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To remember and to forget

This is the fifth in a series of articles about the reactions of everyday people to the 2000 presidential election. The series was reported and written before Sept. 11.

Virginia Bakke tells time by limes. Four lime slices in the bottom of her glass, time to go home. Only two now. Plenty of time.

She bends over the bar at VFW Post 6827, bony elbows digging into the Formica. Persimmon lips squeezing an unlit cigarette. Palsied hands fumbling a green Scripto. Her hair looks like smoke. Her once-green eyes have gone watery gray.

She's the grande dame of this dark soldiers' world, overseeing her aged troops from a padded turquoise stool, checking on Bob and Jack and the others.

She's 82. She was born the year before women were allowed to vote. She voted Democratic in 14 straight presidential elections beginning in 1940.

Last year, she didn't vote.

"I don't give a darn anymore," she says, still striking out with her lighter. "It's not my world anymore. Let the people who are going to have to live with this president choose him.

"Oh, I've had a wonderful life. I've done all sorts of important things. Just don't have enough time left for things like elections."

Her lap cradles a battered black handbag, the kind the queen mother carries, only cheaper. It holds a couple of crumpled dollars, her most prized possession and her house key. Every afternoon at 2, she calls a cab to bring her here, to get her medicine:

Four vodka tonics ("Just a trickle of tonic, honey") and a half-pack of American Reds. Banter with the boys and a few belly laughs. Five hours of not staring at her own four walls, not fighting her fears alone. Just a dusty ceiling fan spinning in lopsided circles, so out of breath it barely blows the paper American flags overhead. A faded flier from a long-past fish fry. A framed needlepoint: "We (heart) America!"

And legions of war stories bleeding around the bar, decades marching back and forth: Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and, of course, World War II. Bad ship food and good Bob Hope shows. Losing friends and winning battles. Those were the glory days.

"This is the only place I can talk to people, for Pete's sake," Virginia says, leaning in for the bartender to light her smoke. "I sit on my front porch all morning, watching the people going to work, hating them for being young enough to go to work.

"I loved being in the Army. I was in the Army Air Corps in the late '30s, early '40s, the first secretary to move into the Pentagon when it opened. All the big generals: George Marshall, Tooey Spaatz, Hap Arnold, all of 'em walked past my desk. "Hello, Miss Virginia!' they'd say."Hey, George!' "Hey, Tooey!' I'd call back. "Hi, Hap!' They all knew me." She taps a long ash off her cigarette.

"Aaah, memories! Damn it! They'll kill you."

She comes here to remember. And to forget. Sometimes she remembers things she wants to forget. Sometimes she forgets things she wants to remember.

She can recite the exact wording of a telegraph she sent 60 years ago. She can't remember when her husband died.

"I met Stan at a dance at Quantico. I was taking flying lessons on a little Cessna. Wanted to be the next Amelia Earhart. He sent me a telegram the next week: "Let's get married.' I was 17, and he was being sent overseas, sooo _ " She sips watery vodka through a skinny straw, shakes her head. "I married him. At the preacher's house. Then, he had a cold sore one morning _ oh, this was years, years later. It was cancer. He died _ what year is this? 2000?"

"2001," someone corrects her gently.

"Oh, Lord. He must've died 15, 20 years ago. That's when I started coming here."

The outside world barely penetrates this post.

For 36 days last November, while the television above the bar blared on about the presidential election, patrons talked about the weather and their wars. It might have mattered once, who their commander in chief would be. "But that's just a figurehead thing now," Virginia says. "It's a different America than the one I defended."

So while Florida counted its chads, she counted her limes, confident her afternoons would continue like this no matter who was in the Oval Office.

She has lived in the same house off 16th Avenue N for 40 years. Her two grandchildren are in Orlando. She doesn't have any photos of them in her handbag.

But clipped to the inside zipper, next to her house key, is her green Army badge from 1940. She was wearing it when she typed that historic message.

"Early on a Sunday morning, it was. Early December. "Come into the office,' the boss says. So I go. "Send a Teletype to all the bases,' he says.

" "Remove All Planes Hinterland!' "

"Pearl Harbor," says Bob Lunay, an Army engineer who did combat in Korea.

"This will live as a day of infamy!" says Jack Wilkie, a World War II Seabee. "That was the last real war."

"Harry Truman was the last real president," Virginia says while the bartender refills her medicine.

She stirs the limes. Now there are four.

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