For most of his 32 years, Ronnie Shaut had been at war: first with his father, a stern disciplinarian who expected much from a son, next with the Viet Cong in the marshy battlefields of Southeast Asia, and finally with himself as he struggled to break a drug habit that, for a while, seemed to soften the war-born conflicts he brought back to his childhood home in Prince George's County 12 years ago.
But now Shaut, a fast-talking house painter with swept-back red hair and a finely carved beard, says he's found his peace behind the fortress-like walls of American Legion Post 108 in Cheverly.
"There's something right in the world here," he said as he leaned over the polished oak railing of the crowded post bar late Saturday night. "It's America in here. It's home. It's family."
This morning, Shaut will replace his usual synthetic knit pullover and wrinkled cotton slacks for the smartly-pressed uniform of the Cheverly Troopers, post 108's award-winning color guard that officially opens Washington Redskin home games and honors the war dead wherever it is called.
At Legion Park, a modest clearing just minutes away from the Cheverly post perched on a hilltop at 3608 Legion Drive, Shaut will stand among scores of Legion members and their families to remember the fallen veteran. And later, the color guard will join hundreds of other veterans and their families at Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery near Upper Marlboro for another tribute.
But for Shaut and many of the 913 members of the Cheverly post, Memorial Day's rituals are just a small part of a much larger daily celebration of old-fashioned patriotism, community giving and commonality of class and values. Seven days a week, white, mostly working-class people, file into the bar, a dimly-lighted place for casual conversation, 80-cent beer and 25-cent pool games in the back room, as Willie Nelson blares from the juke box.
But the post is more than just a social club.
Last year, 108's members raised more than $100,000, much of which was donated to local community charities.
For the last 20 years, every mayor in this town of 6,000 has been a member of the post, and in snowy weather, its parking lot seldom wants for snow removal, members say.
"We have a very close relationship between the town and the post," said Cheverly Mayor Bob O'Connor, who was elected to his fourth consecutive term earlier this month. "They are most gracious in the ways they help the city, and by the same token, the town will try to help the post."
Friday afternoon, O'Connor left Town Hall early for the company of familiar faces at the bar, called the "Dug Out" because some 40 years ago, members actually dug out the basement retreat from under the post.
"It's nice and quiet and a good place to come," O'Connor said as he relaxed with a drink.
A couple of tables away, however, a middle-aged man was loudly trying to explain the star battles of "The Return of the Jedi," which he had just seen, to another man who only seemed interested in hearing about real battles.
It is real wars and real soldiers, of course, that are responsible for the 2.6 million national membership of the American Legion, that supply the glue that binds this wholly family-oriented sub-culture together. Only veterans who served in the armed forces in time of war are eligibile to join, according to the organization's bylaws.
"Since birth, I've been in the Sons of the American legionnaires," says Chuck Gannon, 38, a legionnaire who earned a Silver Star in Vietnam and now earns his living as the post bartender.
"I remember always wanting to be a legionnaire. But my father use to tell me, 'You don't ever want to he a legionnaire because that would require a war.'
"Eventually, that war came," Gannon, 38, said.
To Gannon's left, his father, Edwin Gannon and his mother, Norma, sipped cold beer and smiled their greetings to friends seated in a haze of cigarette smoke across the bar.
"Proud. That's what I am," says Edwin Gannon, who despite his fifth stroke recently, will not stay away from the Cheverly post.
"Both my wife and I are proud parents; both of our daughters are active in the auxiliary and we all work together and pull together."
Chuck Gannon's wife, Chris, heads the volunteers group which assists in testing infant hearing at Washington Adventist Hospital.
And the couple's children are members of the Junior Auxiliary and the Sons group. And Norma Gannon is president of the auxiliary, whose 262 members is made up of legion wives.
"Our main objective is to take care of whatever the legion tells us to do," Norma Gannon says.
"We love it. It takes no time from our life, it enhances it."
The legion post is also used for youth meetings, banquets, receptions and weddings.
With an almost religious zeal, Ralph "Peanuts" Mulligan, talks about one of post 108's best funded programs, Children and Youth, a program which raises and donates thousands of dollars a year for the care of handicapped and retarded children.
Currently, Mulligan is trying to raise $1,700 to screen in the porches at Great Oaks Center, where many of the children are cared for, to protect them from insect bites this summer.
"I'm working on it," Mulligan said.
"And he'll get it, too," said John Sheehan, the post commander. "So much is done here, even I'm amazed."
As Saturday evening approached, work was put aside and everyone retired to the Dug Out for beer and conversation.
The bar didn't begin to thin until midnight, and Ron Shaut and Colleen Hastings, 26, who he plans to marry in the legion hall this fall, were among the last to leave.
"I was wild," he said, showing off a forearm full of tatoos. "But this place and this lady have straightened me out.
"They showed me where the road starts," he said. "Now I want to help build it."