A way's away: Unexpected encounter in a Downeast VFW hall
“From away,” I fessed up to the looming Machias lobsterman.
“Away” as in pretty far – the middle of Illinois where my wife and I “winter” each year, 800 miles from saltwater, tethered to the midlands by family, work, and friends.
But, I quickly added, for the last six years we’ve spent as many of the warm months as possible in Maine, at a home we bought in Bethel.
At that name a grin spread across the ruddy, well-traveled face, gold teeth flashing in the white beard.
“Bethel, huh? That’s where I grew up, ha! There and Andover, so you ain’t from that far away!”
He stuck out his hand, into which mine vanished.
We shook, and turned back to the television of the local VFW hall, where, through cigarette smoke thick as fog enveloping the nearby islands of Quoddy Bay, Spain and Holland battled on in wide-screen, scoreless overtime.
“Cold, but damp”—Dave Barry
I was briefly on the mainland with a small and uninvited party of artists and writers from Norton Island, a residency retreat a mile or so off the downeast coast. All of us were also soccer fans, but our idyllic little isle has no TV. The place is entirely off the grid, generating its own power with a windmill that whirred away not far from my writing hut. The energy it generated was stored in 48 batteries that lit up our laptops. There’s also a 40-foot solar tower built of pine logs by the broad-shouldered caretaker Rob, an obvious optimist given the eternal rain.
Everyone and everything got soaked – not because the roofs of our individual cabins leaked but because we literally lived in a cloud bank. Although we were in the eastern-most part of the United States and should have been the first to see the sun rise, nobody did, but in the predawn we could hear the engine sounds of lobster boats, like commuters on a nautical interstate.
On such a place and in such a fog, forgetting the day and hour is both a gift and a problem. The obvious gift is freedom from time, our dimly lit hours marked only by the clang of an old ship’s bell that Giorgio, our cook and sexton, rang at meal times and that set us wandering toward the lodge, somehow always hungry. The problem was trying to remember which day was Sunday, the day of the game – at 2:30 p.m., July, 11th – the final match of the World Cup.
“First left from heah, then next one from theyah,” a passerby told me as we stood in the empty parking lot of the Thirsty Moose Tavern, the only one in town, its lights off and doors locked and a big “OPEN” sign in the window. Those directions were to the only other place that might be open, the VFW, and off we went like critters to the ark: two each of novelists, poets, and painters, plus the multilingual, Giorgio, still mourning Italy’s early exit from the games.
From Venice originally, but from New York City now, Giorgio was even further “from away” than the rest of us who came from the not-too-unusual spots like Virginia, Maryland, or Colorado. Being “from away” was a thing I had grown used to hearing ever since my wife and I bought our house in Bethel. No matter the real estate taxes we were paying for the new house or my Boston birthright, if not from Maine, I was “from away,” and no different than Victoria who grew up in Illinois. But when we opened the door to the Machias VFW, being “from away” became more palpable than ever – a ways away, in fact.
“Any of you vets?” the bartender asked, as everyone in the place turned to look at the artsy bunch that just walked through the door.
“My father served in Viet Nam,” said Josh, a quiet young poet.
“Mine fought in Belgium,” I chimed in, suddenly aware of my new Orvis fly fishing parka. “Uh, any chance we could watch the World Cup?”
“I don’t know, if you ain’t vets . . . And what’s that you want to watch? We got the Sox on now.”
“Yeah, and they’re staying on, too,” came a raspy voice from the bar, its pulled-down cap over eyes I never saw. My own were already watering from the cigarette smoke.
Things weren’t looking so good, what could be seen of them anyway, until another voice in a darkened booth spoke up.
“We got a small TV on this side,” it said, as a heavy-set guy with “semper fi” on his cap peered around to look at us. He was playing some kind of board game against two hands that moved slowly in and out of the shadows.
“Let ’em watch this one, if they want.”
As it turned out the VFW allows its members three guests each, and the bartender agreed we could stay if we wrote down our names and three people there would sponsor us. I have no idea who did, but that was sure nice of them and made us feel a little less foreign. I suspect, too, that the bartender didn’t mind picking up a little more cash, and no doubt the tip I left for the first round of beers was the first he’d seen in a while. Not that the regulars were cheap; they were family. They certainly weren’t “from away.”
Soccer was, however. For younger Americans the game has caught on, especially in more upscale, urban neighborhoods where American football has become too costly, and for some, too barbaric. But baseball was on the screen here, and being a Red Sox freak, I was in seventh heaven, able to swivel owl-like from the wide screen excitement of Big Papi at the bat to watch the incredible footwork of Torres, the Spanish striker, on the dusty smaller tube.
I also became our interpreter for the vets, who had begun to wonder what we all were screaming about. The Sox had squeaked out a win, and after the team’s utterly beautiful announcer, Heidi Watney, had finished her post-game show, there was quite a letdown when golf came on. But golf is too much of an individual sport, and the people in this bar were part of a team. The insignia on their jackets and hats told me that. So did the curious, almost hostile way they had, at first, looked at us.
“How old are you, son?” a thick-chested guy in an old Navy pea-coat asked me when I went up for another beer. The scarlet “B” on his blue flannel cap told me we’d get along.
“Old enough to remember Ted Williams’ last homer,” I said. “And Yaz’s triple crown.”
“Well, I got you beat. I saw Ted play before the big war and enlisted myself when he re-upped, both of us in Korea.”
He had me beat, alright, but we also had a lot to share, and did, because it was half-time in South Africa, nil-nil. We talked about the Sox mostly and all their injuries this year, but then he wanted to know about soccer, about who was playing and about “those damn horns” in the background like a swarm of bees.
“How do those guys hear anything?” he wondered, so I explained that they really didn’t have to because each player on the pitch – “that’s what they call the field” – knew exactly where he had to be as the ball was passed around.
“It’s a real team game, soccer is,” I told him.
“No Big Papi’s, huh?”
“Yeah, of course there’re some heroes and famous guys, but they can’t win the game by themselves. That’s why passing is so important, and knowing your position, where to be to help out your mate with the ball when he’s in trouble. That’s the other way they use their heads,” I said, which got me a big ha-ha pat on the back, and another for asking about the “head” down the hall.
“Nice old guy,” I said to myself, sensing as I hastily made my way through the chatter and chairs that something had changed in the hour or so we’d been there, something about the tone of the place. Maybe we’re all just feeling the beer, I thought, but when I had to get by the two wizened vets playing pool on the tattered old table by the bathroom and the three of us started laughing about aging gents getting to the can on time, I knew something was different, and knew it for sure when I got back to where my island friends were sitting, and there was the Cup but on the wide-screen too, the second half just starting.
And what a half it was with great goal tending and beautifully precise passing. On both TVs now, the game was everywhere, and nearly everyone in the place was watching, and asking – one man in particular, in his red-and-black “from here” plaid shirt, and a tiny mermaid on his oil-stained cap.
“Isn’t this a lot like hockey?” he said standing next to me. I was too tense to sit any longer as the time was running out in the second half and no one had scored. “Love that game,” he went on, “and this seems like it, with the off-sides and the passing. Goal keepers, too. Who you rooting for?”
“Spain,” I told him, “but for no other reason than I’ve been there a few times.”
“Me, too. Around Gibraltar, mostly – North Africa, too – in the Navy. A lobsterman now because of it. Where you from yourself?”
And so we discovered our mutual Bethel ties.
"Go Spain," we both said, raising our glasses.
And “Go” they did, and when that last minute of overtime goal went ripping past the Holland keeper, the Percy F. Bosworth VFW post in Machias, Maine could be heard from a long ways away, everyone in the joint jumping but not for Spain or Holland or anywhere else really, all of us “from away,” these vets from foreign wars and this bunch of writers and artists and a wandering chef together in that smoky, fog-bound place.
“Take good care,” I said to my new neighbor.
“Ayah. You, too.”