We arrived at Savannah at 10:30 in the evening. It was pitch black out, and the moon was starting to sink. The drive seemed to have taken forever, but when we finally arrived, none of that mattered anymore as we took in the Spanish moss hanging from every tree in the historic district, fleshed out in ancient brick and ivy. Our friend in Savannah, Kara, had a death in the family earlier in the day, so by the time we arrived, she was already half way to Birmingham. That’s the way these things go. Still, we were in a beautiful city intent on enjoying an eventful evening.
After some searching and asking people on the sidewalks, we managed to find Forsythe Park, one of the largest parks in this city of large parks. There was a film festival there earlier, but that was over, and they had already set up the tents for the following day’s Earth Day activities. The night was warm and balmy with a hint of salt in the fog rolling in from the bay not ten miles away. We stepped out of the car, and started acclimating ourselves to these new surroundings. It was as if we were worlds away from Murfreesboro with all of these new sights and smells hanging in the air, hanging from tree limbs, Spanish moss.
The park was deserted with the exception of a group of young guys that seemed to be pretty hip. We asked them where the party was in town. We were feeling rowdy and up for almost anything, and it seemed like these guys knew where to find what we were looking for. They were all exceptionally well dressed and very friendly. In other words, they were all quite gay, but I didn’t care, Dave didn’t care, and Pete didn’t know.
It was on. We walked with them down to the American Legion bar?one of their usual haunts.
The place fascinated me from the beginning. It was built in an old house that must have been rebuilt after Sherman came tearing through the city. Oversized stone steps led through glass doors and into a hardwood building with painted brick walls that spoke volumes to me.
Everything in there was either grey, white or pale green. The floors were ancient hardwood that seemed to be stained with the blood of wounded Civil War soldiers. The ceiling was made of beautifully patterned punched tin painted black so as to keep the odd bar as dim as possible. Inside the Legion house, the bar was on the left through a crown-molded doorway. There was a pool table under a stereotypical barroom pool table lighting fixture. An old man was playing a game with himself, sinking a few, missing a few. I imagine him to be a World War II vet with a cap on his head of white hair, but what I could see of his eyes suggested the wrinklings of drastic widening then the desperate, bitter closing of them. His tortoise specs could have been military issue. He still wore a solid short sleeve pocketed tee tucked into tight jeans, stiffly so as not to hang looped over his belt, but stick close to his muscles maintained since basic training. He sunk the cue ball. He ashed his cigar.
I was asked to buy a glass of Jack for Pete. He was nineteen, but still intent on getting messed up. I wouldn’t be caught dead buying a glass of Jack in a place like this. I would surely have come across as an amateur from Tennessee, to stupid to realize that asking for the local sour mash to counteract homesickness in such a place is not charming or quaint. Still, anything to keep Pete laid back and out of my hair was worth whatever came with it.
“Pardon me Miss. A glass of Jack please.”
“How much do you want?” she asked with a look that suggested more than a little disdain for the whole enterprise.
“Ah, two shots worth I suppose?”
“Do you have any idea how much that would cost? Like nine dollars.”
“Oh, oh, just, ah, Jack and Coke I suppose. My apologies.”
She made the drink quickly. Handling it seemed to cheapen her a little more each second.
She had been cheapened enough, and was in no position to take anything now from a Jack drinking hick from Tennessee. I can’t say that I blame her. I paid with that kid’s wrinkled up $5 bill and handled the clear plastic cup of the stuff in my finger tips, not letting it touch my palm. The bartender was right, and I regretted having asked for it.
Pete took his drink and didn’t even notice it was diluted with cola.
On the way back into the ballroom the gentleman who I’d seen playing pool watched me on my way in. I said hello to my new friends clustered around a cocktail table. He still watched. He motioned for me, and I was in no position to refuse.
“Come here Son. Have a seat,” he said. “Two Maker’s on ice.”
“Sure thing Mel.”
“I want to do something for you, Kid. Seem like a good guy, and I want to help you out.
Mel Rogers. Put ?er there.” The vet held out his hand and met me with a stiff handshake and a slap on the back. The guy must have been there a little while already, because his breath stunk of whiskey, and his hand was a bit more pliable than a hand ought to be. It was a scarred and hairy beastly thing in my hand. It had surely gripped a rifle and led a bayonet between a set of ribs. It had sure done all of that and it nearly dwarfed my soft hands, the hands of an academic with only a few scars from my football days.
“Here you go guys.”
“Thank you darlin’” He tossed six ones at her with a seventh in her tip pitcher. This place was cash only, and you’d better know it. “Now have a drink of that. Do you taste how different it is? It’s slightly smoky and woody. It goes down smooth. This is Maker’s Mark, and every time you go into a barroom after whiskey, you ask for a shot of Maker’s. Do you like it?”
“Yes, quite fond of it. Very smooth stuff.”
We chatted for a while about the usual?work, girls, cars. I told him I was a teacher, and he seemed to like that one.
“You know, I used to be a pacifist, Mel, when I was young and stupid. I had long hair. I went to protests, but all that’s embarrassing now. I thought I had it figured out?stop the weapon, stop the violence. I thought you guys were the enemy. That’s like hating guns because people die. I like guns. I like the military. I trust guns and army men. I don’t trust people with the fingers on triggers with the safety off and the hammer cocked. I don’t trust lawmen, who have never wanted for anything, never caught a stark twinge of smoke from a pistol in the nose, and had it water their eyes. I know the enemy now, and you’re not it.”
“I’m glad you feel that way.”
“Yeah, you know, I just . . . I understood a few things when I came in here is all I can say really. I don’t know. It’s been something that’s been floating around in my head for a while.”
We sat at the bar and talked for a bit. The bartender warmed up to me after a while. I think that’s her game. She’s the filter that keeps out the rif-raf. Everyone in there was pretty high quality, no slouches. It was an adult bar for people who could behave themselves.
“I must be going, I’m afraid. My friends are leaving, and I don’t know anyone else here. Thanks for the drink.”
“Enjoy yourself partner.”