Saturday was a vintage homecoming night at the American Legion Hall in Vineyard Haven. More than 60 mostly graying friends, all of them young at heart, gathered for a home-cooked pork dinner.
Rows of tables were set with white paper tablecloth. Artificial flowers in little vases were evenly spaced on every table. The conversation throughout the hall was spirited. Men showed up with pressed slacks and ironed shirts. Many of their ladies came wearing dresses and a few wore lipstick.
The walls were decorated with photographs of Island veterans and their paraphernalia. A few items go back almost a century.
“We’d do this more often, if we could,” said Kevan Nichols, commander of the American Legion Post 257, speaking of the dinner. “But it takes a lot of work.”
The George W. Goethals American Legion Post 257 Hall at 34 William street is across the street from the Tisbury elementary school and often is a busy community center.
Tisbury residents vote in the hall for local and national elections. On a more casual level, there are Monday bingo nights. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts gather regularly. The Barnacle Club also meets for dinners. Amid their flags and their historical collection, the legionnaires meet regularly.
On this chilly February night, the place is as intimate as a Main street diner, or a restaurant where everyone knows the name of the cook.
The chef wearing the white apron this night is Carrie Welch.
Mr. Nichols spent the evening behind the counter table with a big serving spoon dishing out the pork, the roasted red potatoes and carrots. Past commander Jo Ann Murphy made trips between the steamy kitchen and the dessert table. She carried trays with plates loaded with the chef’s chocolate mousse.
Dukes County Sheriff Mike McCormack and his wife Mary Lee didn’t have to wait in line for their serving, but would have if they had come earlier.
“This is the best meal in town,” the sheriff said. “We wouldn’t miss it.”
Farmer Elisha Smith, 85, of Vineyard Haven sat with his wife Denise and shared stories about chickens with a friend.
Priscilla Dickson of Vineyard Haven was all smiles as she finished her meal. On one side of her was her husband, past commander Arthur Dickson. On her right side was her sister, Nancy Eddy. The three spend a lot of time together. “This is where we meet all our friends from summer,” Mrs. Dickson said.
A lot of good comes out of these dinners, and a lot of people know they are big socials, Mr. Nichols said. Every time a dinner is mentioned in the Legionnaire newsletter, word gets around the Island as fast as a scandalous rumor.
“We are so lucky to have Carrie as our cook. We used to have these dinners all the time,” Mr. Nichols said.
Years ago, Mr. Nichols said the legion had its own dance band. After a dinner, there was a dance.
A lot has changed since those years. The number of veterans has dropped. To keep the hall vibrant, the activities have reached out beyond the veterans’ membership.
During most days, Mr. Nichols drives for the Vineyard Transit Authority. He is a retired head meat cutter for the A& P and was a post commander back in 1975.
“Last year we had a ham and bean dinner. We always have something for the past commanders,” Mr. Nichols said. “This brings people together, brings them out during winter. I get to see people I haven’t seen in a while.”
Marceen (Marci) Nichols, the commander’s wife, made the applesauce and there was plenty of it.
Though the turnout on this important night was good, Mrs. Murphy said challenges face all veterans organizations here and across the country. She works as the Dukes County veterans agent.
“A lot of our members are getting older,” she said. “We are looking for younger veterans to come out. The older guys that used to do the work aren’t here any more. Across the country, they say that World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,800 a day.”
Despite the loss of Vineyard veterans, Mrs. Murphy said the organization and its hall remain vibrant because of outreach in the community. “People don’t realize how much the American Legion is out there in the community. We are all about God and country,” she said.
Meals are a great way to get people together. From October to March, the legion hall hosts a breakfast on the first Sunday of every month. The event has its own following.
Committing a dinner to a date in the winter is a challenge, Mr. Nichols said. “We try to keep these dinners from conflicting with other Saturday night events,” Mr. Nichols said.
At least half a dozen patrons were out the door by 6:30 p.m., on their way to the regional high school performance of A Chorus Line. “It worked out for them,” Mr. Nichols said.
By 7 p.m., the hall was quiet, empty except for the kitchen crew and the rattling of washed dishes.