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Charlene Sprayberry: A Veteran of Essex Veterans Memorial Hall

Essex Veterans Memorial Hall has tables, chairs, and memories-memories of places with names like Heartbreak Ridge, Khe Sanh, and Ia Drang. It is a place for reliving the comradeship of the past and cementing the friendship of the present. There is a well-worn look to the dining area that reflects more than 50 years of beer and bantering. Military emblems hang over the bar, and there is a wall with the names of Essex residents who died in service to the country. Along with mimeographed notices on the bulletin board, a small sign has a bit of advice for members: No Foul Language.

Charlene Greeney Sprayberry knows the hall well. Jerry LaMark, the Essex Veterans Memorial Hall Club president, calls her the heart and soul of place, though she herself never served in the military. Charlene has worked there as a part-time bartender and cook for nearly 25 years.

"We owe her a debt of gratitude. She knows more about the club than anybody," says LaMark, adding a generous compliment for the lady in question. "She's our right-hand man."

The Veterans Memorial Hall is sponsoring its annual Pig Roast on Saturday, Sept. 14; along with the porker, the event features steamship round roast beef, baked beans, and corn on the cob-and this is one meal that Charlene doesn't have to cook. Volunteers start barbecuing the pig at midnight to have it ready for eating when the event starts at two o'clock. And people do eat.

"We always say they eat everything but the oink," LaMark says.

The barbecue features music by Norm Rutty and Save the Train as well as raffles from local stores.

Charlene knew nothing about bartending when she applied for a job at Essex Veterans Memorial Hall more than two decades ago.

"I had no experience; just a naïve country kid," she recalls.

In those days, some of the people who sat around the bar were veterans from World War II. Charlene says she misses their chatter.

"I enjoyed the World War II veterans. They were so full of life," she recalls. "People seem to keep more to themselves now."

Today most of the members of the club are Korean War or Vietnam-era vets. LaMark says they would like to have people who served in Desert Storm in the 1990s or more recently in Iraq or Afghanistan join, but young people, he regrets, seem less interested.

"I'd love it if some of them joined," he says.

Fewer members means the financial situation Essex Memorial Hall faces is more challenging, with the upcoming pig roast the biggest fundraiser of the year.

"The days are gone when people would stop by and have two or three beers on the way home from work," says Sam Riggio of Essex, himself a Vietnam vet.

Charlene, who shops for food for happy hour, Saturday lunches, and regularly scheduled dinners, says she looks for the best prices to keep costs reasonable.

According to Charlene, the hall was once the Centerbrook schoolhouse and was given to the veterans by the Town of Essex after the Second World War. Now the Memorial Hall and the local chapter of the VFW, which holds its monthly meetings there, share the premises. Charlene has also become an active member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the VFW.

The Essex Veterans Memorial Hall is just one of the places at which Charlene works. For some 20 years, she has been a member of the cafeteria staff of Essex Elementary School. She starts there at 8:45 in the morning and finishes at 1:45 p.m. Then, for the last year, she has gone to work at Walmart. During the school year, she works from 5 to 10 p.m. During the summer, she has been starting work at two in the afternoon.

School lunches, she says, have changed over the years, with more emphasis on healthy eating. Now, for instance, rather than buying already-prepared chicken nuggets, the cafeteria staff makes its own from scratch, along with its own sauces. All the Regional District 4 cafeterias also feature fresh salad bars. Pizza, now made to healthy standards, remains the favorite lunch.

When baseball season starts, Charlene, an avid Red Sox fan, teases students rooting for the Yankees.

"I tell them they should go in another line, but they know it's just a joke," she says.

The children remain a joy for her.

"I relate to them-I know brothers and sisters, I know their parents," she says.

And like anyone about to go back to school, Charlene admits that no matter how often she does it, the first day remains exciting.

"I'm like every kid the night before school starts. I don't sleep," she says.

At Walmart, Charlene works as a cashier and says the best part of the job is talking with customers.

"My boss tells me that he doesn't know what I do, but people come in grouchy and they leave happy," she says.

Charlene, a graduate of Valley Regional High School who now lives in Centerbrook, grew up in Chester. He brother Charlie is now the town's fire chief-and the similarity between their names is no accident.

"I was supposed to be a Charlie," Charlene says.

In addition to her brother, Charlene has three sisters, Merry, Linda, and Susan. Only Susan, who lives in Georgia, has moved away from the area. Charlene visited Georgia for six months, but decided to return. She says the New Englander in her just didn't feel comfortable sitting at a picnic table in shorts on Christmas day.

Charlene's husband, Bob, comes from Georgia, but she met him in Connecticut. The couple has a grown daughter. The name Sprayberry, according to Charlene, is more common in the South.

"Here people ask me how to spell it," she says.

Though her life is busy, Charlene always has time for the Essex Veterans Memorial Hall and its members.

"It's part of me," she explains.

 

Essex Veterans Memorial Hall

Annual Pig and Beef Roast

Saturday, Sept. 14 at 2 p.m.

3 Westbrook Road,

Centerbrook

For tickets and information, call 860-767-8892

Reservations by should be made by Tuesday, Sept. 10; only 200 tickets will be sold.

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