PROFILE • BY ROSE CREASMAN WELCOME
It’s a bright Sunday afternoon in the Pinecrest neighborhood of Takoma Park. Young families are out herding strollers and pets, enjoying the mild summer day. Inside a small, barn-shaped building nestled among the quiet residential streets, another group gathers, indifferent to the pleasant weather.
Mike Casey is on his third Budweiser draft. He’s one of a handful of men sitting at the lacquered old bar counter, nursing cheap beers and watching NASCAR in dim lighting.
“Bar managing and drinking is about 90 percent of what I do here,” says Casey, 67. He’s the post commander at Takoma Park’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 350, otherwise known as “Hell’s Bottom,” where he’s been coming for drinks and company since the early ‘90s.
The crowd around the bar has changed since then, when Post 350’s two vans and 16-seat bus used to shuttle in vets from Walter Reed Medical Center and “homies” from the Old Soldier’s Home.
But due to several factors, including Walter Reed’s relocating to Bethesda, the county’s seizure of five revenue-generating slot machines and national trends slamming every veterans’ association in the U.S., Post 350 can count its daily visitors on one hand.
Nowadays, “we’re lucky if we have two or three members in here on a weekday,” says Casey, a Vietnam veteran who’s been post commander here for six years.
A Takoma Park native, Casey has seen the neighborhood surrounding Post 350 morph from “Hell’s Bottom” – the unofficial name for the crime-ridden, unpoliced area of then-Prince George’s County that now makes up the Pinecrest neighborhood – into the boundaries of the small Washington suburb known as “the Berkeley of the East.” He grew up in a house only four blocks away from the lot where Post 350 now stands. Years later, he and his first wife, Debbie, who still bartends alongside him long after their divorce, bought and moved into that same house.
VFW Post 350’s bar. Photo by Bill Brown.
“When they were growing up, my older brothers and sisters weren’t allowed to play near here,” says Casey, pointing outside to the concrete lot, once the site of a mom-and-pop market that saw a rough crowd of customers. Post 350, the second-oldest VFW hall in Maryland, has stood there since the 1920s.
“Most vets don’t really talk about combat”
Casey doesn’t often talk about the years that made him a veteran, but parked in sturdy wood-backed bar stools, his VFW pals will tell those stories for him.
As a combat engineer, Casey was sent into “some of the most dangerous situations you could get yourself into,” says Rich Fales, a regular around the bar who served in Panama and Desert Storm. Soldiers like Casey would construct and breech trenches, sometimes laying or clearing land mines.
“But most vets don’t really talk about combat,” Fales admits. “We talk about the good times and the screw-ups.”
Veteran Rich Fales. Photo by Bill Brown.
In 1966, Casey was drafted into the army and spent a year in Vietnam. He returned with eight months left of service remaining.
“They basically had nothing left for me to do, so I screwed off in a green suit for about eight months,” Casey says. He downplays the danger his friends talk about, calling it “about six months of the year wandering through the jungle.”
When he returned from Vietnam, he was placed in a troop called E Company with other soldiers who had already seen conflict. “They couldn’t send us back [to Vietnam] unless we volunteered, and we weren’t about to volunteer,” says Casey. “We called E Company the F Troop because there was a serious attitude problem in that place. We actually had marijuana plants growing … They got about three feet tall before the commanding officer figured out what they were.”
You had to watch out for folks who weren’t in F Troop, Casey says. Some of them were desperate for ways to get out of going to Vietnam.
“One time I was driving a dump truck through the motor pool, and I had to be careful because people would stick their foot under my tires,” he said. “If they injured their foot they wouldn’t have to go. It’s crazy, but that’s what they were doing.”
Post commander Casey regales the barroom with anecdotes and wisecracks. Photo by Bill Brown.
After he was discharged, Casey held a string of jobs in rough neighborhoods around then-crime-ridden Washington. He worked a brief stint as a milk driver for the old Thompson dairy at 12th and U St. NW, one of the largest private firms in the Washington area in the 1960s. His “Good Humor man” job, as Casey calls it, lasted about a month. “It just wasn’t me,” he says.
Beers in the backseat
Next came a few years of driving trucks for 7 Up and then Coca-Cola plants, both in what Casey calls “horrible neighborhoods” of Washington at the time. Employees’ cars were stolen regularly. Most of the other drivers at 7 Up collected insurance after the thefts, but not Casey, who was driving his own car — a Lincoln Continental — and couldn’t afford insurance at the time. One day he made the mistake of leaving some beers in the backseat.
“Somebody busted the window to get those hot Pabst Blue Ribbons,” he says, still in disbelief. “Who the hell could drink that?”
After that, he never locked the car again. Instead, he’d remove the rotor cap from the distributor and carry it in his pocket.
“And someone came along, they found the unlocked car, they opened the hood and tried to jumpstart it,” he says. “Well, it wouldn’t start without the rotor cap. And just because they thought I’d outsmarted them, they busted the windshield. And that was the day I quit 7 Up.”
At the far corner of the Post’s “back yard” sits a pet’s gravestone. Photo by Bill Brown.
But what became Casey’s career happened to him almost by chance. One day, about two years into his next job with Coca-Cola, Casey was sitting at a bar after work when he noticed a friend tipping liberally.
“I’m drinking some beers, and some guy I knew is throwing all this money around,” Casey says.
Turned out the man was an electrician with Local 26, Washington’s chapter of union electricians. Casey was intrigued.
“I said, ‘I’m smarter than you, why don’t I do that?’” Casey remembers. “And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ and so I did.”
After an apprenticeship, Casey worked for the union for nearly 44 years, retiring in 2013. What does he do now with his newfound free time? The occasional “overpriced consultant” gig for the contractor who designed the security system at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which Casey worked on for the last 15 years.
“They don’t have anyone else who knows everything that’s in my head,” he says, grinning broadly. “I know everything in that building.”
That, and shepherd the Takoma Park VFW.
A framed poster for a VFW-sponsored 1939 benefit dance held at the old Takoma Fire Hall. Photo by Bill Brown.
In survival mode
Founded in the late 1890s, the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization offers members more than discounted drinks and camaraderie. Posts are known for their community service and advocacy on behalf of members.
But the median age of those members in Maryland is about 70, the state’s VFW quartermaster Denise Perry said in 2011. Hundreds of World War II veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, are dying every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
And like thousands of others nationwide, the 92-year-old Post 350 is facing a harsh reality: Adapt to the changing demographic and needs of veterans and retool its recruitment strategies, or join the 3,000-some posts that have had to close their doors in the past few decades.
Casey has chosen to adapt.
Commanding Post 350
Any member in good standing can apply to be commander at the local VFW.
“I was pretty much up here every day anyway,” Casey shrugs. His sons Jason and Brian, now in their 40s, grew up hanging out around the post, and each worked there at one point.
What exactly does a post commander do?
“Mostly paperwork, and other people’s jobs,” he says. “And bar-tending when it gets busy.”
Post commander Mike Casey outside the hall. Photo by Bill Brown.
It’s because of Casey that things have been getting busier around the old building: In an attempt to save the post from closing its doors, Casey has been exploring what he calls “loopholes” in its charter regulations.
Most VFWs bring in revenue by renting their venue space. But Post 350 is the rare VFW without a hall. So why not open up its modest stage and ample backyard to the community, he figures, and let the bar sales roll in?
The concerts, backyard movie nights and neighborhood parties have been paying off so far, but slowly. He thinks he’s close to paying himself back the $2,800 of his own money he invested when the post’s beer cooler broke down.
The post’s back yard. Photo by Bill Brown.
An easygoing man with a shaky memory, Casey doesn’t mind bending the rules a little — a fact everyone around the bar can agree on.
“Mike can remember what happened 50 years ago, but he can’t remember what happened five minutes ago,” says Vicki Bate, one of the women who have been bartending at Post 350 for decades and have known Casey just as long. “He’ll call himself when he’s drunk and say “hey asshole, remember to do this,” and then hang up.”
In one grainy photo Scotch-taped to the wall, Casey is standing in front of the cash register, a brimming Bud in one hand and the other poised dramatically over the register drawer. That photo illustrates what not to do: drink on the job, he says with a grin.
What not to do – purely for instructive purposes.
But some old-timers, like Fales, don’t see eye-to-eye with Casey’s loose approach as post commander.
Fales is a frequent fixture at one corner of the bar, though he lives in Wheaton and is a member of the post there. He held the job at Post 350 himself before Casey, and knows it’s not a glamorous one. Though he agrees that Casey’s efforts have bolstered business, he sticks to his mantra: VFWs are a members-only society.
“We have to maintain the integrity of our membership,” he says mechanically that Sunday afternoon. Now district commander, Fales is known for his opposition to Casey’s open-door policy at Post 350: If it has to, he says, Hell’s Bottom should simply close its doors like other posts have.
Casey has a less fatalistic perspective.
“It’s the guests who keep us alive,” he says simply. “I like to see people in here. I don’t care how they get here.”
But Fales doesn’t disagree on one thing. Mike would do anything for anybody, he says flatly, triggering a smattering of nods around the bar. He even gets along with Debbie, his ex-wife-coworker, better than most members do with each other, Bate says.
Barmaid Vicki Bate. Photo by Bill Brown.
Keeping at it
And he’s got a heck of a pool, a patron chimes in.
Whether Casey’s strategy will revive the waning post remains to be seen. But until then, he’ll keep doing what he’s good at: Mixing drinks and making neighbors out of everyone.
Part of Casey’s strategy to revive the post is to hold open jam sessions. These bring in local musicians plus their fans, friends and family.
“Those guys are asking if they can get some Cokes,” Bate says one Tuesday as musicians set up gear for a blues jam.
“Give ‘em to them,” Casey responds congenially. “Do you even have to ask?”