“This lady wants a Monster!"
My wife and I have seen pretty much every corner of this state over the past dozen or so years that our sons have played hockey. And when there's a little time to kill before the puck drops, we've been known to join another parent or two, or 10, for a quick stop at a local watering hole.
We're magnets to American Legion and VFW posts. And why not? The drinks are cheap, the service is excellent, and they're the types of establishments that you feel like you want to spend your money at.
So we were in Fergus Falls last Friday to watch our son play, and we found our way to one of our favorite VFWs.
When it comes to VFWs or Legions, the Fergus Falls VFW has some attitude, you might say. There's a small flat-screen TV mounted above the bar, and it shows a VFW calendar of events. The screen also announces that non-veterans are more than welcome, but nobody better be loud, use foul language or be otherwise obnoxious. You're instructed to "leave your potty mouth in your vehicle" or you'll be asked to leave. Then, on one wall, next to an image of President Abraham Lincoln, is a large poster in a wooden frame, and the impossible-to-miss question across the top, "Why are we at war?" At the bottom, the question is answered, with emphasis, "BECAUSE THIS HAPPENED!" In the middle of the poster is an image of a passenger plane exploding into one of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
At another place, one might feel compelled to float the notion that we didn’t exactly go to war against the people most responsible for those attacks, but not here.
Friday's visit to the Fergus Falls VFW was epic. It was semi-hopping when we walked in and only got busier over the next 90 minutes or so. Bingo night. A handful of older gentlemen sat at the bar to our left. One of them spotted my U of M Crookston pullover and asked what brought us to town. Upon learning that we were there to watch our kid play hockey, he told us that he once ran the local ambulance service and used to spend hours hanging out at the local rink during games, in case anyone got hurt. "You probably don't want to hear this," he told us. "But I always thought it was a boring game."
More older guys walked in to chew the fat with the guys at the bar, but there were no stools available in their vicinity. And so began our sojourn to the right, one stool at a time. When we first offered to move down a stool because we had four unoccupied ones to our right, all of the guys insisted we stay put. When we, in turn, insisted on freeing up a stool for their just-arrived friend, they grudgingly accepted. "That's Minnesota nice right there," one of the gentlemen said. "Minnesota nice hockey parents." Over the next hour or so, we moved four times, until we were at the end of the bar.
Apparently, only one server at the Fergus Falls VFW is the master of the "Monster Bloody Mary." My wife laid eyes on one another customer was enjoying, and when the bartender was in our vicinity and I asked her if my wife could get one of those massive concoctions, she yelled out to the server, “This lady wants a Monster!"
Now, when it comes to bloody Marys, I don't get distracted by all the meat, cheese, veggies, pickles or olives they stuff in it, I care about the taste. So once my wife had worked her way through all the food at the top of the glass, I had a sip, and it was in my all-time top five, easily. Maybe top three.
The bartender who shouted out our "Monster!" order just might have been born to yell such commands at a busy bar. Her voice pierced through the chatter and other background noise like a bullet. If she has any kids at home, I deducted to myself, they probably behave in impeccable fashion so as to avoid being yelled at by mom.
But her voice isn't the only thing that sets her apart. She'd made her famous "lasagna soup" that day for the lunch crowd, and there wasn't a drop left in the kettle afterward, she proudly noted. Someone asked for the recipe, and she started listing her ingredients, which included actual ricotta cheese. Cottage cheese just doesn't work in soup, she said. I asked her if she ever considered substituting some Italian sausage for the ground beef, and she said she had, but didn’t want it to be too “fancy-schmansy." She leaned in and answered quietly so only I could hear her, but with that voice, even her whisper would clear a tree of a flock of birds.
In a place like that, chatting with people like that, once they know where you're from, the "Do you happen to know..." questions are inevitable. The old ambulance guy? He knows Wayne Swanson. Jim Bredman, too.
But once my wife mentioned her Frazee roots, the world became more microscopic. The last man to join their group and sit in the final stool freed up by us was an insurance agent who'd worked his way up until he bought the agency and eventually sold it to his son when he retired. One of his biggest clients, then and now, is a family in Frazee and their trucking business. When my wife said she knew the family well and stayed in touch with some of the kids, he started in with the stories. While my wife was listening, she texted one of her friends from that family, who lives in Florida, to tell her who she was gabbing with. "Guess who I'm talking to?" she texted. "Who's your family's insurance agent?"
When my wife’s friend promptly replied, mentioning the name of the man sitting next to us and including some smiling emojis in her reply, when we showed the text to him, he lit up like a Christmas tree.
Then, with puck drop nearing, it was time to go. “Good luck!” the old ambulance guy said. “Hope you win the boring game!”
Win or lose, the evening was off to a great start.