Ever been in an American Legion hall?
They’re not fancy, but for a certain generation they’re as familiar as the corner taproom. They're the place to go for a chat, cheap drinks and of course, monthly bingo — not to mention the assurance of finding people who’ve experienced military service.
Legion membership is shrinking nationally, but one hall in Northeast Portland — an old Quonset hut with a dropped ceiling and scuffed floors — found revival by embracing new people and new voices.
American Legion Post 134 on Alberta Street has become a home for all kinds of new voices. In the course of one evening, the audience heard a blazing variety of personal stories and essays, as well as poems and songs. Some writers are vets. Some aren't. Post commander Sean Davis holds book release parties for veterans who are publishing their own work. The post even has its own small press and published an anthology of war stories.
So how do you convert a failing American Legion post into an oasis of community and expression, where veterans rub shoulders with queer kids and street people mix with art curators?
We recently sat down with Davis, who — as you might remember — ran for Portland mayor last spring. He teaches writing at Mt Hood Community College and is the author of a memoir called "The Wax Bullet War." We were joined by Amelia McDanel — another Legion member, a Navy veteran and MFA grad of Antioch University-Los Angeles — who oversees the Legion Readers’ series at the post.
Q&A with Sean Davis and Amelia McDanel
April Baer: How did you guys both get involved?
Well, I got involved about two and a half years ago. I was on a walk with my daughter. And I saw the American Legion around the corner from my house. I stopped in and they were having their monthly leadership meeting. Their post commander wasn’t there. And I asked, “Could I be involved?” And they said, “Hey, do you want to be the commander?” and I said, “OK!” I took my daughter home and told my wife, “I think I’m managing that bar around the corner now!” That’s pretty much exactly how it happened.
I was the post commander at my post in Billings, Montana, before I moved to Portland about three years ago. I was invited here to do bingo night once and just started coming in. And about four months ago, they were looking for help with the Legion Readers’ series, and I volunteered. We’ve been rocking and rolling ever since.
April Baer: Sean, had you ever hung out at a Legion hall before?
I did, about six years ago — at this post! I felt uncomfortable. It was very cliquish. You had to have a card to go open the door to come in ...
April Baer: Like key card access?
Yeah, yeah, right. And even though I’m a combat veteran with a Purple Heart, they didn’t make me feel welcome. It wasn’t until two and a half years ago, they asked if I wanted to run the place. They were about ready to close it! We bring a lot of new life in, but I never want to exclude others — especially to succeed here in the Alberta Arts District, we have to open it up. The whole American Legion was formed to give vets a role in the community. That’s what we’re trying to get back to. Arts was a beautiful way to do that.
April Baer: Not every veteran has experiences related to their service they have to work through, but some do. What is it writing provides for people who’ve had this set of experiences?
I think writing for all people provides an outlet for catharsis, for bearing witness to things that so many of us don’t see in a daily basis, but are part of our lived experience. It gives people an opportunity for people to reclaim their narrative and tell the story the way they need to in order to cope with it.
: You know we have that
monthly here. I’m really surprised how much it helps people. I wrote my book, and reliving those events was really amazing. It was hard, very difficult at time. I’m not sure why or how it helps, I just know it does. I always say, writing’s easy until you think you’re good at it. When we do our Legion Readers, we open it up to everyone. We have veterans read, but we have everyone read — all types, all races, genders religions, LGBTQ.
We were just talking about how difficult sometimes it is to get through the front door. Even if you are a veteran or not a veteran. I’ve heard people say “I didn’t know this was a place I could come to.” And as a female veteran or a gay veteran, I’ve been to other places where I did not feel welcome. When you walk in here, it’s automatically obvious that you are welcome. I don’t feel any hesitation telling any of my friends to come here.
Post 134 also opens the doors for live music, fundraisers, community meetings, potlucks and holiday fun. Dec. 21 is the next Legion Readers meeting, and the first Tuesday of each month is an Oregon Humanities discussion group, “War Stories,” which is the basis for the Post 134 Press Anthology. There are a total of eight different reading groups, including open mikes, so check out the Post’s Facebook page for all the latest.
On a related note: This week the East Portland Eagles Lodge #3256 on Southeast Hawthorne narrowly avoided relocation. Members resisted pressure to consolidate and sell the building, voting to stay in place. The lodge is one of those older fraternal organizations that used to be bedrocks of so many Oregon communities. Eagles #3256 was able to revive thanks to new members and creative events. (Their rummage sale is not your grandma's — think DJs, a full bar and plenty of cool vintage wares and crafts.)