KALISPELL, Mont. — After burying Bucky Knudsen the other afternoon, the veterans who make up Flathead Valley's funeral detail followed Highway 93 back into town and parked their pickups and muddied cars by a small brick building whose sign bore two messages: "Pepsi" and "VFW Post 2252."
Knudsen, a National Guardsman, had died of a heart attack at the age of 45. His comrades, dressed in white shirts with an insignia of the American flag on the right shoulder, settled onto stools at the bar, a beer and a pack of cigarettes marking each place, and, in an atmosphere sweet with the fragrance of friendship, talked about him and politics and beef prices and the dark skies that spoke of long winters.
Pillars of Community
There is hardly a town out here in the rural West without a Veterans of Foreign Wars or an American Legion post like the one in Kalispell. As often as not they are the social and civic pillars of the community, the place where patriotism never became old-fashioned.
They are where members gather for Saturday night steak dinners and dance to country bands with names like Nashville Gold and Blue Ribbon Express. They are where weddings are celebrated and passings noted, where having worn a uniform in service to one's country remains the ultimate achievement of life.
Although much of America may still stereotype the posts and their combined national membership of 5 million as a preserve of aging soldiers reliving distant victories, the battlefields of Guadalcanal and Normandy are slowly falling silent at the VFW and American Legion. The torch of leadership is being passed to a new group of warriors--to the men of America's longest war, men who once shunned the organizations as a relic of all they wanted to forget. And with the influx of Vietnam veterans has come growth and change.
"You know, I can remember 20, 30 years ago," said the Kalispell post commander, Jim Westwang, a retired carpenter and bartender who fought in World War II, "when a lot of the fellas would go out on the funeral detail like the one today for Bucky and they'd be drunk. It was a pathetic sight. Now that's all turned around. We've got a detail we're proud of. That's one thing that's changed since World War II; no one can call us a bunch of drunks anymore."
"They couldn't call us that for a number of years now," said Lloyd Chapin, a retired logger with a handlebar mustache. "I'd say we're a very sober, serious bunch, wouldn't you, Jim? Very community-minded. I'm no liberal. I'm not a left-hander by a darn way, but I think even the lefties would agree that there's more pride in the country out there today, more pride in the service, and I think the way we turned the VFW around here reflects that."
"I dropped into the VFW here when I first got back and it was so bad I wouldn't have anything more to do with the post until about a year ago last April," John Olsen, a Vietnam veteran wearing a Marines visored cap, said as a visitor joined them at the crowded bar. "It was--and this should be off the record--a filthy, decadent place where you'd walk into a bathroom and say: 'My God!' not knowing what to expect."
Faith in U.S. Unshaken
But with a $30,000 loan and a younger membership--about one-third of the post's 350 members are Vietnam veterans--the Kalispell VFW has been cleaned up, remodeled and toned down. It's a warm and sober place now, a fraternal gathering of men whose faith in America was unshaken by the trauma of Vietnam, the turmoil of Watergate, the confusion of the Iran-Contra affair. At one end of the bar is an American flag; at the other is a beef jerky jar used to collect donations for a Vietnam memorial to be built in Missoula.
Other fraternal organizations whose lodges are entwined with daily life in small-town America have suffered in the past decade. The Odd Fellows' national membership has fallen by a third, to 554,000, since 1977. The Loyal Order of Moose (1.2 million members) and the Masonic Service Assn. (2.8 million) are down slightly; the Knights of Columbus (1.4 million) is an exception, having recorded a modest increase. Spokesmen for the Elks (450,000) and the Eagles (695,000) would not say what their memberships were 10 years ago.
VFW Keeps Growing
At the same time many other memberships have been declining, the VFW, which elected its first Vietnam veteran as commander-in-chief in 1984, has just recorded its 32nd consecutive year of growth and now has 2.1 million members and 10,000 posts. The American Legion (with 16,000 posts) is gaining about 300,000 members annually and expects to reach 3 million next year.
Of the 28 million veterans in the United States, about 2.7 million served in Vietnam; well more than 1 million of them have joined the VFW or American Legion. Many veterans belong to both organizations; their allegiance usually goes to whichever post is the most active in a particular town.