An Ode to My Church: The Blackwell VFW

by Charles Gerian

In the heart of Blackwell, on the corner of Ferguson and 9th, is a church that might not be recognized by any diocese or doctrine, but is a church nonetheless.

The pews are not long, wooden, benches but old leather stools.

The wine and bread are cold beer and a shelf of illuminated bottles, and cheap bags of chips.

The gospel choir is anything from Kid Rock and Chief Keef to Tracy Lawrence and Tanya Tucker.

The congregation are not folks in their Sunday best, but they’re often the best in what they’re wearing.

The cross of Jesus Christ above the pulpit is not the son of God but neon signs and an all-too-familiar clock counting up to closing time and last calls with a “Must be 21 to drink” counter that gets far too close to the current year every time you’re there.

The preacher is a bartender, and her sermon consist of six words:

“What are you having?” and “Last call”, but you can bend her ear all night at the confessional counter, if she likes you.

I am talking, of course, about the Blackwell Veterans of Foreign Wars of VFW. While a historical piece should – and will – be written about the importance of this place in Blackwell’s history, this article you’re reading is a “one for me, one for them” take.

A woman, who will remain nameless for the sake of this article, drank a bottle of beer with her red hair tied behind her head, face softly glowing from the spirits and the neon light, and put her hand to my shoulder and said: “You should write about this place” and perhaps I put that off for too long.

Blackwell’s VFW bar is too often labeled as a “dive-bar” where the fighters and the floozies gather on the weekends, and while that might be arguable, it is so much more than that.

I turned 21 in 2014 and discovered the VFW then. It had a different bartender, for sure, but even 10 years ago it remained the same as it does now...somewhat.

I remember sitting there as a 21-year-old college student, looking at the men and women who occupied it, and thinking “how do these people become regulars?” what is a “regular?”

Blackwell’s VFW bar is too often labeled many things.

It was months ago now, I had an insightful conversation.

I was there at one of the tables in the dark area of the VFW where the real drinkers go to be alone and smoke their cigarettes far from the watchful eye of any entering customer and counter-fly when I looked around and realized that I no longer recognized anyone there.

The customers that night were young. Freshly of drinking age, they came with their large belt-buckles and trendy shirts and millennial way of speaking, blasting some new rap songs I had never heard, and at first I hated it. I told my friend,

“I don’t recognize this place anymore, I think it’s time to leave”.

But, once upon a vodka-filled glass, I was that person the old-timers hated.

My friends and I would roll up in there, acting rowdy, playing some ass-awful music, ordering awful sugar-filled drinks, having a blast.

I traded in my sweet Liquid Marijuanas and my syrupy Jack and Cokes for vodka and water long ago.

Most of them are gone, now, however. A few of them are ghosts, their silhouettes there, still with me, smoking cigarettes with their heavy eyes illuminated only by the glow of their cherry under the brim of a worn ballcap,

It was that moment I realized that I- we- were the new regulars. We were the “old-timers” that came in early, had our drinks memorized by the overworked bartender, and went off to shoot pool or give ourselves lung cancer in peace.

Those kids, those young 20-somethings, probably went “man, look at those old drunks”.

Myself and many I knew nursed heartbreaks in that bar. Found love in that bar- forever remembering how, hunched over that bar counter, we fell in love with the curve of a person’s lips as they laughed at whatever shitty joke or pick-up line we would have the liquid courage to say.

How a woman’s eyes would be so dazzling through the neon signs and smoke. Shimmering as a lighthouse would, perched upon the rocks of a nose and the waves of glossed lips.

How confident we were the morning after, hungover, that we’d made progress with our drunken words and baseless plans.

How often we poured our hearts and adolescent feelings over the melting ice and watched it dissolve under the sober thoughts that turned to drunken words, our hot, smokey breath watering it down.

When my friend died, the VFW was an escape. A confessional booth for anguish.

When another friend would come back to town from a month in the oil fields, the VFW was an ice-breaker. A familiar friend unto itself.

When a figure from the past would emerge, the VFW was a welcoming comfort of times long gone.

Blackwell’s VFW is too often labeled many things.

The stale smell of 50 years worth of cigarette smoke might be nose-turning to some, but for myself and several others it is a welcoming fragrance of home.

The old, faded, carpet could look garish to the uninitiated but to a “regular” it might as well be laid in a five-star hotel lobby.

You’re never alone at the VFW.

You might share your drinks and your thoughts with whatever old man is propped up on the counter beside you, but you drink among ghosts and angels, there, in the forever-after of a place that is half a mausoleum to better days and half a fresh-start that begins and ends with whatever drink you have poured.

There’s the folks you don’t wish to see, of course. The old pals from high school you could do without. The drunks that talk your ear off about whatever is on their mind that you could not give less of a care about.

In the night, however, the yellow glow of the light above the door illuminates the lifted trucks and the junk cars as a beacon, calling one home.

I have many who ask me, “you drink there?”, disgustedly.

And my answer, always, is that it is home.

A fixer-upper, to be sure. The bathroom near the bar doesn’t work, the pool tables are thread-bare and weathered from decades of faithful use, the stools are ripped open and hardened, the carpet is so faded that whatever design they used to be has long been lost under the boots heels and high-tops of a thousand or so patrons.

But the service is amazing. The comfort, there, is unlike any other. The drinks are cheap and serve their purpose. The music is always what you want, especially if you’re like me and drain your bank account to fast-pass everyone else’ picks in favor of your own.

All that to say, if you need me on the weekends or weeknights, and I say that I’m home, look for me at that church.