Thanks, Mike! Mike’s the guy I met when he ordered 75 pizzas for the Super Bowl at Volare, the Italian place near Midway. He said he was the food-service manager at the Vietnam vets outfit down the road. “We do $2.50 lunches,” he said, “and $2.50 breakfasts and dinners. Anyone’s welcome.”
How could that price not stick in your mind? So today as I’m barreling north along Pacific Highway in the 34A bus, I’m thinking about it, when, a couple of stops before Old Town, this guy pulls the cord and gets out. Something tells me to jump off too. I follow him toward a low set of buildings. They’re painted cream and terracotta. Palm trees pass through holes in the roof overhangs. Nice.
Then the guy disappears like the white rabbit. Finally, I spot tables through a window and haul open a solid gray door. Not exactly a “Come on in” kinda door, but inside it’s an eatery all right: cream walls scattered with military art, like a bunch of shields with a banner saying “Vietnam Veterans: Our Cause Was Just”; a mural of the Coronado bridge; and an impressive piece of tile art with medals and ribbons incorporated into the pattern. I pay $2.50 to the guy at the door and head to the small servery. And, hey, there’s Mike in the kitchen with a happy-looking guy named Eugene. “Better hurry,” says Eugene. “Lunch is midday to 12:45.” Yikes. I see it’s 12:45 right now. At least I won’t dither over choice. Each day has its lunch dish. Monday’s usually tuna casserole; Tuesday, cheeseburgers and fries; Wednesday, chili dogs; Thursday, sloppy joes; Friday, chickenbreast sandwiches; and Saturday’s cold cuts.
Today’s Wednesday, so Eugene plops two fat beef dogs into buns.
I nod. He slops plenty over the two of them.
“Sure,” I say.
I squirt mustard, mayo, and ketchup on from big ol’ pump bottles and throw some pickle relish on the dogs for good measure, go and fill a bowl with salad — what a deal! — and head for one of the long tables. Two guys are eating there. Aha. One’s the guy from the bus: Rudy. The other is Al. “This place is for homeless Vietnam vets,” says Rudy. “To help get us off the streets and drugs and alcohol, and back into life. You get food, lodging, and counseling for a year.”
Soon, of course, we’re talking Vietnam. “It basically ruined my life,” says Rudy. “I can remember that first day of combat, when they rolled over this dead soldier. He was a kid. Vietnamese. But his face — he looked just like my younger brother. I was so…shocked. After that I found I couldn’t hate the enemy.”
Rudy was a Marine, 20 years old. “That tour in Vietnam turned me into a loner. It has taken me 32 years to find out why I didn’t want to be around my family when I came back. Why I felt under attack from their rapid-fire questions. PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. But nobody told me about it till, like, a couple of years ago. This is the part the government doesn’t tell you.”
Boy. We all take a pause to hoe into our food. It’s good. I have to use my knife and fork, the dawgs are so beautifully sloppy. I pile up some bun, beef sausage, chili, ketchup, and relish. Oh, yes. No way around it. My veggie-only ideas crumble under the assault of this comfort food. I slurp some soup to help it down. The soup’s a meal in itself, bobbing with macaroni, carrots, chunks of beef, broccoli, peas, and I don’t know what all else in there. I crunch a couple of Doritos Cooler Ranch chips (part of the deal) to tang it up. Plus, I’ve put lots of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and pickles into my salad bowl with the pink Thousand Island dressing for my health fix.
Then, suddenly, we’re laughing about lucky Al’s war. He had volunteered for Vietnam or Korea, got sent to Korea, heard about an entertainment troupe called the Bayonet Chorale, and tested for it the day before he was to be sent up to the DMZ. “I sang ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.’ That song saved my life. They liked it. We spent a year doing concerts, playing rock, gospel, traveling about Korea, entertaining the troops. And, of course, the women loved us. What a year.”
Life hasn’t really measured up since. Al’s lost two families, two homes, and two wives to his drinking.
Mike comes out and sits down. “This program works,” he says. “Eighty percent of our guys who graduate are in a job and sober and off the streets a year later. It’s definitely worth it.” He should know. He’s a vet. He was on the street. This place has been the saving of him.
“You should come for dinner tomorrow night,” says Rudy, before he leaves. “Baked chicken with red potatoes and green beans. The chicken melts in your mouth. That’s my favorite moment of the week.”
Outside, I stretch in the sunlight and look across the road. MCRD’s there. Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Kids joining up to go to war. I look from one side to the other. MCRD, Vietnam vets. Before, after…
- The Place: Vietnam Veterans of San Diego, 4141 Pacific Highway (619-497-6123)
- Type of Food: American
- Prices: All meals, $2.50. Breakfast includes scrambled eggs, hash browns, French toast or pancakes, sausages on weekends; lunches include meatballs, tuna casserole, cheeseburgers, chili dogs, sloppy joes, and chicken breasts, with soup, salad, juice, and coffee; dinners include chicken-fried steak, spaghetti, beef stroganoff, baked chicken, fish and chips
- Hours: Breakfast: 6:00 a.m. to 6:45 a.m., Monday to Friday; 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m., Saturday; 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., Sunday; lunch: 12:00 noon to 12:45 p.m., Monday to Saturday; dinner: 4:15 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday; 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Sunday Bus: 8, 34, 34A
- Nearest Bus Stop: Pacific Highway and Couts