As the number of Americans who responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor—70 years ago Wednesday—drops every day, so, too, do the rolls of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Along with thousands of World War II and Korea veterans, VFW halls across the nation are dying. Many others are threatened with closure due to a combination of factors.
Chief among them is the difficulty in attracting younger veterans, including those from the Vietnam War and even the very short Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but especially vets from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
Finances are another major problem. Membership dues cannot keep up with mortgages made during flush times 20 or 30 years ago, or spiking rents.
The most constant implosive pressure, though, may be social: the idea of male-dominated veterans’ clubs, with an implied blue-collar companionship and inexpensive beer, bingo nights and perhaps an impromptu poker game under dim lights, seems faded in the era of instant communication and downloadable entertainment.
People drink a whole lot less these days, too, said one 1970s-era Army infantryman last week who preferred not to be named. After work one afternoon last week, he was sitting at the bar at 45 E. Lancaster Avenue, home to the Ardmore VFW Post 843, which has had its own troubles to deal with of late, including a mortgage and other loans it couldn’t meet.
He might have added that people don’t smoke nearly as much either. (Because the hall, adjacent to a municipal parking lot in the heart of Ardmore's business district, is not open to the general public for walk-in service and has no kitchen, smoking is permitted inside.)
“We’re selling off part of the building right now,” said Ardmore Post 843 Commander Bob Waterall, 63, a Navy veteran of two tours in Vietnam. “Membership is definitely declining. Of course, the older ones are passing away, or just not active at all.”
Waterall said there are World War II and Korean War vets on the rolls, but he hasn’t seen them in some time. As for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a grand total of one so far—this vet actually became commander for a time, only to be recalled for another tour in Afghanistan.
“It’s a local bar—it’s not fancy or pretentious ... It’s an old-town, old-fashioned kind of place, and people like that.”—Scott Mahan
As things are, but for the intercession of friendly business neighbors and groups, Ardmore’s VFW hall might well be a thing of the past. But by continuing a policy of encouraging “social memberships” and other initiatives, Post 843 is managing to hang on.
“It is a struggle—there’s a lot of guys that put in a lot of effort to keep it going,” said Scott Mahan, the VFW’s assistant steward. “Things are not easy, but how many things are these days?”
Mahan, 49, is not himself a veteran, he’s quick to tell you. But he is the co-owner and treasurer of his family business, Suburban Office Equipment, situated a couple of doors down from the Ardmore VFW, where Rittenhouse Place runs into Lancaster.
“I just became involved in helping vets out years ago,” Mahan said. “Just to help them with computer work, and all sorts of things.” Mahan also got involved in the club’s annual Turkey Raffles at Thanksgiving, and then the yearly Operation Santa Claus (details to follow).
“A few years back when the township was trying to take the property, the second floor of the place was actually vacant at the time,” Mahan said. So SAC took over the space, and what followed was serendipitous for the VFW. A lot of members of the new group became “social” members of the old, providing a place to meet over a drink downstairs while helping the vets fill their dwindling coffers.
These days, Mahan said, SAC is mainly an online presence via its often feisty blog, but when members do get together, it is usually at the VFW. Call it another means of historic preservation.
A Social Network
About a third of the post’s 150 to 175 current members are social members. Mahan said when he first started, more than a decade ago, there were some 300 members at Ardmore’s VFW. Even then, of course, the number was considered well diminished from the rolls of the club’s heyday in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
“It’s tough to maintain them,” he said of VFW halls in general. “The ones that are more successful are the ones that are more rural, like in central Pennsylvania, where the VFW hall is the main gathering point for a town.”
But here in Ardmore, there seems to be a steady, maybe even a growing, appreciation of the decidedly unglamorous watering hole.
“It’s a local bar—it’s not fancy or pretentious, and you just relax, and everybody’s equal,” Mahan said. “It’s an old-town, old-fashioned kind of place, and people like that. That’s why I like it.”
People were loving it the Friday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 18), when the annual Turkey Raffle had 45 birds up for grabs (courtesy of Genuardi’s in St. David’s). The place was packed, with the proceeds of the raffle going to the VFW and the good works its members do throughout the year, such as maintaining the veterans’ memorials at St. Paul’s Cemetery, keeping crisp flags at gravesites (every Memorial Day and Veterans Day), and helping out with the Memorial Day parade.
Mahan said most of the turkeys won that night were donated to families in need around the area. “Even people who don’t like turkey do it,” he said of the gathering (see photos, above).
Other events include an annual bus trip to the Reading Phillies and a July 4th barbecue.
And, of course, Operation Santa Claus, which is going on right now through Dec. 17. On Saturday (Dec. 10), the post will hold its annual Christmas party starting at about 5 p.m. (You can drop off unwrapped toys at the VFW from 4 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and on Saturday and Sundays from noon until 8 p.m.)
“That’s another neat thing these guys do—they take the presents to the wrapping center," where they are sorted by age and gender, Mahan said. “That’s what they’re working on right now.”
Social memberships are only $20 a year. “People join for a lot of reasons, and it’s a lot of people who wouldn’t normally be together,” Mahan said. “People from all different walks of life.”
Some members are willing to pay the twenty bucks simply to be able to stop in for a drink or two before dinner at one of Ardmore’s many nearby BYOBs.
One of those restaurants is Hunan, right next door. The owners will be the Ardmore VFW’s new landlord, having worked out a deal with the post for a five-year lease, Waterall confirmed. It is nothing short of a new lease on life in Ardmore that many veterans’ halls around the country would envy.
Look no further than Springfield, Delaware County. In May, members of a neighboring hall there, Post 5705, voted to close their doors and realign the membership to another post in Folsom. It’s a story that’s become all too common over the past decade.
But the Ardmore post did not just rely on chummy business deals to stay alive. It has also done so by embracing groups like SAC, but also forming a natural partnership, decades ago, with Ardmore’s American Legion Post 136. Full membership at the club these days is about half VFW, half American Legion.
Operation Santa Claus, for instance, is a partnership with the Legion, and dozens of other local groups that are not officially aligned with the post. Cops. Firefighters. Nonprofits and kids’ groups. Other private clubs nearby.
Waterall, who runs a service and parts business in Fort Washington (West German BMW) and also works with BMW North America part-time, admits that he is himself an example of someone who needed to be asked many times to join the VFW, and did so only in 2008. “I just never got around to it,” he said.
By that time, the national VFW threatened several times to pull Post 843’s charter—and then did pull it, once.
“The main thing was to get all the records straight and back taxes paid,” he said. “Once we got all that taken care of, we got the charter back.”
Waterall and his fellow officers at the post make up the main cadre of active members—only about six or eight in total. To increase that will require a recruitment drive, something he’s working on.
“What I initiated, and it hasn’t even kicked in yet, is that we will pay the first year’s dues”—$31.50—for any new members, he said. The national VFW brass signed off on the move, and told him they wished other posts would follow his example.
“The VFW is here to give you support,” Waterall said he tells veterans thinking of joining. “If there’s anything you need, we have a service officer connected with the Veterans Administration, a chaplain, and a benefits coordinator.”
Do Drop In
So think about helping their cause by donating a toy or two, but also consider helping to maintain an Ardmore institution you might not have given much thought to in the past. Consider a social membership as a sort of 70th anniversary present to an entire generation.
Though the barroom at Post 843 definitely has a man-cave vibe to it, Waterall said they plan to spruce the place up if they can. As for new female members, one vet suggested reminding folks that even in the 1940s, untold legions of women did their part, in uniform and in the factories as well as the homefront.
When you meet veterans, especially combat veterans, I can tell you two things. You are going to be treated politely. And if you earn their trust, you will be rewarded with rich, meaningful stories, truncated by a natural, inner editor that is constantly nagging the narrator that she is embellishing a war story, that the main character only did what he was demanded by his country, or her beliefs.
If you hold that the VFW is a militaristic institution at worst, or an anachronism at best, consider this somewhat poignant plea to those wishing to contribute gifts to underprivileged children through Operation Santa Claus:
“Please, no war games or toy guns.”
In these uncertain economic times, not many things are “easy,” Mahan said, answering his own question from above.
“Things are tough for a lot of people,” he said, pausing for a moment.
“Which is another reason why you want the VFW to be around.”
Operation Santa Claus
Drop off unwrapped gifts and toys at:
- Ardmore VFW Post 843, 45 E. Lancaster Road, Ardmore
- Weekdays: 4—8 p.m.
- This weekend: Noon—9 p.m. or so on Saturday; Noon—8 p.m. Sunday
- Christmas party (open to the public): Saturday, Dec. 10, 5 p.m.—9 p.m.