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Stars and bars

We bellied up with some veterans and lived to tell their tales.

They may not offer well-considered lighting, cushy bar stools or froufrou drinks—certainly nothing with the suffix tini and not a single bottle of imported beer. But if there are a couple of things Veterans of Foreign Wars post canteens (a.k.a. VFW bars) do have, it’s people and stories. For a VFW post, the canteen is the social hub, a vital meeting place where the men and women who served our country come to get served. In honor of Veterans Day (Sun 11), we headed out to some VFW pubs to have a drink with some Chicago vets.

Our first stop: the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5079 Chicago Bridgeport(3200 S May St, 773-847-8404). Get buzzed in by the bartender speakeasy-style on any given evening, and you’re bound to spot 85-year-old World War II vet Anthony “Poki” Judycki (pictured). Just look toward the far end of the bar for the guy sipping on a cranberry juice (or, if it’s Friday, his weekly cognac) and chomping on a stogie like he owns the place. Don’t let his air of confidence turn you away; it doesn’t come from smugness. In truth, Judycki does sort of own the place.

In February of 1946, upon returning to Chicago after almost three years in the Army guarding POWs in Africa, Judycki and 99 of his fellow veterans signed the charter, which stated, among other things, the post’s purpose as a “fraternal, patriotic, historical and educational” organization. Judycki is the only one of the original founders still alive. “I’m very proud of this place,” he says smiling at the document, tears welling up in his eyes. “I never thought I would live this long, but I’m still navigating.”

Even though he lives across the street, Judycki, twice a widower, feels his true home is the post, a place where the most expensive beer is $2.75 and the only provisions are pretzels and Slim Jims. His fellow vets  are  a surrogate family of sorts. “I live by myself; I’ve got nothing to go home to. So I always think why not go over [to the canteen]?” he says.

Ball games are the main topic of discussion. But “we talk about women, too,” Judycki says. “Being in Bridgeport, this is a Sox place, but we do get some Cubs fans in here. Those two groups fight like cats and dogs,” he says. “I get a big kick out of it and I just shake my head.”

Another source of entertainment at Chicago Bridgeport is “Terrible” Terry, a raspy-voiced Vietnam vet in fatigues who doesn’t hesitate to pull from his bottomless repertoire of hilariously crude Dolly Parton jokes. (One involves the busty country legend and Princess Diana performing X-rated acts in front of Saint Peter to gain entry into heaven.)

Oddly enough, it seems the only taboo topic at VFWs is war. At Post 6870 Mark White Square(3152 S Wallace St, 312-326-9183), a short walk from the Chicago Bridgeport post, vets avoid war stories as a general rule. It seems peculiar considering much of the wall space is dedicated to military propaganda posters. Sitting at the bar, you can see everything from Uncle Sam’s scowling visage to the iconic flag-raising at Iwo Jima. “We’ve all seen enough of that stuff in real life,” says 83-year-old World War II Army vet Jack O’Connell before taking a sip of his Miller Genuine Draft (the sole beer on tap). “We talk baseball, instead.”

The same no-war-stories policy holds at Post 2978 Logan-Avondale(3007 N Kedzie Ave, 773-463-6748), a dim, densely decorated spot where the bartender has had to eject customers for talking about the war. “That stuff’s all in the past,” says post commander Terry Miracle, a former Humboldt Park gangbanger–turned–Gulf War Marine vet. (“It was either death, jail or Uncle Sam,” Miracle is fond of saying.) “Most people think in here is a bunch of old drunk veterans sitting around telling sob stories about war wounds. It’s such a cliché and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.

On a recent Thursday night back at the Chicago Bridgeport post, the canteen was uncharacteristically empty. “Everyone went to a wake,” the bartender explained emotionlessly, wiping a glass with a moist, white towel. Though the wake that night was for a member’s daughter, those at Chicago Bridgeport, like all VFWs, have grown accustomed to attending funerals and wakes, since the WWII vets are now in their eighties and nineties.

Those deaths are a detriment to the survival of VFWs; as World War II vets pass away there aren’t enough new veterans to fill their spots. “All the old-timers are leaving or dying, and the young kids don’t want to join,” says O’Connell from the Mark White Post. “They’re busy starting careers and don’t want to hang out at a bar with a bunch of old guys.”

Sipping a $2 Miller Lite from the bar at Post 1284 Mont Clare–Leyden(6940 W Diversey Ave, 773-385-8269), 84-year-old World War II Air Force vet Ed Kadzie says it’s becoming more and more difficult to serve the community as his post’s numbers shrink. “At Thanksgiving and Christmas we usually serve food to the needy,” Kadzie says. “But as the members get older it’s harder to get people involved.” Mont Clare’s brassy barmaid, Barbara Liss, who is involved in the VFW women’s auxiliary, says her post, Post 3592 Indian Portage, had to shutter its canteen and hall last year due to diminishing membership. “I didn’t want it to close,” she says. “I grew up in that canteen.”

Other VFWs are proactive in recruiting Iraq and Afghanistan vets to ensure survival. Logan-Avondale, for instance, sends care packages of razors, shaving cream and other toiletries to Iraq. It also has a full-time representative who helps the new veterans navigate the bureaucracy of VA hospitals when they arrive home.

“These guys will come back and they’ll know that we’re going to be there for them,” Miracle says. “It’s all part of our mission,” he adds, pointing at a poster by the door of the canteen that reads, honor the dead by helping the living.

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