Veterans of previous wars see the past reflected in glow of TV


January 20, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Fort Avenue in South Baltimore, in the shadow of Fort McHenry, they gather at the bar in the American Legion Hall and watch the war on television.

The old ones have arrived here from the struggles of some other times, the guys like John Jewell who fought across Europe and lost a brother at Normandy, and Ken Gorrick who survived two bloody conflicts, and Bill Butz who scrambled through the most recent world war.

"We're not the heroes of that war," Gorrick says over the hum of the television set. "The heroes are still over there in that ground."

"That's the truth," says Butz.

The man on the television is talking of surface-to-surface missiles in the Persian Gulf.

The men in the hall are joined by some of their women. Doris Maenner's standing in the dim light of the bar, with the bottles of bourbon behind her next to the Slim Jims and the collection jar marked Donations for Child Welfare Programs.

"I put three of 'em in the last one," she says, meaning sons who went to Vietnam. "I know what it's like."

So does Doris Wentworth. She's sitting at the far end of the bar, near the sign that reads, "12 Oz. Coors Light Draft -- 50 cents." She's watching the TV set for new signs of conflict and still remembering old ones. She had a husband in the commandos in World War II. She had a son in Vietnam.

"You never stop feeling scared," she says. "Not for your own and not for the country."

The man on the television set is talking of chemical warheads.

The men gathering in the bar start looking a little younger now. A couple dozen of them were upstairs for a while, mostly guys in their 30s making plans for this spring's South Baltimore Little League season, but they're down here ordering drinks now.

Life goes on. Kids play ball, people sit in bars nursing cigarettes and beers and watching television sets like little instant communities.

On TV, a reporter is talking of American bomb runs at a place called Basra.

"Two guys from my squad are in Saudi Arabia," says Mike Brown. He's a Northwest District city cop.

"My God, sending police over there," says Doris Maenner. Standing behind the bar, she shakes her head disapprovingly. "Why don't they empty the jails and send over some of those damned people?"

"Yeah," agrees Brown, slugging back a beer. "I agree with that. Send those drug dealers."

The man on the television set is talking of single-stage liquid propellant rockets.

We learn new vocabularies of weaponry with each war. If you drive a few blocks east to Fort McHenry, you can see what remains of ancient rocket blasts that inspired an anthem. If you sit by the television set, you hear talk of Phantom fighters and Scud-B missiles and thousand-pound payloads.

"Infantry," says John Jewell, during a TV break for commercial products. "Armored infantry, that's where I served."

He's sitting at the near corner of the bar, directly beneath a framed U.S. flag. "I was one of the lucky ones who got back," he says. "But these boys today, I don't know, they're so young."

"We were all young," says Ken Gorrick, a couple of seats over. "I was 17."

He takes out a photo from his wallet: There he is, all right, aglow in his Navy uniform and his youth.

"That's me," he says.

"Yeah, 200 pounds lighter," says Mike Brown.

"Look at this," says Jewell, showing an old snapshot of himself in uniform, with a horse. "This is me when I started out. I rode horses."

"Handsome fella," somebody says. Jewell puffs out his chest. "And you don't look bad either, John."

Good-natured jokes to get through the evening's bombing: John Jewell went to war on a horse. Now the man on the television is talking of biological weapons plants.

Not far from here, a man long ago peered through some rockets' red glare.

The news reports are mostly good, but they bring no cheers from this crowd. Too many memories here, too much firsthand knowledge of war. Weapons come and go,bombs grow more sophisticated, but one thing never changes: Human beings die in wars.

On the television now, a politician makes reference to Vietnam. That kind of war will not happen here, he says.

"All right," says a voice at the bar.



"We're here for more than the price of a gallon of gas," another politician says on the TV. "We're here for . . ."

"Coors Light, hon," a man at the bar whispers to Doris Maenner.

"If we let him get away with this . . ." someone a few seats away starts to say.

"That's right," comes another voice. "Remember ol' Hitler in '38."

"I remember," says another voice. "I remember."

The voices are laced with resignation. They say: The world is filled with evil people. We don't like it any more today than we did half a century ago, in our youth, but that's the way it goes.

"Not another Vietnam," says a young fellow, Ed Calvert. "I liked it when he said that."

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