words and photos by Rosalie Murphy
Mondays are good nights at the old Polish Legion of American Veterans post in North Hill. The pool table is covered in three-card packs for Show Me The Money, a lighthearted betting game affectionately described as “Polish bingo.” Someone has brought cupcakes for the canteen manager, Casey, who’s celebrating a birthday. There are about 20 people here, a high water mark in recent years for the post.
Vinny Cervellino was sworn in as post commander on Nov. 17. When we meet in mid-December, the Army veteran speaks honestly: “We’ve been operating on a week-to-week basis, almost. Membership is down. We’re down to half of the social members we had last year. We had about 100, and we’re at about 45 right now.”
Membership in many private veterans’ clubs, including Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and American Legion posts, has been shrinking for decades. According to the AARP, the American Legion has about 2 million members today, down from 3.1 million in the 1990s. The VFW has shrunk similarly.
Vinny, 46, and his brother Mike Cervellino, a 38-year-old Marine veteran, are among the youngest members of PLAV Post 32, which opened in 1933. Vinny says the average age of members is 83.
To keep the post afloat — and for it to thrive again, they say — it needs to grow.
On that Monday night, I slide into a corner seat between Chuck, 68, the post’s finance chair; and Jim, 71, its Sergeant of Arms. Jim is a Vietnam veteran. Chuck is a social member, not a veteran, but he has been part of the post since 1989. I set $2.25 on the counter for a beer.
The three-sided bar, which members call the canteen, is a countertop. Military insignia cover much of the wood-paneled walls. Off to one side are a pool table and a handful of gaming machines.
I have been warned by Mike, the post’s 2nd Vice, that I should prepare to tease and be teased at this bar. I also need to know some rules: First, limit your swearing. (This is lightly enforced.) Second, no politics. And third, no war stories.
“There can be something here that, if you need to blow some steam off, you come on down to the post, and you’re with family. No one judges you. You want to be an idiot? Be an idiot,” Mike says.
“Within reason,” Vinny adds dryly.
I return to the post on a Wednesday night, again around 4:30 p.m., and Jim and I make a deal: If I play pool with him, I can interview him afterward. He sinks a stripe first. In the end, there are three solids left on the table.
Jim is a lifelong North Hill resident. He joined the Army in 1968, served in Vietnam, and later worked for the National Park Service for two decades. He’s visited the post for five days a week for the last 30 years.
Jim treasures the club, he says, because it’s nice and quiet. “It’s really a club that nobody really does know about,” he says.
I point out that Vinny’s first priority — and the reason I’m here — is that more people need to know about it if the club is to survive.
“Well, yeah. Yeah, we’d like more people to know about it. But, you know, it’s…” he laughs ruefully, then shifts the subject a bit. “The thing we’ve got right now, we’re veterans, and the younger veterans, they’re not into the clubs. Your Iraq and Afghanistan (veterans), they’re still young guys. They would come in, but they’re more into the — which I was when I first came out — they’re more into the party atmosphere.”
This is a problem Mike and Vinny acknowledge, too: Younger veterans simply don’t seek out private clubs like VFW and PLAV posts. When Mike left the service, he joined a group of former Marines who rode motorcycles together. Vinny didn’t have a peer group of veterans until he wandered into the PLAV post in Tremont.
The brothers have made a few changes meant to court younger veterans. They added Show Me The Money. They’re organizing a darts league. And they brought back the pool table. Already the club’s most dedicated pool player is Sarah, 23, the granddaughter of a longtime member who comes by the club regularly.
“If it wasn’t even for Grandpa, and I still somehow happened to come in here — everyone is so fun to hang out with,” Sarah says. “You get so close to so many people. I really think of everyone here as friends, whether it’s 10 years, 40 years difference.”
“It’s an everyone-knows-everyone kind of bar,” Sarah adds. She can leave her wallet on the bar, go out for a smoke, and trust that it’ll be there when she gets back.
For now, Post 32 is chasing week-to-week survival. “It’s challenging,” Vinny says. “Things can dwindle faster than they build, and it’s a process.”
But the tide may be turning. Marine recruiters recently used the post for training; five active-duty Marines joined as members. Next year, Mike wants to pack the fellowship hall with donations for Toys for Tots.
PLAV dropped the requirement that its members be Polish in 1992. The ladies’ auxiliary, meant for wives, mothers and daughters of soldiers, is still women-only, but female veterans can join the post as veteran members. (Right now the post has one such member, Mike says. She’s 34.)
“If you’re a veteran, there’s a place for you here,” Mike says. “We care nothing about what your job was, your race, your sex, your orientation — we don’t care about that. You signed the dotted line, you’re home. Let this be part of your home too.”
The brothers have also reached out to veteran students at the University of Akron. The basement is primarily used for storage now, but the wood-paneled room with a decades-old Coca-Cola freezer and a portrait of Pope John Paul II could be transformed for a student crowd. Mike envisions a meeting room for PTSD support groups, a study room for veteran students, a secret second bar.
“When you join the military, they teach you, you’re never in the fight alone. There’s always someone there,” Mike says. “When you get out of the military, they tell you the same thing, and it’s true. The only difference is that you have to seek out that battle buddy. That’s what we want people to know: Hey, we’re right here. We’re in a fixed position. Come on down.”
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip. Reach her at email@example.com.