Since long before we moved here – for about forty years, I’d guess – the St. Cloud American Legion club has stood across the street from our house, its orange-red siding either glowing in the sun or providing a ruddy contrast to the greys and whites of rain and snow.
As I look out my study window this morning, it appears the building will be gone by this evening, maybe even sooner. A backhoe showed up on the parking lot Friday, before the blizzard came through, and yesterday, with the snow cleared, the preliminary work began. This morning, the backhoe – mindful to me of some prehistoric creature in the way it moves – is chewing at the empty shell of the Legion post, shaking huge sheets of metal in its jaws, then tossing those sheets aside and returning to the hulk of the building for another bite.
The building’s been empty for a while, maybe two years, ever since the local American Legion post decided that it could no longer afford to operate the club the building housed. Opened, I think, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the post’s club was once the hub of social activity for veterans of the two World Wars and the Korean War. It was, it seemed from the outside, a good place for veterans of those long-gone wars and their friends to have a few beers, remember good (and not so good) times and grouse about the way the world had changed.
I was never in the Legion Post building very often. I have vague memories of a 1970s wedding reception there, although I can’t come close to telling you whose wedding it was. And my dad – even though he was a member of the American Legion – was for some reason more inclined to tip a beer or have a sandwich at the nearby East Side post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars than at the Legion.
Years ago, in Monticello, everyone was welcome at the Legion Club, whether you were a member or not. I spent several pleasant evenings there during my years in Monti. But that might just be the way things are in small towns; Monticello had about three thousand folks in those years, while St. Cloud is somewhere north of sixty thousand right now. And here in St. Cloud, it’s my sense that non-members didn’t show up at the Legion unless they were with a member. Whether that was by rule or convention, I’m not sure. Nor am I sure if the same rule or convention applies to the two VFW posts in town, although they seem to be thriving.
But whether enforced or implicit, it always seemed to me that nonmembers didn’t make their ways on their own to the red-sided club just off Lincoln Avenue. And the Legion’s loyal membership got older and older: Veterans of the Vietnam Era, many of whom – from what I’ve heard – were accepted less than graciously into membership by the veterans of earlier wars, are themselves in their fifties and sixties now. And it seems likely that even if all currently eligible veterans joined the post and were active, there would be far fewer members than there were in the 1960s and 1970s, when the veterans of the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam were numerous. So with the customer base dwindling, costs rising and revenue falling, the Legion post made the decision a couple of years ago to close the club (although the post itself remains in existence).
I have no idea what will happen to the site. On another portion of what was the American Legion’s property, there has already been constructed a multi-unit home for chronic alcoholics. I imagine there are plans already for what will soon be a vacant space where the club building once stood.
I’m not sad as I watch the building come down, but I am somehow uneasy. Part of that, I’m sure, is that whatever comes next will be right across the street from our home. Part of that unease, too, probably stems from an almost inevitable reaction to change. But I tell myself that anything – including a city – that does not change is already dead. On that score, St. Cloud – especially the East Side, where the Legion Club is just one of several notable buildings to fall recently to a backhoe and someone’s plans – is still vital. And that’s good.
That still does not alter the fact that for the thousands of folks who over the years found the Legion Club a refuge on a Friday or Saturday evening, there will be an empty spot where that refuge once stood. And that just underlines the fact that as good and necessary as change can sometimes be, change can also be hard.
And here’s an appropriate tune for the day, “Them Changes” by King Curtis, live at the Fillmore West in 1971.
Tags: King Curtis