Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lonely Banquet

National Veterans Day Awards Dinner, 2014, did so many things RIGHT!

To begin with, the "reception" before the event was open to everyone. The hors d'oeuvres were simple, but elegant and plentiful. There was a cash bar for everyone, and the VIPs got a "one free drink" card. That made everyone feel special and welcome. There was a band playing cocktail music, and people were mingling, talking and laughing in the huge lobby of the ballroom. Perfect start to the evening!

At 1845, the ballroom doors opened, and people started making their way into the banquet. VSOs sell blocks of banquet tickets to their members. That is because the members of your American Legion Post want to sit together. I am a member of several organizations, so this year I chose to sit with BSSFI. There are 8 people to a table, so I knew we would have several tables. Well, it turned out "we" had one table. Eight members were assigned to that table. The other 10 or so of us were scattered throughout the room. I was at a table with seven people I didn't know. What are the odds of that?? I probably knew about 150 of the attendees, and not a single one of them was even within hollering range of my table.

In the meantime, members of the other VSOs to which I belong were saying, "Why are you over here by yourself?" I had no answer. I did meet four delightful young ladies at my table (who left just after the second hour was finished). I will say that they had a new ticket person this year, but one would think that he would have placed blocks of people from the same organization near each other, not spread out all over the room.

But that was ok. We weren't there to talk anyway.

The program started appropriately with the presentation of the colors, followed by the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then everyone sat, and there was a welcoming speech, then some words of wisdom from Mayor Bell, and then a short speech from someone from a local business that contributed money to the celebration. All that took about 20 minutes. THEN an Army Chaplain came up to pray the invocation, so we could eat. Well, another seven minutes later... (probably the longest "invocation" I've ever sat through) we dug into the now-wilting salad.

So about 30 minutes have passed, and we're just now beginning dinner. Not too bad, because we are about one-third through the program.

The first thing on the real agenda was introducing the head table. There were, I would estimate, about 40 of them - three rows that spanned the entire end of the room. OK. NOW we have "Opening Remarks"... I'm quoting the program here. This is over halfway down the program. Well, this is the first dude since the preacher that loves to hear himself talk. I think he was a from the National Veterans Administration, because he gave us MANY statistics about the Veterans' Hospitals in this country, of which this guy has visited 26 or 27. He can't remember. But he did have a LOT of statistics about how many more patients are served today than a year ago, and the percentages of people that get appointments within a month, and on and on. It was after 8:00 by now, and people were beginning to leave. I thought they were going to the restroom, but they didn't return, so I deduced they had left. Well... 15 or 20 minutes of "opening remarks" that consisted of lists of statistics probably was putting them to sleep. I needed another glass of wine.

He FINALLY shut up and sat down, and the "SPEAKER" was introduced. THIS dude was awesome. The keynote speaker was well spoken, clear, had a great Morgan Freeman voice, and spoke about eight minutes and sat down. (Doing better!)

After that, it began falling apart. There was a "Minuteman Award" given by the ROA president, who apparently hadn't read her speech ahead of time, and stumbled over words, hesitated between words, and ended up giving such a disjointed award that I'm not really sure what the Minuteman Award is. It was presented to some Congresswoman, who gave a loud and long, aggressive political speech about what the Republicans need to do, now that they're in the majority, preceded by introducing all her family and staff, who were in the audience, and telling us what all they've done for her and her office. I didn't time it, because I truly thought she was going to say something like, "This is an honor. Thank you," and sit down. Oh NOOOOOOO...

By now it was about 9:30, and we were still several agenda items from the end of the program. More people left. I was still there with two gentlemen at my table I didn't know, and the tables around me were almost empty.

Then they went off the program and presented the "Soaring Eagle" award to Catherine Roberts, founder of the Quilts of Valor Foundation. She couldn't be there, so some other woman accepted the award for her. There was a very nice bio of Ms. Roberts in the program, and the woman pointed out that this bio didn't tell the "whole story", so she proceeded to read a comprehensive bio and story of how Quilts of Valor came to be, how and why the name was changed several times before the last name was chosen, and ended with some statistics about how many have been awarded and why. Her speech was approximately 20 minutes, I think.

The next item was the "Screaming Eagle" Awards. Mayor Bell's father, a WWII veteran, received one, and Dick Cole got one. THEN Congressman Spencer Bacchus got one. Now, I'm not getting political here. This isn't the venue for that. I admire and respect Congressman Bacchus for all the hard work he has done for veterans. Among other things, he was instrumental in getting the National Cemetery in Montevallo for Alabama. That said, he is probably the worst speaker I've ever heard. He has a squeaky voice, and he can't make a sentence without 3 or 4 "ers" or "uhs" ... almost like listening to a stutterer. On top of that, he is redundant, and drones on for seemingly hours on end. OK.. I exaggerate, but not much. More people left. I would estimate that over half the people had left by now. Most of the middle 30 or so tables were empty.

FINALLY came the National Veteran Award presentation, to Senator Bob Dole. Senator Dole is unable to travel after his stroke, but a couple of people read why he was chosen for the award, and why he couldn't be there to receive it. Last March, a contingent of the Committee had gone to Washington to present it to Sen. Dole, and recorded the event.

On video, Mark Ryan, President of National Veterans Day in Birmingham, was shown, along with Senator Dole (in a wheelchair) and guess who... Congressman Spencer Bacchus.

Mark read the same thing on video he had just read live to us, but explaining that the REAL award was like the Heissman Cup. It has recipients' names engraved on it, and Sen. Dole will be added to the ranks of veterans such as DD Eisenhower, General Bradley, etc. He read about 8 of them. If they had let Sen. Dole say thank you at that point, it would have been perfect. But Congressman Bacchus was there. He started in and in his squeaky, stuttering voice, talked for about ten minutes. His redundancy and repeating things in one-syllable words made it look like he thought Sen. Dole was either 5 years old, or was retarded.

Before Sen Dole could speak, a woman appeared where Bacchus had been, and began reading the same Quilts of Valor bio the lady at the banquet had read. OMG! (At the back of the room, people were streaming out like it was a fire drill or something. The back tables had pretty much emptied.) She then presented Sen. Dole with a beautiful Quilt of Valor, explaining what the pattern was, and taking her cue from Bacchus, asked if she could wrap him in the quilt, and explained that "It's how we do it. It's our tradition to wrap the quilt around the warrior who receives it."

At 10:30, Senator Dole said (basically), "Thank you for this award. Thank you for this blanket. I served under General Eisenhower, and it is an honor to be listed here with him."

Thankfully, someone stopped the tape at that point. More people were leaving and as I looked around at those still at tables, it was mostly the head tables, although a couple of them had also left.
The ending would have been great, because the band was still in the lobby, the cash bar was still open, and Mark invited everyone to go and dance - the band will play until ...

If everyone hadn't turned into a pumpkin by then, it would have been perfect to regather out there, have a drink, dance a bit, and go home happy. As it was, the few people still there were dragging to the parking deck. A man who happened to be in the elevator with me asked, "Did you enjoy the evening?" I said, "Well, up to a point." not knowing who he was, or what connection he might have. But he said, "It could have been a coupla hours shorter and I would have REALLY enjoyed it." All I could say to that was, "Me too."

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