The front of Mike Johnson’s office on Perkins Road looks like it belongs to an accountant, which it does. Those who use the back door on Friday afternoons encounter a world apart.
They call it Bangladesh. Any relationship to the country by that name is purely accidental.
Johnson served in the Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War, and about 12 years ago he started inviting other such veterans to end the work week with drinks, snacks and conversation at his office. If anyone questioned whether it was too early to drink, someone would say, “It’s 5 o’clock in Bangladesh,” Johnson said. Eventually, that became the group’s name.
The group has grown to about 20 as more friends were invited, including veterans from every branch of service and a few non veterans. There is no official membership list, and once someone has been three times, Johnson gives that person a key in case the door is still locked.
Inside that door is a military man cave on steroids.
Flags, old photos, humorous signage and memorabilia cover almost every square inch of the walls. There’s a pool table, but it’s usually covered to provide a place for food, and those who aren’t standing there are sitting around a long table, drink in hand, making conversation.
“I just started hanging out here, a nice little oasis on Friday afternoons,” said Ron Monce, who served as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam in 1968. “We like to insult each other, tell stories of each other, make fun of Mike’s dietary habits.”
Indeed, serving as host doesn’t exempt Johnson from the pointed humor. He visits Thailand every year, bringing money for supplies and medicine to a school there supported by Special Forces veterans, and returns with all manner of delicacies labeled only in Thai. He recently passed around a cellophane package with thin, flat slivers of something foul-smelling.
“What is this?” asked Larry Rivet. Johnson didn’t answer.
“It came out of a dead fish,” Monce said. “I think it was beat to death like that and left to dry in the sun.”
Most of that Friday’s crowd declined to sample it. Johnson didn’t seem perturbed.
The conversations can be about anything. Politics, complaints about the Department of Veterans Affairs, trench foot, the merits of using Air-bnb, food, family members — no topic is off limits, and irreverence is the order of the day.
“I can see if I want to keep up with the BS, I’ll need a drink,” said West Summers, a former paratrooper, to no one in particular at a recent gathering.
“It would be like being in the midst of a group of old ladies in a sewing circle gossiping,” said Charles Mayeux, a Bangladesh regular. “You’ll have maybe five or six conversations going at the same time.”
Although it’s a male-dominated group, several women show up at least occasionally. Crystal Traylor used to work with Monce at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and started coming at his invitation.
“You can’t understand what Bangladesh is like until you experience it,” she said. “They love everybody. They don’t mind that you come, and certainly I love hearing their stories. … I have this respect for these gentlemen.”
“Despite being around us,” Summers added.
“Despite being around them, I have an even greater respect,” Traylor replied.
When they aren’t wisecracking, the Bangladesh crew earns respect by helping Johnson and the 46th Special Forces Company Association raise money to provide cruise vacations for wounded military personnel and a guest. So far, Johnson said, 50 soldiers have been so treated.
The association, which has several members in the Bangladesh ranks, also performs funeral services for Special Forces members.
And, while it doesn’t dominate the Bangladesh conversation, sometimes members reflect on their military service, on the dangers they faced and the bonds of friendship that were formed.
Pat Scanlan recalls a meeting in which Monce spoke about a particularly perilous mission in which his unit had to run to avoid being overwhelmed by a much larger North Vietnamese force. Monce told of throwing hand grenades behind him — occasionally getting clipped by their shrapnel himself — to hold off the enemy.
“He looked down, then said, ‘I thought I was going to die that day,’” Scanlan said. “A moment later, he looked down again and said, ‘I miss those days.’”