By JEFF ROUBAL
Martinez News-Gazette Columnist
The American Legion turned 100 years old this week. It started March 15-17, 1919, when 463 war-weary members of the American Expeditionary Forces gathered in Paris for a conference to debate their future and ours.
As they wrote, “We, the members of the military and naval services of the United States of America in the great war desiring to perpetuate the principles of justice, freedom and democracy for which we have fought, to inculcate the duty and obligation of the citizen to the state; to preserve the history and incidents of our participation in the war; and to cement the ties of comradeship formed in service, do propose to found and establish an association for the furtherance of the foregoing purposes.” Within eight months, the American Legion signed up 685,000 new members.
I’ve been a member of the American Legion for 26 years. I joined while stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Vacaville. Vacaville Post 165 was an active, engaged comradeship of veterans. The Post sponsored a host of programs that benefited the local community like scouting, Special Olympics, Gold Star Moms, ROTC, Toys for Tots, and student scholarships.
When Vivian and I moved to Martinez 16 years ago, I joined Post 29. Post members meet downtown in the beautiful Veterans Memorial Building. The building is a lot more beautiful now than it was when we moved to Martinez thanks in large part to the effort to Dave Jackson the building manager.
Over the last several years, the outside was repainted, the floors replaced, the restrooms refreshed, the kitchen remodeled, the air conditioner repaired, and an elevator installed. American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars members use the building as well as the U.S. Naval Corp Sea Cadets and several scouting organizations sponsored by the Legion and the VFW.
Our Post is named for Private Henry A. McNamara, U.S. Army. Private McNamara was born and raised in Martinez, and died Mar 31, 1918 while serving in France with the 56th Engineers. The 56th Engineers operated 36-inch and 60-inch searchlights to help anti-aircraft units protect American troops from night air raids.
One of our big events every year is Memorial Day (coming again on May 27th). We provide a squad to render salute at the cemetery at 9am. After that, we provide a rifle detail to fire three volleys at conclusion of the downtown ceremony that starts at 10am. Finally, we provide a buffet brunch for veterans and the public at the Veterans Memorial Building complete with a 30-piece concert band. I volunteer every year for whatever role is needed.
Several years ago, I was drafted to work in the kitchen preparing brunch under head chef Lennie D. I helped him craft the chipped beef on toast (SOS), the scrambled eggs, and the fresh fruit. The only thing that remained was pasta alfredo. As noon approached, Lennie was in the corner playing on his cell phone. “Lennie, we need to make the pasta,” I said with concern. “It is getting late.”
Putting his phone away, Lennie lept into action and whipped up delicious pasta for 100 people just as they were coming through the door. Everyone raved at his culinary wizardry.
While washing dishes lagter, I asked Lennie why he waited so long to cook the pasta. He explained “I had to use my phone to look up the recipe online. I never made pasta alfredo for 100 people before!” I am convinced that Lennie can cook anything…as long as he has cell reception.
Another big annual event for Post 29 is the Main Street Martinez 4th of July. Members of all the veterans groups join together to march down Main Street at the head of the parade. Leading 100-150 veterans, we have a flag detail of volunteers who carry the American and California flags and rifles. Most years we have enough volunteers to also carry all five service flags plus the American Legion and VFW Flags.
One year in particular sticks in my memory. Six years ago, we had a especially large group of volunteers who met before the parade on the front lawn of the Veterans Memorial Building. “Let’s do something special,” a couple fellows proposed. We hastily devised a plan to present the colors to officials on the reviewing stand. This would require some complicated marching.
From parade formation, the first rank would need to execute a left wheel movement with corresponding movements by the next three ranks behind us. A wheel movement is where the person on the end of each rank marches in place while the rest pivot in line 90 degrees around her. I practiced these for hours during basic training 50 years ago.
If properly executed, we would end up with three long lines centered on the reviewing stand in the plaza by Starbucks. The first line would have the American flag, the California flag, two Rifleman, American Legion and VFW flags and a cadence caller. The next line would have the flags from the five Uniformed Services, and two more riflemen The third line would have banners from the VFW and American Legion each carried by two people, a drummer, and two more riflemen.
Transitioning from a marching formation to present colors formation would be hard. Transitioning back to parade formation after presenting the colors would be even harder. This is when I first heard the command “By Rank. On the right. Backward — Wheel!” During 20 years with the Air Force I can’t remember ever marching in a wheel backward.
George was selected as best qualified to call cadence. Ellison carried the American flag because he was tallest. Candy had the California flag. I called the Legion flag. James, Mike, Jason, and Claude took rifles. Mac was on the drum. Everyone else quickly grabbed a flag, banner, or rifle and jumped into position.
After 10 minutes of practice, we headed out to our starting point at Main and Court Street. I was not the only one who had serious doubts about our ability to complete this complicated series of maneuvers but, when the time came, everything went flawlessly. Twenty-one of us marched like the UCLA band at halftime. We even won first prize from the reviewing stand. I guess all our military training was subconsciously ingrained.
As it turned out, our presentation of the colors was a one-time shot. We have never tried to march like that again. I still think it was a fluke but one never knows. July 4th is coming up again. We might attempt something special for the Legion 100th anniversary!