It’s Always About the Beer

[from the B&N newsletter (Barnes and Nobles), October 6, 2021. Thanks to SB Jerry, Quaker SBs for bringing this to our attention.]

In 1967, a former U.S. Marine named John “Chick” Donohue snuck into Vietnam to find his buddies serving in the war and bring them beer and bear hugs from back home.  It would be called “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” and it is now being filmed for Skydance by Oscar winner Peter Farrelly, starring Zac Efron as Chick.

Who put the idea in Chick’s head?  “The Colonel,” Chick says.  “George E. Lynch. He was the bartender at Doc Fiddler’s in Inwood and he was a holy man. He was a very patriotic individual.”

Twenty-eight boys from Inwood would be killed in Vietnam – and most people in the neighborhood would attend their funerals, whether they had known the boys or not.  “I’m gonna get on one of those ships that goes to Vietnam,” the Colonel asserted, “and I’m gonna bring all the guys over there from the neighborhood a drink.”

“I looked in the Colonel’s eyes to see if he could possibly be serious,” thought Chick. “Oh, he was.”

And though it would be Chick who endeavored on this epic journey, the Colonel supported the troops in other ways.

Kathleen “Sissy” O’Sullivan, who edited a neighborhood newsletter for the boys, and is now making a documentary about their lifelong bonds, recalls The Colonel’s unique contributions.  In the envelopes with their newsletters, GIs would find flat sticks of gum with a bonus ingredient:  they had been soaked in whiskey sours or gin and tonics, and dried so no military mail inspector would discover it.

What Led to the Start of the Vietnam War? - HISTORY

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Colonel found an even larger surface.  As O’Sullivan wrote then, “The management of Doc Fiddler’s wanted to send each and every one of you a bottle of scotch, but it wouldn’t fit in the envelope.  So [the Colonel] did the next best thing – he soaked the enclosed coaster” with whiskey, dried it out, with orders to the troops to suck on the coasters

The Colonel had a flagpole outside the bar as big as the one outside City Hall, Chick recalls. He also organized a parade contingent of 600 people to march from Inwood to midtown for the Loyalty Day parade on May 13, 1967. [See photo.] While it didn’t get the press coverage the anti-war marches and moratoriums did, it gathered 250,000 people and lasted for eight hours. “I began to see that the protestors were at least trying to stop the madness,” Chick says. “But they weren’t acknowledging that so many of the young men were doing what they truly believed was their duty to their country.”  It was partly a class issue, since many of these working-class boys were drafted, and couldn’t get a college deferment, or a single note from the right doctor.

“We knew we were the lucky ones,” Sissy O’Sullivan recently recalled. “As girls, we couldn’t get drafted.  We were going to funerals every month.  When our guys left for Vietnam, we were heartbroken for them.”

What she and other young Inwood women were determined to do was give them a sense of home and normalcy in the jungle with news from the neighborhood.  Engagement announcements, usually three a month, weddings —  sometimes as many as eight — babies born, announcements of soldiers’ return home.

But perhaps most popular was their sports section, covering the neighborhood’s two softball leagues, and a football league of 12 teams.  In a neighborhood believed to have 107 bars in a 10-block radius which were the drinking destination for young people from the entire city, 11 of the teams were from pubs, with just one from a florist.  The reports were highly detailed: “Richard O’Sullivan caught a 35-yard pinpoint pass thrown by Wally Somers and ran 30 more yards…” and

“It was a very rough game in which several players from both teams were barred from the game for fighting.”

Coverage of New York’s pro teams were an afterthought: “Sorry to say the NY Giants are off to another bad season.”

The young women of Inwood would slather on red lipstick and plant a smooch on hundreds of envelopes over time, endorsing them with S.W.A.K. [Sealed With A Kiss.]

One young private, Edward Small, sent them a poem from Vietnam:

Soon the journey’s end draws near

See, we’ve not strayed so far

For in our hearts, we never left at all.”

As Seamus Heaney, with whom Chick would hang out when he was a student at the J.F.K. School of Government at Harvard, wrote: “If you have a strong first world and a strong set of relationships, then in some part of you, you are always free; you can walk the world because you know where you belong, you have some place to come back to.” 

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