the street," he says. "I won't be able to change clothes in my office anymore. In the back there, we'll have something of a lounge area and a partial museum. There'll be a small kitchen and a meeting area. How we'll fit all our stuff into this amount of space, I have no idea."
But packing is a priority. The move must be completed by July 1 so that developer Bruce Berger, who arranged the building trade, can begin on his plans for the old post.
"I hear he'll raze it to the ground," Honeywell says, with a shrug.
"That's right," Berger says from his Cherokee Street office. "I want to do contemporary lofts. The front doors of the library and museum have been turned toward us. From the VFW land I bought, I can see the sunken gardens park, unobstructed views of the mountains and downtown. Things are booming."
So it's taps for the old post. It wouldn't make much of a foundation for a contemporary loft high-rise, and in any case, Berger has no sentimental attachment to the building.
"I've been in the lounge, but only a time or two," he says. "I think it's kind of dated. If they were going to keep it, it would need considerable refurbishing. But some of the old membership were very happy with it," he adds. "Even the way it was. Or that's what I understand.
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