For the Legion, it's an old story

July 31, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

Once a week or so, a 23-year-old trainer and aerobics instructor walks into a cream-colored, one-story building with a gold star on the side and a big American flag out front. She takes a seat at a bar where the places are marked by dollar drafts and bowls of peanuts.

This is not where you would expect to find Marissa J. Wilson. On many afternoons at Mount Airy American Legion Post 191 -- and around the bars of posts in Hampstead, Sykesville, Westminster and Taneytown -- septuagenarians constitute a majority of the visitors.

It can be a lonely place if you're looking for a companion under the age of 50, she says.

"I think it's geared toward the older crowd," says Ms. Wilson, who joined the Navy after high school and served as an aviation electrician. "There's no pool tables, and the only thing on the jukebox is old country music."

It's been 75 years since a group of World War I veterans, weary and worn from trench warfare in Europe, caucused in St. Louis and decided that "for God and country" they would form an association called the American Legion.

With record membership in Carroll County (3,075) and nationwide (3.1 million), the country's largest veterans organization, at least on paper, has never looked stronger.

But in Carroll's five Legion halls, members say their active membership, the majority being World War II veterans whose average is 72, is declining.

Some Vietnam-era veterans have taken leadership positions in the posts, but many Legionnaires, as they perch on their bar stools and mutter into their beers, say those who served in the nation's longest war don't show up around the post that much.

"I'm definitely concerned," says Jimmy Smith, a 49-year-old banker and Vietnam-era veteran who is financial officer for Post 31 in Westminster. "At our meetings, we have very low attendance. We have to get Vietnam and Desert Storm veterans into the Legion and get them involved."

Efforts to recruit veterans who served in the military during the time of Grenada, Panama or the Persian Gulf war have brought in few members. Those who do join tend to be the sons and daughters of Legionnaires.

Ms. Wilson, who under Legion membership policy was admitted as a "Gulf war-era" veteran even though she spent Desert Storm in Italy, had an uncle and a father in the Mount Airy post.

Some veterans worry that the long hours of slow but rich conversation that are the hallmarks of Legion life may not play to 1990s crowds.

"It used to be that people got out of the service and joined," says Arthur Brett, a member and past commander of the Mount Airy post, where 30 of the 814 Legionnaires signed up regularly attend meetings. "But they're not doing that anymore."

That may be because for World War II and Korean War veterans, the Legion was a social center. Hundreds would come out to Taneytown to watch the post's drum and bugle corps, recalls 68-year-old James McKinney, a retired electrician and member of Post 120 there.

The crowded big band parties of the 1950s and 1960s at the Westminster post were popular with everyone but the fire marshal, says World War II veteran Henry S. Hook, 76.

Mr. Hook, who is retired from the farm equipment business, says that for one dance, organizers cut star shapes into wood panels that were placed over the ceiling lights. They called the place the Starlight Room.

Now, the big band records have been stored away, Mr. Hook says, and he has stopped going to dances.

"In that age, we had older people who were interested in real music," he says. "Not this plunky-plunk, excuse me . . . that's going around now."

Dinners and bingo games remain popular, but community service is the big draw now.

The posts' ability to harness volunteer spirit is legendary. Some county residents still remember fondly, if with a touch of irony, fTC the months during 1943 when the Legion, using jars placed at Westminster storefronts, collected more than 30,000 cigarettes for the troops overseas.

Today, Legion posts in Carroll sponsor Little League teams, blood drives, Memorial Day services, Boy Scout troops, dozens of veterans programs and a camp for underprivileged children in Western Maryland. Individual members do some of the most important work.

For example, Godfrey G. Miller, a 60-year-old member of Taneytown Post 120 who is on disability for injuries he suffered as a paratrooper in the Korean War, drives other veterans to the Martinsburg Veterans Hospital in West Virginia as often as a dozen times a month.

"I want anyone from the post to be able to go to the hospital and be treated without red tape," says Mr. Miller, a past commander of the post. "So I got acquainted with the staff, know everybody by their first name, and now I can get just about anyone in."

The leaders of some local posts have come to believe that if the Legion is to attract and keep younger members, its commitment to community service -- not its status as a veterans organization -- will have to be the selling point.

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