A place to rest their wings

The Baltimore Sun

Maybe it was the Aviator Lager. Or the heaping plate of home-cooked red beans and rice for less than 5 bucks. Or the fact that Mike Ashford's historic Annapolis saloon doesn't allow tank tops or televisions, has plenty of elbow room and is a lot quieter than an airplane rumbling down the runway.

Whatever the reason, the pilots started coming to McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster Bar on Monday nights about 30 years ago, and they've never stopped.

Though "Aviator Night" has never been advertised as such, pilots who live near the City Dock mainstay just know. Monday is their night to swap war stories, whether from actual skirmishes abroad or from the front lines of today's troubled airline industry.

"When we come in here at 6 p.m., and the host asks, 'How many tonight?', we say, 'We don't know.' We just sit down and a group gathers," says Tom Corboy, a retired American Airlines pilot who sits enjoying a plate of nachos with another pilot friend and their wives. "The reason we come here is that we're treated very well. We get treated better here than we do at the private clubs to which we belong."

When Ashford, a longtime Eastern Airlines pilot, opened the bar in a crumbling section of the historic district 32 years ago, he never intended to designate a night for his buddies. But, with a model airplane suspended from the ceiling and a signature beer named for aviators, he had signaled that the place was pilot-friendly. And gradually, a Monday night tradition began to take hold.

As a frequent flyer to New Orleans, Ashford had become a fan of a Monday night ritual there in which waitresses ladled out red beans and rice mixed with andouille sausage from a large pot simmering on the stove. To the roving, itinerant pilot, the dish felt like home. So he put it on the Monday specials menu at his place for $4.95. (Three years ago, he raised the price a dollar - prompting a friendly outcry among his pilot regulars.)

The dish became a hit, along with McGarvey's seemingly bottomless plates of mussels, its cheeseburgers, oysters and chicken wings. But the biggest draw might be Ashford.

He holds court Mondays on a stool with his back to the wall - "Wild Bill Hickok turned his back and got shot, so I sit in the corner," he likes to say - and sends rounds of drinks out to pilots celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. He talks about the book he's reading - right now, it's William F. Buckley Jr.'s Miles Gone By - and about his latest adventures flying his two-seater plane or meandering on his motorcycle.

Ever since he was a kid in Joliet, Ill., Ashford says, he had two dreams: One was to fly, and the other was to become something of a Rick Blaine, the charismatic owner of the eponymous American cafe in Casablanca. When the opportunity came to renovate the former tobacco warehouse on City Dock, Ashford jumped at it.

From its name (after his grandmother, Anna McGarvey) to its decor (Tiffany-style lamps he transported from Atlanta and a 25-foot ficus tree he planted in the middle of the floor) Ashford was determined to do his bar his way.

There would be no televisions or blender drinks; they would impede conversation. All the potatoes would be hand cut, as befits an Irishman. And all gentlemen would kindly be asked to wear sleeves.

For frequent flyers, Ashford says, the last rule needs no explaining.

"If you have ever sat next to someone on a plane who is wearing a tank top, you would know," he says.

McGarvey's isn't just for pilots. Many professional sailors show up in the fall, when the big yachts sail into the capital city. Sometimes, Ashford says, manufacturers will send boat parts to McGarvey's, addressed with little more than the bar's name and ZIP code, to be given to a yacht coming into port.

The bar gets its share of tourists and college students, too. And with the closing last month of Riordan's, which was greeted as sad news in Ashford's saloon, McGarvey's can likely expect more town regulars. But, Ashford says, everyone catches on quickly to the dress code. Most of the customers already don the required "resort casual" attire that's de rigueur for Annapolis summers - polo shirts or Hawaiian button-downs with Bermuda shorts and the requisite sockless Topsiders.

Duane Lodrige, a brigadier general known around the bar as much for his hugs as his agility with fighter jets, is wearing a loose-fitting Under Armour polo as he digs into a crab cake. Next to him is soon-to-be retired US Airways pilot Warren Weakley, who's wearing a T-shirt and a pair of joke sunglasses as he sneaks a helping of spicy wings - an indulgence he allows himself only when his wife decides not to join him.

"I come down here for all my friends ... My friends understand me here," says Weakley, who says he comes once or twice a month on Mondays. "It really is like the old, classic saloon. It makes it so wonderful to come in here and appreciate conversation."

Many of the Monday night pilots go back a long way with Ashford, whose friends still call him "Bald Eagle," his nickname when he flew for Eastern. Bill Brown, a retired American Airlines pilot celebrating his birthday at the bar, recalls that he and Ashford used to "race" to New York's LaGuardia Airport when both flew the same route.

"I'd pass him up, and I'd contact New York first. I would tell the controller, 'Tell the Bald Eagle that American won again,'" Brown said. "I always won."

Ashford is now godfather to Brown's son Jim, 32, who is also a pilot and once worked at the bar. One summer, Ashford helped Jim land an even better job - as a crew member on Walter Cronkite's yacht, which set sail for the Caribbean.

Ashford says his friendship with the legendary newsman blossomed years ago when they met at a fundraiser and discovered that "we read the same books, sailed the same kind of boats, drank the same whiskey." Ashford just returned from sailing with Cronkite in New England. And Cronkite, once dubbed the most trusted man in America, dines at McGarvey's whenever he's in town - to the delight of Ashford's regular customers.

"One of the highlights of my life has been at this bar - on three different occasions, I've had dinner with Walter Cronkite," says Lodrige, whose career highlights include commanding F-16s after the Sept. 11 attacks and leading the presidential inaugural parade in 2005. "I was just star-struck because here was a slice of history."

But to most of the Monday night crowd, the bar's regulars are the biggest stars.

"Mike Ashford has done a favor to all of us by giving us a location to get together and relive the good old days," says retired US Airways pilot Ward Anderson. "He's a great friend - a great friend of aviators and a great friend of Annapolis."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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