It all began three years ago at VFW Post 416 in Williamsville. My brother had organized a surprise birthday party, and it was there that the band I play in entertained a large and enthusiastic crowd.
Being a local musician, the 416 had possibilities; most of our shows, or gigs as they are called, were downtown in clubs like Nietzsche’s, Sportsman’s Tavern and Mohawk Place. But here was a hitherto untapped suburban venue that was ideal because most of our friends and fans live in the village. Unlike the downtown venues, the 416 was close to home and parking was not a problem.
It was here – in the long-standing red brick building that I had passed by countless times – that I got to know John Wahl, the venerable post commander.
Working with John, we decided to experiment with hosting themed shows at the 416, and right out of the gate, they were a success, drawing large numbers of people. In planning these shows, we would visit John on Tuesday nights to work out the logistics, and my friends and I grew to love him, like a favorite uncle. We could sit and listen to his stories for hours – he knew how to captivate his audience by “spinning yarns” about all of his fascinating life experiences. Also, when it came to the business end of the shows, with John, it was old-school: no contracts to sign, no attorneys involved; just a gentleman’s handshake to seal the deal.
He was a Navy veteran who always wore a World War II veteran ball cap. He was tall, with big hands and a wry sense of humor, and, like me, came from a large family: I have 10 siblings, but he had 13. Yes, 13! He incurred injuries during the war and was decorated with the Purple Heart. As a result, he moved around with crutches and a neck brace, and although he was in pain and discomfort much of the time, he was stoic and upbeat, never complaining about his physical ailments. He always had a ready smile, a soft chuckle and a playful banter. Most noticeably, he was a positive, incandescent spirit that lit up any room that he walked into.
Over the past three years, we have gigged at the 416, playing every three or four months, with each show attracting more and more people. We brought hundreds of fans and friends to the hall, and even though he preferred big bands and swing to our deep classic rock, John enjoyed the youth and the energy and the sight of all the people dancing to the music. To this day, I can still see him standing in the doorway by the bar with that big smile on his face.
On the Fourth of July, I was shocked to learn that John had passed away after suffering injuries in a car accident early that morning. I was not alone in noting the irony of his exit. It seemed fitting that John, who was among those who fought for our freedom and independence, should depart on Independence Day.
Since that day, every time I drive by the post, I see him in my mind, and find myself saluting the flag that flies outside the building and saying, “Goodbye, John, we miss you and will never forget you.” With that image in mind, as Veterans Day approaches, I would like to salute the late great commander of the VFW 416: John L. Wahl, a member of the aptly titled Greatest Generation. These American heroes dedicated their lives in this single-minded purpose: the selfless service of others.