Around Asheville: Our American Legion
I’ve always thought that there are two kinds of people in the world: active duty military personnel and their families, and everyone else.
I fall squarely in the “everyone else” category. I wouldn’t know a combat boot from a beaker bong. The Vietnam War ended when I was a high school freshman. After high school I considered enlisting in the military, but quickly realized that the world would be such a safer place if I didn’t.
Forty-three years later it’s last week, and I’m walking along Haywood Road. At 851 Haywood (which, as any trend-tracking Realtor will tell you, is about where East West Asheville meets West East West Asheville), I came across a simple, one-story brick building set a ways back from the sidewalk.
[photo of Post 2 building]
Its humble signage informed me that I was looking at American Legion Post 2.
American Legion Post 2! That was all I needed to know to know that I barely knew what that meant. Determined to learn more, I reached into my bag of tried and true investigative reporter’s tricks, and read the sign taped on their door.
“Meeting Night 2nd Tuesday each month. 7:00 p.m.”
I felt that slight sense of panic people like I do whenever life reminds us that we never know what day it is. Ours is an affliction not helped by the fact that scheduling group therapy sessions about it is useless.
But with the help of my Uncomfortable Seating at Asheville Breweries wall calendar, I made it to the very next meeting of the American Legion Post 2.
Nothing to fear but fear itself
I wasn’t sure they’d let me in. Maybe there was a secret handshake you had to know. Or maybe I’d be expected to right away snap off a smart salute, whereupon I’d immediately arouse suspicion by accidentally whanging my own eyeball into the back of my head. Perhaps, having quickly taken measure of my general attitude towards uprightness and civic responsibility, they’d just take me out back and shoot me.
“C’mon in, buddy! Meeting starts in about fifteen. Go on in to our meeting room there, and grab yourself a cookie, and a cup of coffee if you’d like. Got some good iced tea in there, too. Got bottled water, and some of the best candy bars you’ve ever tasted. Whatever you want, it’s yours. Is this your first visit with us?”
That’s how I was greeted by heartwarmingly cheery Larry Fowler. Besides being the post’s Adjutant, Larry served 30 years active duty in the USAF (for you civilians, that stands for United States Air Force), retiring in 1985 as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Air Force.
Words to live by, and die for
I was the only non-vet in the room when its doors were closed just before the meeting began at exactly “1900” hours. (I’m not exactly sure how military time works, but my guess is their wristwatches are the size of manhole covers.) But by then all the veterans had made me feel just as good as if I hadn’t spent my life blithely taking for granted the freedoms they had spent their lives protecting.
The hour-long meeting went like this: Opening prayer; Pledge of Allegiance; reciting of the Preamble to the Constitution of the American Legion; discussion of first unfinished and then new business; closing prayer; flag salute; meeting adjourned.
Now — and I ask this as someone so congenitally cynical the first words I ever spoke were “I doubt it” — guess which part of the meeting I found most moving?
All of it. It was all so moving. The opening prayer ended with, “We ask you to watch over those who even now guard the gates of freedom.” While reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the veterans faced the flag and held their caps over their hearts. In reading aloud their Preamble, the Legionnaires reaffirmed their commitment “ . . . to promote peace and good will on earth; to safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy; and to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.”
Shut up. I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying.
Taking care of business
The group’s unfinished business had much to do with the logistical challenges of getting a new flag up on the decidedly tall flag pole on the front lawn of their building. Time had finally rendered the previous flag too ragged to display. Replacing it, however, will be no mean feat: so many phone and power lines to navigate, so much traffic to stop.
But if you find anyone willing to bet that the veterans of American Legion Post 2 won’t figure out how to once more hoist the Stars and Stripes on their flag pole, take that bet.
The new business largely concerned making sure that all present were caught up on the latest with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (on 1100 Tunnel Road). On this subject the veterans were in good hands indeed. Because for the past twenty years the two men running the meeting, Larry Fowler and Post Commander Ron Piercy (USAF, 25 years), have each spent eight hours a day, two to three days a week, volunteering as Veteran Service Officers at Asheville’s VAMC.
If you’re a vet seeking services provided by the VAMC, you will not be far into the process at all before finding yourself seated across a desk from either Ron or Larry, who will listen to you, take the full measure of your situation, and then make sure that you get the help and care that you deserve.
Between them, Ron and Larry have amassed 25,000 volunteer hours helping countless veterans and their families in that most precious of ways.
As I walked out into the darkness after the meeting, I thought how mistaken was my idea about there being two kinds of people in America. There aren’t active duty military personnel and their families, and everyone else. There are active duty military personnel and their families, and everyone who doesn’t yet realize they are also a part of those families.
Originally published on the front of the Sunday "Living" section of the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper (part of the USA Today Network) on March 1, 2020