Ask the men of American Legion Post 396 what the fire took.
Uniforms. Pins. Awards. Bayonets. Purple Hearts. A century of memorabilia, collected since the post was founded in Bridesburg in 1919. Letters from Doughboys on the Western Front in World War I. Pictures of the original members, 100 years ago, lined up in front of what looked like a farmhouse, except the farmhouse was in Bridesburg, where rowhouses long ago replaced them.
They talk about what they salvaged: the painting of Pvt. Boleslaw Grochowski, the post’s namesake, a thick-necked, blue-eyed Polish kid who was the first from Bridesburg to die in the Great War.
And the memorial wall, part of which melted in the heat when an electrical fire swept through the post three years ago on Memorial Day, but part of which was saved. More than 500 names of post members were scorched away before the fire subsided.
That fateful holiday morning in 2016, the two Pats — Driscoll and Love, both Marines who served during the Vietnam era, and Post 396 commanders — stood in the shadow of Grochowski’s portrait and read the names of all the legion members who had died in the past year. It’s a tradition they call Post Everlasting.
And then the rooms in the legion post filled with smoke, and Love ordered a retreat. For everyone to abandon their beers and beat it to the door. And the Pats and the men of 396 stood on Milnor Street and watched the flames and the firefighters, who called in four alarms and whose hoses flooded the building.
Driscoll, the post commander, swore an oath: Come hell or high water — literally, high water at this point — they would reopen the post.
There was the first great miracle: Pvt. Grochowski’s painting survived, even though its frame had melted away. Then, the members of Post 396 discovered the second miraculous occurrence: Member Michael Sabatino’s beer, left in the chaos, was discovered intact on the last fragments of the bar. Not a drop of water had sullied its depths.
The post members searched for a new home — and found one a few blocks north, in Frankford. The legion went to work renovating it.
Sons of the American Legion, like Pat Driscoll II, stepped up for their fathers, leading the refurbishing. (They’ve also brought some new blood into the club with Sunday afternoon tailgates.) Last Memorial Day, the men fired a salute and cut the ribbon on their new home.
“This place was blood, sweat, and tears, trying to build it,” said Pat Driscoll.
But what the fire didn’t take from Post 396, time has taken.
At its height in the last century, when pinochle-playing old-timers crowded the tables, Post 396 boasted more than 1,100 members. Now the ranks have thinned to only 119. Since the fire, 52 members have died, including the patron saint of miraculous suds, Navy vet Michael Sabatino. In that time, only 13 new members have joined.
On Memorial Day, when Post 396 marches at their war memorial under a metal American flag on a stone pedestal that sits under the I-95 on-ramp, JROTC members from Frankford High School fill in their lines.
“A lot of the younger vets these days think the American Legion is a bunch of guys sitting around telling old war stories,” said Love. “Some of these guys don’t know how they can get aid and treatment. But that’s what we’re here for.”
And then there was this little heartbreak: When Post 396 was in need, it was mostly only other posts, friends and family who rallied. In three years, a GoFundMe effort raised only $1,600.
On Monday, the post will put all that aside, for a few hours, and celebrate their first Veterans Day in the new post. They will visit Philly’s tomb of the unknown soldier and memorials for the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Then they’ll open the doors of Post 396 to all those who served, to let them know the post keeps its promises.