It’s November 11 and I’m standing in front of the menu board at Sizzler with my dad, debating whether to add a mango lemonade to my steak lunch. The woman in front of us is haggling with the hostess taking her order, and she’s just emptied a pocketful of change onto the counter. They’re adding and subtracting toppings and side dishes, trying to get it all to add up. She doesn’t quite have enough for the steak and baked potato, but if she goes for the salad bar she can get a drink.
The hostess is still performing salad bar calculus when my dad reaches over to hand the customer some cash. She looks startled and says, “Thank you.” It’s not the Thank You he came here for, but he’ll take it. She hurries off to a booth, and we step up to the counter. “I understand you have a Veterans Day special?” my father asks the hostess. She smiles broadly.
Every November 11, Sizzler is “proud to honor our veterans” with a free steak lunch. Just flash your VA card, and that 6-ounce tri-tip (or Malibu Chicken, or Jumbo Crispy Shrimp) is yours. They’re not alone: Dozens of chains, from big-hitters like Applebee’s and Hooters to smaller operations like the Kolache Factory have holiday specials for veterans and active-duty military. Most are off-menu options or smaller portions of classic dishes. All are designed to get customers in the door.
My father — who enlisted in the Army in November 1967 and flew helicopters in two tours of duty in the Vietnam War in ’69 and ’70 — is not exactly an all-American, all-you-can-eat salad bar kind of guy. He has a regular seat at Salt Lake City’s best sushi bar, where he’s eaten lunch at least twice a week for years. When he sits down, he doesn’t even have to order; by the time he settles in and asks the chef how his kids are, there’s a pile of sashimi in front of him.
And yet, when he heard on local talk radio that Sizzler was offering vets a free steak lunch, he couldn’t resist. I didn’t quite understand the draw — we hadn’t been to Sizzler in over a decade — but I could tell he wanted some company. Plus, I wanted to see if they still had baby corn at the salad bar, so I went along.
The first Sizzler opened in 1958 with the American dream that anyone should be able to have a steak dinner at a price they could afford. The model was proto-fast casual: Though you paid at the counter, your meal was delivered on a heated plate, rather than a plastic tray, by a waiter in a shirt and tie. The low, warm lighting and tufted booths created an atmosphere that was somewhere between clubhouse and holiday table. By 1995 the chain had grown to 900 franchises across the country.
While affordable steaks were at the heart of Sizzler’s origin story, its unlimited salad bar was defining, a place of free expression, where you could make yourself a meatball taco or splash cream of chicken soup on your Hawaiian haystack without reproach or shame. Dozens of novelty toppings, from crispy noodles to bacon bits and, of course, the mysteriously briny baby corn I loved as a child, beckoned from their stainless steel bins. Sizzler was one of the first restaurants I remember going to with my family — probably because the salad bar let my parents assemble an incongruous combination of foods that I, their pickiest eater, would willingly consume.
But in the years since my formative salad bar days, competitors like Applebee’s and Olive Garden entered the market with fresher menus and updated interiors. Sizzler was knocked off its throne as king of casual dining, and by the time we made it in for Veterans Day, most of the locations in Salt Lake — and around the country — had shuttered.
The hostess beamed as she asked, “Can we honor your service with a steak, a Malibu Chicken, or the Jumbo Crispy Shrimp?” But the questions didn’t stop there: Baked potato, french fries, or rice? Can we make it a combo with some shrimp or lobster? How about a strawberry lemonade? Do you want to try the salad bar, too? By the time she had finished upselling, my empathy for the previous customer’s struggle had grown as rapidly as the bill. Our free meal rung up for just under $40.
My dad rarely talks about the war, but when he does, it’s over lunch. Snippets of his story bubble up over burritos or barbecue, and each time I scribble notes to myself as soon as I get home, keeping track of the little details.
He grew up in an unhappy, working-class family in Salt Lake City. When his father left, his mother waited tables to pay the bills. The summer after high school, he hitchhiked to California to make a life for himself.
By 1967, he was living in San Francisco, working as a morning-show DJ at KFRC and studying aeronautics at a junior college when he decided to enlist. The anti-war protests around the Bay Area infuriated him. He saw the kids at Berkeley as nothing more than punks, hiding behind their privilege and education deferments, unwilling to stick their necks out for anything. Meanwhile, thousands of young men who didn’t want to serve, but who couldn’t get deferments, were being drafted. He felt for them. So, with his 21-year-old sense of invincibility, my dad walked into a recruitment office and told them he knew how to fly a plane. “Son, we’ll make you a helicopter pilot,” the recruiter said. Three months later he was shipped off to basic training, and a year later he landed in Chu Lai.
In his first tour of duty he flew transport missions, running supplies and troops into battle and evacuating the wounded. In his second tour, he flew Cobras — attack helicopters loaded with machine guns, grenades, and rockets designed to cut through the brush and destroy anything underneath. Unlike the jets that were running bombing and napalm campaigns, Cobras flew low enough to see what — and who — they were leveling.
One day, halfway through his second tour, my father caught a bullet. His squadron was escorting troop-transport helicopters onto a battlefield when a round came through the left side of his Cobra, and into his helmet. The bullet tore up the front of his face, fracturing his skull and knocking him unconscious. His co-pilot managed to evacuate him to a field hospital before he was flown to Japan to recover. During those months he spent convalescing in Japan, my dad picked up his sushi habit.
It took years for the gravity of Vietnam to fully hit my father. His trauma ran deeper than his head wound, but he didn’t know what to make of it. Watching The Deer Hunter unsettled him. Before he enlisted, he had viewed war through the Vaseline-slicked lens of movies and TV shows that lionized World War II. Vietnam was nothing like that. The U.S. troops weren’t there to hold ground or liberate anyone, they were there to annihilate. Even now, Americans can’t agree on what exactly happened in Vietnam, but everyone agrees it was grisly. Almost every conversation my father and I would have about the war would weave back and forth between pride and introspection, conviction and bravado and regret.
Before our Veterans Day lunch, the last time I’d eaten at Sizzler was in December 2004. I was home in Salt Lake after my third semester at Wellesley College, and I had to get out of the house after yet another argument with my dad about the Iraq War. President George W. Bush had just been re-elected, and, despite his “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the United States was still sustaining some of the highest rates of military casualties the nation would see in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I despised the war. My father defended it. We would get into shouting matches. He wanted my respect, my diffidence, and I wanted his — but it was a zero-sum game for us. I was cold and unkind, reaching for topics I knew he didn’t follow: If we actually cared about taking down dictators, why don’t we do something about Charles Taylor and Liberia? Do you even know who Charles Taylor is? He would defend patriotism and protecting our country. I would snidely point out that it wasn’t Iraq who attacked us on 9/11.
That night, I stormed out of the house and called a friend to blow off steam. He told me to meet him at Sizzler: He wanted to test the boundaries of the term “unlimited” at their salad bar.
By the time I slid into the vinyl booth across from him, he was on his seventh plate and beginning to slow down. He’d made a fatal error: too many slices of cheese toast too early in the meal, and he wasn’t sure if he could get to 10 plates. As he willed his way to double-digits and I picked through my own monstrosity — a pile of baby corn, corn niblets, pineapple, and mozzarella, with no dressing — the conversation moved from Iraq to Vietnam, and I confessed to sometimes feeling like an inadvertent war hawk at Wellesley.
A few days after the election, when emotions were high and irrational fears amplified, a debate began in the dining hall about whether Bush would reinstate the draft. I was shocked to learn that almost all of my friends’ fathers had taken active measures to avoid being drafted into Vietnam — paying off doctors to claim they had flat feet, studying abroad in Canada for several years, starting PhDs they had no intention to finish.
When I mentioned that my dad had enlisted, the conversation ground to a halt. A friend asked, “You mean he elected to serve in a futile war that targeted civilians?” A pang of shame shot through me, but it was quickly followed by a wave of the same bitterness my dad felt watching the Berkeley protests. I knew Vietnam had been a dark and brutal catastrophe, not just from textbooks or a Ken Burns documentary, but from living with a man who had survived it, hearing his stories, and watching him work through what had happened there. How could my classmates know? While my father was bleeding on a stretcher, somewhere in the jungle, their fathers were lounging on the quad at Harvard or Yale.
Suddenly, there I was, defending my father’s service in a war even he felt ambivalent about.
Our Veterans Day steaks arrived, somehow simultaneously overcooked and cold. As I sawed off bites and dragged them through a puddle of A1, I realized that going to Sizzler that afternoon wasn’t really about the scrawny free steak. It was an increasingly rare moment when my dad could hand his VA card to someone and they would say, without question or hesitation: “Thank you for your service!” It felt good, even if that gratitude came in the same breath as, “Would you like to upgrade your fountain drink to one of our specialty lemonades for only $3.79?”
I don’t think I’ve ever told my dad, “Thank you for your service.” It seemed weird. The outcome of Vietnam hadn’t altered the course of my life or the freedoms I enjoy. But his service shaped him, and in turn, he shaped me. We are so alike, my dad and I: impetuous, headstrong, full of piss and vinegar, but also romantics, poets, storytellers. I should have said it then, but I’ll say it now, instead. Thank you, Dad, for your service. Next time, the steaks are on me.
Erin Clare Brown is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. A former editor at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Erin’s work focuses on reporting for new platforms.
Natalie Nelson is an Atlanta-based illustrator, picture book maker, and collage artist.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter