The little VFW of Bigfork

From April 28, 2009

The VFW in Bigfork is about a quarter the size of the one in Kalispell.

It’s a shack on the side of a hill and most of the parking is for the handicapped.

Park in a disabled person’s spot, buy the drinks.

There’s a small table inside reserved for the unnamed soldier. It has a white tablecloth and white dishes and there is no dust on the cutlery or glass. The seat is draped with a black cloth that has POW/MIA stitched in white.

It was here – since it was our fourth Miller-time stop of the day – that I started to feel a little drunk. It was here than Aunt V started telling family stories while Aunt L played the machines.

I grew up in the east, so I never saw The Aunts more than once a year (and rarely that much). Yet I am so much like them.

A pay phone at a bar in The Middle of Nowhere, Montana

This summer, my brother was shocked (and somewhat appalled) at how much I look like our mom. But Aunt V and I are the ones with blonde hair and blues eyes – everyone else is dark. We all put too much salt on our food and though we’re interested in what everyone has ordered, there is no picking off each other’s plates. I hate sharing my food, but in Montreal that’s seen as weird and maybe selfish. Apparently in my family, that’s just the way it is.

The other thing we share is a talent for attracting … uh … characters. One of these is J.R., the old Mexican man who takes care of Aunt V’s Montana house. He’s 83 (and so’s his girlfriend) and he says he doesn’t drink, so Aunt V had to offer him a scotch twice before he accepted. He sat down to chat and Aunt L and I lit cigarettes.

“When are you going to stop that?” he asked me.

I said: “Tomorrow.”

Then he told me a story. Seems that back in 1973, he was living near San Francisco. He was driving along in an old black car. A big old boat of a thing. He had the windows down and he was smoking and just enjoying life. All of a sudden, he couldn’t catch his breath. He managed to pull the car over and stumbled out, got around to the front and draped himself over the hood till he got his wind back.

“The next day, I was driving in the same car, going the same way, and it was the same time of day – it happened again!”

“I would have started taking a different road,” I suggested.

He turned to Aunt V and said, “She’s a quick one. You’d better watch her.” The moral of his story was that he quit smoking right there and then. Good for him – 83 looks great on him.

I have more J.R. stories, but my flight’s about to board and I’m anxious to get on and get home. Meantime, please enjoy this picture from the inside of the washroom at the VFW in Bigfork. Why yes, that is Ronbo hanging on the wall. He watched me pee several times.

The ladies’ room at the VFW in Bigfork

I smoke like a Canadian, too

 

This’s one classy place, especially around Cinco de Mayo

From April 27, 2009

 

When we left the VFW in Kalispell, we started down the highway to Bigfork. It’s a twenty-minute drive, though, and Miller time happened halfway home, so we found ourselves at the Tall Pine Saloon, where an old biker was tending bar. The guys were ragging on him because he’d just gotten his bike out the day before and the snow was falling was like December.

The barmaid was in her 50s, pin thin and she had a head of huge, teased, curly hair. She was wearing bottle-thick glasses with frames that took up most of her rouged face.

The guy sitting next to us tried talking to us, slipping into the conversation a few times that he was a “one-hundred-per-cent disabled veteran.” The Aunts, who spend their days going from one VFW to another, were unimpressed.

“I like it when it snows like this,” he said.

Aunt V snorted at him. “Well, you did say you’re disabled.”

We had to backtrack about a mile to Grizzly Jack’s. The bartender there greeted us in Spanish and so Aunt V answered him in Spanish.

“Uh, I just used up all I know,” he said sheepishly. “It’s my one line. I’ve got no follow through.”

She was going to let it pass till she saw the poster on the bar fridge. “CINCO DE MAYO – MAY 4.”

“May 4? You really don’t know Spanish at all, do you?”

He took a pen and wrote right on the poster, between Cinco de Mayo and the date: “Pre-party.”

See? Classy

We only wanted to tease him because he was so beautiful. We would have listened to him speak gibberish, just to watch his lips move. The food was amazing, too. I had a pepperjack cheeseburger with bacon and jalapenos. The meat was so thick I didn’t even try to eat the bun.

Aunt L and I lit up while we finished our beer and cutie-pie barkeep came over. “I don’t really care,” he said, “but you’re not supposed to smoke in here while the kitchen’s open.”

“We’ve already eaten,” I said. “Are you going to kick us out?”

His eyes got wide and he started laughing. “Did you just say ‘ewwwtt?’ Are you Canadian?”

I’m pretty sure I blushed.

Mr. Dill Pickle

 

Montana is so beautiful, it hurts.

From April 27, 2009

 

At the VFW lounge (Veterans of Foreign Wars, which I guess means no Civil War vets need apply), Aunt L made beeline for the machines while Aunt V and I sidled up to the bar.

The VFW is a fairly large building, with a room in the back for gambling and pool tables along one side. The bartender, with a short beard and curls coming down from under his ball cap, has a tattoo of a Hawaiian girl on the inside of his forearm.

We weren’t there long before a gentleman made his way over. He stood between our barstools with a hand on each of our backs. He was rubbing the back of my neck with his thumb and, judging by the long-suffering look on Aunt V’s face, he was doing the same with her. His round face was clean-shaven and he was bald under his red hat; his smile was an incredible centrepiece to his round, friendly face.

Apparently in Canada, if you come into a Legion wearing a hat, you have to buy everyone a round. Only high-ranking officers are allowed to wear their hats off-duty, so that when someone with hat walks into a room, you know who’s in charge. Every second man in Montana wears a hat, so that wouldn’t go over too well here, or anywhere in America, as a bartender at another VFW later told us.

“My name is Dill Pickle,” announced the gentleman with his hands on our necks. I knew his name already – Aunt V had pointed him out to me. “Dill’s my last name and they call me Pickle.”

She told him that I was the visiting niece and he asked whether I like my aunts.

“I’ve got four aunts,” I said, “and three of them are fantastic.”

He hooted and hollered and made me promise I’d come back, because he wasn’t going to visit me.

“I’d travel to see that gorgeous smile, but I ain’t goin’ to the far east, not even for you, beautiful.”

‘Whatever shall we do, ladies?’

 

Near Aunt V’s home in Montana

From April 23, 2009:

 

How are you all doin’?” asked the waitress, and Aunt V said: “We’ll be better once we have some beer.”

This isn’t funny because it was before noon; it was funny because those are the very words I use in restaurants.

Aunt V hasn’t stayed at her Montana house since January, but her soon-to-be-ex husband has been down here three times. Last night, when Aunt V was putting away the beer we hadn’t drunk in the truck, she clucked her tongue.

“He’s left five pounds of cheese in here,” she said, nodding at the fridge. “Who does that? That’s all that’s in here besides two bottles of champagne and some orange juice.”

“Mimosas for breakfast!” I said.

She opened the door of a small cupboard between the kitchen and dining area. “There must be fifteen bottles of liquor in here.”

Aunt L jumped up to take her place kneeling before the cupboard. “Seventeen!” she declared, “… on the top shelf! There’s twenty-three bottles in here.”

This morning, Aunt V came up from the basement and told us: “I found three more bottles of champagne and seven Kokanees. What are we going to do, ladies?”

‘How old are you now?’

From April 23, 2009:

“How old are you now?” Grandma asked loudly, for the fourth time.

“Thirty-seven,” I yelled back, for the fourth time, because she’s almost deaf and, you know, has some trouble remembering. I’d been with her for about fifteen minutes.

“Oh, wow,” she said. “How old am I?”

“Ninety-five next week,” I yelled.

“That’s old,” she said in shock.

My grandpa smiled. “The only thing around here older than you is the hills.”

“Herb, I can’t hear you,” she snarked.

“Probably just as well,” he mumbled. Then, in the car, he turned around to me and said, “So, how old are you again?” I really hope that sense of humour isn’t hereditary. (Aw, shut up.)

The Aunts and I dropped off Grandpa (it is a tragedy that my grandparents, who will celebrate their 70th anniversary this year, live a few miles apart) and started our trip south, to Kalispell, Mt. Aunt V, who was driving, produced two one-hundred-dollar bills. “One for you,” she said to Aunt L, then, handing me one: “And one for you. The only rule is that you must spend at least half of it on yourself.”

The First and Last bar, just a few feet from the U.S.-Canada border.

We had weather adventures all the way through the prairie and forest and mountains: Snow and rain and ice pellets and fog and a dust storm. We also saw hundreds of deer and thousands of cattle and scores of mountain goats and a jackrabbit. And that was just in the four hours to the border, where we stopped at duty free (three cartons of smokes and a bottle of scotch) before hitting the “first and last” bar about 100 feet inside the United States.

“Jesus Christ,” said Aunt L, “this is my first beer of the day and it’s already 3 o’clock. Jesus Christ.”

She then put $20 into the nearest VLT and won $100.

Two miles down the road, we stopped to gas up the pickup. While Aunt V pumped, Aunt L and I went into the store to pick up an 18-pack of Kootenay. We weren’t back on the road for five minutes before Aunt V said to me, who was sitting next to the beer, “Well, open ’em up.”

“Uh … are you serious?” I asked in my little-girl voice.

“Of course!” said Aunt L. “It’s the only reason we gassed up!”

And so we drove to Kalispell with beers in our laps (this is legal in Montana if you’re not driving, they told me) and one helluva lot of laughing. We stopped to shop a little and I spent some of that $100 on me (a bathing suit, because Aunt V has a hot tub). Our next stop was for pizza and – this will shock you – another beer, at Moose’s. Four generations of our family have been going to Moose’s, a saloon and pizza joint with sawdust on the floor and strangers’ names carved into the tables and walls and seats and everywhere else names can be carved or scribbled. It’s an amazing place.

We had the beer there, but took the pizza to go. I mean, really, the beer we were drinking in the car was already starting to get warm, so we had to hurry.

I’m curled up in bed now in Big Fork, Mt. I have a third of a pizza in me and … I dunno … six beer? I’m very tired and I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with these women for an entire week.

The shrine of DESTINY!

We made the mistake of stopping for food in Butte, Mont.

We all get a little grouchy when we’ve been in the car all day, and the back half of today was especially trying on all of us. And so, hot and underfed, we stopped in Butte for some of that delicious steak we’ve seen grazing for the past three states.

Trouble is, you put a little protein in a bunch of exhausted people, you get a car full of punchy. It started when Trevor noticed something white shining on the top of one of the mountains.

“What the hell is that?” he asks.

“I saw something white up there earlier,” I tell him. “I think it’s a shrine.”

“A shrine for what?”

“The Shrine of Doom,” I say.

Kendra says: “The Shrine of Destruction?”

Melani wins: “It’s the Shrine … of … DESTINY!”

We all yell it out a few times. Then we see the giant glowing M on a mountain on the other side of town.

“What’s that for?” Trev wants to know. “Montana?”

“Mountain. For the stupid people. Where is your mountain? Here is your mountain. M is for mountain.”

“No,” he corrects me, “it’s like the Batman signal. It’s calling for a superhero. Which superhero starts with M?”

Melani’s quick: “Madrox? Multiple Man? Mountain Man?”

“Moose Man!”

“No, Mouse Man!”

Kendra wins: “Man Boobies!”

They start to tell a story. It seems Man Boobies fights against the forces of darkness, especially the Shrine of DESTINY! He has humongous manboobs, made of steel. His wife has only tiny boobs, but they shoot milk … acid milk … and it’s all downhill from there.

Montana, 2008