24 April, 2006

The Conference: Meeting at Fran's

[Background on the Fran O'Brien's story here.]

The entire 48 hours I spent in DC for the conference was amazing and I want to remember all of it. But I think Friday night when we met up at Fran O’Brien’s will always be my strongest memory.

There were plans for an informal get-together at Fran's, so not everyone had nametags. As I walked in they were just random strangers in my eyes, but soon nametags appeared and I started matching names to blogs and faces. Suddenly everyone there was a friend, and I felt like this was my neighborhood bar where I’d been spending Friday nights for years.

Fran’s has a great atmosphere, and with the addition of us conference attendees, the place was packed (reportedly we increased their revenue by 130% in drinks alone). People were three-deep around most of the bar, and began to spill out into the dining area as the evening progressed. Just getting from one side of the bar to the other was best-accomplished by exiting and then returning through another door.

There were many interesting and touching and comedic moments, but it was what happened sometime after 11 pm when the crowd began to thin slightly that I will always remember.

The noise of music and conversation still raged as a military-looking young man started to pace round and round the interior of the four-sided bar, waving a long-neck beer bottle in his left hand. He began yelling to get people’s attention, but not everyone responded to him. Finally Uncle J’s command voice boomed from the corner, “At ease!!”

The young man introduced himself as a Staff Sergeant, saying he’d been wounded in Iraq and had been attending Friday Nights at Fran’s for about two years. With a voice like a sergeant addressing his unit, then later choked with emotion, he told us about Hal Koster and Marty O’Brien and how the soldiers felt about them. His words were punctuated with Hoo-ahs and Ooh-rahs, and boos when appropriate. I remember some of his speech word-for-word, but some of the following is paraphrased a bit:

“Hal and Marty are the two greatest men I’ve ever known,” he began. He then explained about the dinners, for those who might not know. “Not only have they given us food and a place to kick back, but they care about us, they ask us how we’re doing, they listen to us talk. And most importantly… most importantly, they give us the strength to recover, the motivation to keep going. This place is a part of our therapy.” He never stopped pacing the interior of the square bar as if addressing his troops, taking time to make eye contact with the crowd on all sides and waving his beer for effect. He admonished us to continue to support Hal and Marty. People cheered.

Then he paused and after a moment said, “Now to the f***ers upstairs,” with a look to the ceiling. The crowd murmured and muttered, boos and growls erupted. The next few minutes he spoke with anger and even more animation. Swearing a blue streak and staring at each of us in turn as he continued to stalk around the bar, he added, “I’m telling you, don’t you ever spend a dollar in a Hilton hotel again. Don’t you do it! I don’t care if it’s the Capital Hilton or the Washington Hilton or any damn Hilton in the world! Don’t you dare give them your money after what they’ve done to Hall and Marty!!” There were sounds of agreement from the crowd. I felt like I was being given a motivational briefing, or instructions on a training exercise by a DI. “And here’s what you do,” he added, gesturing and pointing at us with the beer bottle as his voice rose, “You tell your family and you tell your friends and you tell your businesses about what Hilton has done here and you tell all of them to never stay in a Hilton hotel. Ever! Never forget! Never!! F*** ‘em all!!” he roared in conclusion. His audience cheered and shouted back at him.

I stood there and whooped and cheered. I was very aware of Blackfive standing over my shoulder, though I never really looked at him because I wanted to keep my eyes on the SSG. By the end of the SSG’s speech, I felt goosebumps, aware that I had witnessed something that would be talked about for years as the wider military family told the story of what had happened to Fran O’Brien’s and of the last few nights there.

It was then that it all clicked and I felt exponentially more anger and sorrow than I had felt upon first hearing the story (which had been a substantial amount of fury at the time). I thought of the body language I’d seen between Hal (a gentle bear of a man) and the young wounded soldiers he’d talked to in the bar, and how Hal had told me with sad eyes that while they were desperately trying to relocate, it didn’t look good (it would take six months and 1.5 to 2 million dollars to move the restaurant). I thought of Marty O’Brien--who’d spent much of the evening drinking in the bar--watching his father’s restaurant show signs of crumbling at his feet. I thought of the amazing “feel” of the place and how quickly I had become comfortable—somehow it felt “safe,” and that surely it must’ve felt the same way to newly-wounded soldiers taking their first tentative steps of re-entry to the world. I understood, in a way far beyond the intellectual way I had before, that Fran’s was a treasure beyond description.

In that moment, what Hilton had done to them truly felt like an act of violence against the wounded who had found a sanctuary there. I understood Buzz Patterson’s fury over it in a more personal way than I had before. I understood the enormity of the impending loss for the troops. I was so angry and so pained that I just turned and walked out of the bar. I wanted to go cuss out the Capital Hilton GM myself, to grab him and shake him and ask him how he could dare treat Fran’s so badly and still sleep at night, to look at him with all the hatred and contempt I now felt.

But he wasn’t there, of course. And so I tried to wipe my mind of it all. But after that the crowd dispersed even more than it had, and while the party atmosphere continued to an extent, it was more twinged with sadness than it had been before. As it got down to probably not much more than 20 or so people who obviously knew each other, I thought about how the “regulars” must be feeling like they are trying to squeeze every last minute of the experience, to absorb the magic of their times at Fran’s so it could somehow live on. I thought of the attempts to continue the dinners elsewhere, but I knew it would never be the same. I wanted to cry. It was all wrong, so wrong.

And it didn’t have to be. I suppose in the future we’ll learn exactly why the Capital Hilton strung Fran’s along for so long without telling them they had no intention of offering a lease, but that won't fix anything. This all could’ve been avoided if they’d told Fran’s of their intentions six months ago. Instead, the restaurant hangs by a thread, and this great place with a beautiful soul that has meant more to the wounded than I can possibly describe may all fall by the wayside.

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. It's so very, very... wrong.