[Editor's Note: We all know local music and dive bars go hand-in-hand. So in the interest of merging the two together on Heard Mentality, we bring you our nightlife column Dive, Dive, My Darling. Read this week as our bold editor-in-chief, Gustavo Arellano takes over for web editor Taylor "Hellcat" Hamby and stumbles into the dive bar scene to find crazy stories, meet random weirdos and guzzle good booze.]
"Oh, you're here for some fun!" the beefy man in sunglasses, military fatigues and a bulletproof vest said with a laugh after I showed him my ID. Then he got serious. "Don't have too much fun."
Sir, no, sir! He was guarding the gates of the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base (JFTB) as I explained my final destination was Fiddler's Green, the last military bar left in Orange County. With the El Toro and Tustin bases long gone, and those swabs at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station severely limiting access to the public, the Los Al JFTB is the final accessible reminder of our military past. And jarhead bars in San Clemente notwithstanding, here is the best place to get faded with the men and women who fight for our right to get faded.
To get to the Pub at Fiddler's Green, visitors have to drive through the base, past the Black Hawk copters and Abrams tanks, barracks and office buildings, and recruits going through training in flat scrublands. The pub itself is in a tired, faded building and is more patio than actual bar–and the bar itself is long, low-ceilinged, and stocked with booze upon booze upon booze. It was early evening, so the scene was dead–just Johnny the bartender, a salty vet who kept trashing the Pike in Long Beach ("They never changed the fucking cook!"), and a young Mexican-American Marine. "Did you just come in?" he asked as I settled into my stool. Affirmative.
"Where did you come from?"
"Long Beach," I replied before realizing he thought I was in the service. "Sorry, man; I'm just a civilian."
But instead of dismissing me as some lily-livered hippie, we got to talking. He was from Sylmar and had returned from five months in Virginia. A pitcher of beer was beside him; I asked for a white Russian. "We don't carry milk–no one ever orders it," Johnny barked over the drone of KIIS-FM.
And that's just part of the time-warp charm that is Fiddler's Green. When I asked for a menu, Johnny–tall, short hair, looking like an Ernie Pyle column come to life–pointed me toward a poster board. When I asked for a bratwurst, he replied, "You know that means I'm going to give you the brat, and you go outside and cook it, right?"
"Yeah," I said, half-jokingly. A beat. He wasn't kidding. He went outside to turn on one of the massive gas grills; after about 10 minutes, Johnny put on a plastic glove, grabbed a bun and pink sausage from underneath the bartop, then slid the uncooked wiener to me. Thanks!
I went outside to grill the brat, brushes and tongs by my side. Fiddler's Green had seen better days. Weeds were sprouting on the patio; the airplane runways were empty; on the streets, servicemen and -women in T-shirts emblazoned with "ARMY" went for an evening jog. But for our fighting men and women looking for a quick respite from training or the wars we've been fighting for more than a decade now, this is heaven on Earth.
The brat was good, and it entitled me to a trip to the salad bar, mashed potatoes and steamed veggies–no-nonsense grub. I began talking to the kid from Sylmar again. Adán Fuentes spoke of cars mostly (he recommends Brothers Auto Center in Ontario, for all y'all VW fanatics) before he ordered a steak. Johnny gave him a slab of raw beef, and Fuentes went outside to grill. I told Johnny his tab would be on me. "You know he has a pretty big tab, right?" Johnny responded. Didn't matter. After a quick trip to the restroom (no urinal troughs here; the men's pisser had its own lounge out of a tea room), I went outside, where I found Johnny speaking to Fuentes. Suddenly, Fuentes came running to me.
"Sir?" he asked, a stunned look on his face. "You didn't have to do that." Of course I did. As dusk fell and I drove through the winding roads of the JFTB, I saw the lights of Humvees and MTVRs turn off; our vets were getting ready to hit the Green. It's a pilgrimage all OCers should do once in your lives, and yes, buy the regulars a drink while you're there. It's the least you can do, you know?
FAVORITE PIECE OF FLAIR: The Cobra helicopter and missiles parked right in front of Fiddler's Green. 'Murica!
BEST QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: "If the Marines taught me one thing, it's how to drink." The salty vet had just boasted of how he and his mate would finish off an 18-pack of beer and a 1-liter bottle of Jack Daniel's–every Friday night.
The Pub at Fiddler's Green, 4745 Yorktown Ave., Bldg. 19, Los Alamitos, (562) 795-2168.