The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


January 24, 2014

Thomas Sabo | Are VFWs promoting slow form of suicide?

JOHNSTOWN — Which is the more accurate, though not better, answer to this question: “Is a VFW in Pennsylvania more like a hospital or a hospice?”

Before your mind jumps to the better answer, consider the defining elements of the question.

Simply put, a hospital is an organization with the goal of improving and extending life. To do so, it may require adjustments to lifestyle, including restrictions and avoidances.

Hospice is intended to provide comfort to a person while he or she dies.

To define VFW is more challenging.

Originally, membership in the organization was intended to be based on what the letters stand for: Veterans of Foreign Wars. During the 1920s, and ’40s and ’50s, membership possibilities were abundant. World War I and World War II were Congress-declared wars fought on foreign soil. Soldiers, sailors and airmen returning home from the frightful battlefields they had survived needed places to gather to help each other transition to “normal” life.

By legal definition, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq shouldn’t qualify as wars. The United States government considered the first two conflicts, not wars. President Bush’s war on evildoers and terrorists is not the same as FDR asking Congress to declare war against Japan as a result of a day he said would “live in infamy.”

As membership by definition became limiting, the answer to maintaining membership quotas and keeping doors open was social memberships: People, who though not veterans and who had never worn a uniform or fought on any soil, qualified because they were friends of a veteran.

In Pennsylvania, at least, it seems that the common bond these veterans and their friends share is that they smoke cigarettes, and a convenient place, and one of the few allowed by Pennsylvania law, to share each other’s smoke is the VFW.

Western Pennsylvanians seem to be the caboose on the long train of time and its changes.

An enduring image of World War II movies is that of a wounded soldier, heavily bandaged with blood seeping through the gauze. As he is carried off the battlefield, another soldier has the medics pause while he puts a cigarette in the wounded man’s mouth and lights it. The wounded soldier smiles in appreciation.

A modern movie might have the medic put a hand on the offering arm. The World War II arm persists: “Let him enjoy a smoke,” the voice explains. “He’s probably going to die anyway.”

The moment on film reveals what the VFW has become: A hospice.

Maybe it’s the military mentality of “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” that supports the VFW notion of “Damn the medical naysayers; light ’em up and suck it in!”

Members of VFWs in Maryland don’t have similar freedom to damage their health.

A friend who lives in Baltimore invited me to a fund-raising dinner. The entertainment, food and cause all sounded appealing, and I was about to accept when he said the event would be held at the VFW in Pasadena. I said I would rather not spend an evening breathing other people’s smoke.

He was surprised, saying that smoking is not permitted in VFWs in Maryland. He went on to explain that Maryland had discovered that members-only clubs that permitted smoking were selling social memberships that allowed smokers to buy their way in for the primary purpose of finding a place to support their smoking habits.

Maryland closed a loophole; VFWs, as well as other private organizations, became smoke free.

For a “Barney Miller” episode, it could have been, if not so obvious, a pack of cigarettes.

“Barney Miller,” for those who never knew or don’t remember, was a TV sitcom series. Miller was a police chief, and most of the action and story took place in the station’s office.

In one episode, a man came into the office holding a small bottle. He said it contained a poison that had no antidote and that he would commit suicide by drinking it if his demands were not met.

A TV half hour later, the demands had not been met and the man gulped down the contents of the small bottle.

Miller asked if there was anything that could be done.

The man held up the bottle for Miller to see. “No,” he said. “It’s red food dye. I’ll be dead in 30 years.”

Eating food with unhealthy additives is like smoking cigarettes or breathing it in as a gift from others: Who notices a slow form of suicide?

Well, maybe the dancer from Buffalo in the musical “A Chorus Line.”

When asked during her  interview where she lives, she replies, “Buffalo.” Then she pauses and corrects her answer. “No one ‘lives’ in Buffalo,” she said. “Just being there is a slow form of suicide.”

I wonder what she would have said about smoking cigarettes in a VFW?

Thomas A. Sabo of Johns-town is a former newsman and former English teacher in the Westmont Hilltop district.


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