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For whom it stands

American Legion’s transition from a members-only veterans’ club to counterculture safe space

Inside The American Legion Post 1, 1120 E. 8th St.

Hans Kleinschmidt

Tucked away on Eighth Street, between the calm of Oaklawn Cemetery and the whirl of U.S. Highway 75, is a single-story white building—royal blue canvases with scalloped yellow-gold trim canopy the windows, and yellow-gold block letters on the awning above the east entrance declare: “American Legion Post 1.”  This is the oldest continuously operating American Legion post in the country.1

To get to the fun part (the bar) you follow the perimeter of a white picket fence and ascend a serpentine handicap ramp toward the main back entrance. There’s also a side entrance on the north side of the building if you prefer to climb a few steps and pause for patriotic reflection on Post 1’s wooden deck/de facto smokers’ section. Both doors lead to the same Jim Jarmusch bar scene, the kind featuring aging war heroes and charmingly neurotic townies.

In accordance with the American Legion’s bylaws and constitution, everyone here must be a veteran or the guest of a veteran. Only men who served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces are eligible to become “legionnaires.” Women with the same service backgrounds are eligible for the “auxiliary,” which is the same squadron for wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of veterans. Sons and grandsons of veterans can also join as “Sons of the American Legion.” Though any hippie, anarchist, chicken hawk, or worse can enter as the guest of a member.2

I have a friend whose husband is a legionnaire, which makes her eligible for the auxiliary, and she signed me into the guestbook on a typical members-only night. It looked divey but smelled wholesome and felt sturdy.

Post 1’s legionnaires, some wrinkled or bearded, most wearing hats or patches, sat on barstools and focused on the bartender’s pours. There was a drink special on domestics, warm food (a casserole, I think) for anyone who was hungry, a couple men arguing about a rack over the pool table, and at least one dog. WWE played on a wall-mounted television.

Auxiliary member Kasey Rideout didn’t know much about American Legion until she moved into the neighborhood next to it. She had always been proud of her father’s service in World War II, and so joining the auxiliary was an easy decision. Plus, it’s a great bar and karaoke nights are fun. She’s quick to admit she’s more liberal than most members, but said any politically tense discussions she falls into with her more conservative comrades tend to resolve quickly and painlessly.

In 2012, National Commander Fang A. Wong wrote that the Legion’s organizational structure and nonpartisan mandate “empowers individuals to advance ideas and set in motion national resolutions, and you get what [author of “A History of the American Legion”]  Richard Seelye Jones called ‘the machinery and the membership to convert principles into policies, to solve problems and to activate decisions.’”

With memberships in decline, especially among millennial vets, Rideout and other volunteers are focused on raising money to fill the gap between their lost dues and expenses. They often host events like first Friday steak nights, high-stakes Bingo on Wednesdays, and various athletic tournaments and raffles throughout the year. In June, the Legion Live! Fundraiser broadcasted live performances to troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. During World War II, Post 1 also broadcasted live music from Tulsa to deployed troops.

Another way to generate funds is to rent the Legion hall to festivals, expos, and markets, which Rideout helps coordinate. She said she doesn’t really care who rents the space, even if some of the members don’t “get it.”

On a recent Saturday, the Tulsa Pagan Pride Festival occupied the Legion building and its lawn. Rows of vendors peddled bone jewelry and alchemical literature. Heathens and idolaters bonded over shared obsessions of magic crystals. You could get a Thoth or Rider-Waite Tarot reading. One guy tried to sell me a kit to make my own craft absinthe. Another booth specialized in aromatherapy bath salts, and the one next to it promoted a zombie apocalypse LARP getaway.

It took about a hundred years, but The American Legion Post 1 evolved from a member-only veterans’ club to an unconventional space that welcomes and accommodates subcultures that a lot of Okies see as fringe, or even just strange: punks, occultists, taxidermy artists, and all their friends. Inside, people engage in candid discussions without fear of violence or harassment—some might even consider it a safe space—and that makes me feel more patriotic than I have in years.

1) It’s “Post 1” in the way a game show contestant  “wins” an  elimination challenge; the last man standing is the titlist by default. Though established in 1919, Tulsa’s veterans didn’t have a dedicated location until 1927, when Waite Phillips built and furnished the facility at 1120 East 8th Street, where they continue to operate today. The remnants of the actual first-ever American Legion post, built in 1919, are in Van Tassell, Wyoming.

2) American Legions are similar to VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Posts in that they both advocate for veterans, but VFW lounges (like Post 577 on Sixth Street) is open to the public.

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