Royal Canadian Legion Branch #59
“It’s ringing. Shut up!”
“Yes, I’m looking for Mr. Meoff. Jack Meoff?” Red and Stoney – my two best friends in the whole world – giggled behind me. I turned around and shot them a death stare and held a finger to my lips.
“Jack Meoff,” ‘Neon’ Leon yelled to the crowd at Royal Canadian Legion Branch #59. The sound was a bit muffled. I held the phone up so we all could hear. “Call for Jack Meoff!” Neon barked. “Jack Me-off!”
The crowded Legion roared.
Neon came back on the line and hissed, “If I ever catch you little bastards, I’m going to cut your heads off and put them on poles out front.” He slammed the phone down.
Red was the first to lose it. He started howling the second I hung the phone up. Stoney lost it next, and then me. There we were, the three amigos, doubled over; laughing our asses off. We thought we were so funny.
Neon, the main victim of our pranks – who eventually went from getting “Jack Meoff” calls to “Yes, is Michael Hunt there?” “Who?” “Mike Hunt?” “Mike Hunt! Phone call for My Cunt!” – didn’t find it amusing.
You couldn’t get away with that kind of prank today, but back in the ’80s there was no call display and you could do all kinds of immature things with a phone and the white pages.
I’m sure my dad wouldn’t have been too happy to know me and my friends were using the phone he paid for – in his house – to make prank calls to the Legion and other places.
I have no doubt dad was often sitting in the crowd laughing as Neon yelled, “Jack Me-off!” at the top of his lungs.
I can still see Neon standing behind the bar, slinging draft beer and selling break-open tickets. He was thin as a sliver, cigarette dangling dangerously from his lips, more ash than tobacco, a grizzled veteran barkeep (and war hero); distracted by his pals and patrons.
It wasn’t often I got to go to the Legion with dad, but every now and then he would let me tag along on a Saturday afternoon for a peek inside the smoke-filled world of booze and bullshit he escaped to every weekend.
And the bullshit was thick in the Legion. The stories Dad and his pals told got taller and louder with every round. They played cards or pool and smoked what I thought was a lot of cigarettes. I was only thirteen, so I wasn’t drinking or smoking, although it did feel like I’d smoked a ton by the time we left. I would be a bit dizzy and sick to my stomach.
Back at home, mom would bitch at dad because I smelled like a “giant ashtray, Carl!”
Once showered and in clean clothes, I would share with mom the stories I’d heard. Like the one Andy, a dumpster-sized man who, as dad used to say, was “balder than a baby’s ass,” told every time I was there, about a mountain lion he’d wrestled and escaped from when he was no more than a few years older than me.
Mom would shake her head and smile. “Sweetie. Those guys are all full of shit. Don’t believe anything they tell you.”
Full of shit or not, I loved those guys. And I loved being at the Legion. They called each other “prick” and “asshole,” or some other word I found out (rather quickly) I was not to be repeating at school or anywhere else.
“Hey cocksucker!” Pete, a wiry fella who wore an eyepatch and had a moustache that resembled the brushes on a street-sweeper, would grunt every time dad walked in the Legion, “it’s your turn to buy a round.”
“I’m on it, dickhead!” dad would thunder back. And they’d be off, insulting one another all afternoon, laughing, lighting each others’ cigarettes and having a great time.
Despite the insults and cursing, there was an air of respect. These guys loved and held each other in high regard. Joining Pete, Andy and dad in the sundry crew were Neal and Slick.
Neal, an oddball who looked like a teacher with his knit sweaters and green work pants, was a mechanic who spit chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup. His hands were oil-stained from years of working on cars. He always gave me money to buy break-open tickets.
Slick, who had the shiniest hair I’d ever laid eyes on, would go outside for a ‘smoke’ from time to time. I never understood why he was going outside when everyone else was smoking inside. He’d come back with red eyes and a toothy grin. His head seemed much smaller than the other guys’, but he had a big heart.
Different men would rotate in and out of the group from time to time, but it was always those four, and my dad (and sometimes me).
When the afternoon of bullshitting, drinking and smoking was finished, they’d all shake hands, sideways hug, and say things like, “See you next Saturday, fucker,” or “wear your dress next time, ya fucking pussy.”
One time I asked my dad what a pussy was. He looked annoyed and said, “Ask your mother.” I did. She gasped and went barreling down the hall toward dad’s den: “Carl, you’re not taking Alex to the Legion anymore!”
I found out what a pussy was a few weeks later when Red showed me some magazines his dad kept in a drawer by his bed. “Why would they call each other that?” I asked Red. “Beats me,” he said. Mike Hunt was born soon after.
I did go to the Legion again, of course (despite mom’s protests). And interestingly enough, not once while I was there did Neon get one of those nasty prank phone calls.
When I was fifteen, dad stopped going to the Legion altogether. It was right after Pete died.
“Pete was your father’s best and oldest friend; he was the glue that kept the group together,” mom told me.
Dad didn’t want to talk about Pete or the Legion after that. One time, not long after Pete’s funeral – the first funeral I’d ever been to (and the last, I told myself) – when I asked if we could go see the guys, dad exploded.
“The Legion is a place for men. Men who have seen and done things boys can’t understand.” He grabbed his smokes, rushed out the door, jumped in his car and drove off in a rage. I was hurt, and didn’t understand his anger.
My dad drove a dump truck most of his life. He swore a lot, and he liked to drink. He wasn’t what you would call a warm man. He and mom were much older than most of my friends’ parents. Once I overheard Stoney’s old man say something to Stoney’s mother about me being a “mistake.”
When I asked mom what Stoney’s father meant by that, she just winked and said, “God doesn’t make mistakes, honey.” I wondered in that moment if God had ever met Red’s dad. He was the biggest mistake I’d ever met, and the world’s biggest asshole as far as I could tell. He was mean and full of hate. Which is why Red hung out at our place so much, I guess.
Dad wasn’t mean, or filled with hate. He would hug me, his day old whiskers scratching my cheek, and repeat the words “I love you,” if I said them first. But he was standoffish and brooding most of the time.
I guess that’s why I loved going to the Legion with him. Inside those walls he became a different person. He laughed. A lot. And he smiled a lot, too. He’d buy me as many sodas as I could drink. (“For fuck sakes, don’t tell your mother, she’ll have a hairy fit.”)
After he died, I found an old photograph of dad, Pete, Andy, Neal, Slick and other guys I didn’t recognize. They were young. Real young. It was black and white and faded. They looked like high-school kids, only they were dressed in army uniforms.
Dad never talked about the war. Ever. At least not with me. I knew he had been in the war, but until I found the photo – while rummaging through a drawer in the garage after his funeral – I never saw any evidence.
I was almost eighteen when he passed; when I found the photograph. I saw him in a different light from that day forward. I understood him better and appreciated why he was so upset after Pete died. Why he was so angry the day I wanted to go “see the guys.”
Those weren’t just “guys” to him, they were the guys. The ones he fought side by side with. The ones who came back. The ones who knew why he was so bolted down emotionally.
When I was older, I went back to the Legion. Neon was gone. In his place another grizzled veteran, cigarette dangling dangerously from his lips, more ash than tobacco. I didn’t see Andy, Neal or Slick, but I could feel their presence.
I sat at a table nursing a beer, watching two older gentlemen playing pool. For a minute it was dad, in his white t-shirt and jeans, and Pete, a glowing cigarette butt close to lighting his bushy moustache on fire, playing eight-ball under a haze of smoke, laughing and joking, drinking their draft. Two men locked in a lifelong bond. Men who had seen and done things I would never know or understand.