Staffers and lobbyists, truckers and locals, and anyone who has ever pulled up a bar stool next to James Forward at the Tune Inn has walked away knowing they’ve just met a Capitol Hill institution.
You may not guess his status on first glance. He is a 69-year-old, wide-eyed, and terse man, weighing less than 100 pounds, with a never-ending supply of history books and whiskey before him. And Forward is a man who knows something about giving and receiving.
The Tune Inn appeals to those both high and low on the Beltway totem pole, and members of all ranks tap Forward on the back and call him “captain” on their way in. They usually buy all his drinks, beginning with his Baileys Irish Cream and coffee in the morning, fruit juice around noon, and Jameson Irish Whiskey until dusk. And taped to the mirror behind the bar, you’ll often find an envelope labeled “captain,” with cash or a plane ticket contributed anonymously.
“People are good to me,” Forward said one night. “I got them all fooled.”
Forward earned the nickname “captain” for his service with the Marine Corps—though he feels undeserving of any recognition. Originally hailing from upstate New York, he joined the Marines with a sixth-grade education and was deployed to Morocco in 1960 to guard a naval base with the French. Though he never fought in direct combat, something happened during his 22 months in service that still plagues him with guilt.
“Crimes against humanity—I did it,” he said while concentrating on cleaning out his fingernails with a razor.
Forward was honorably discharged and led a seemingly normal life after the Marines, designing stage sets and moving around the country. Yet he insists he was “fooling everyone,” including the person who married him, Diane Court, an Ivy League-educated woman from a wealthy Bethesda, Md., family. She says she convinced herself that all Forward needed was a little support to shake his sadness. She helped him make rent, and the couple eventually moved into a duplex they bought on 12th and F streets.
“I didn’t know how ill he was,” Court said. “I knew he was drinking, but I didn’t know the extent.”
Drinking wasn’t the worst of it. Forward was deeply depressed, and he developed an addiction to crack cocaine. Court left him after five years of marriage and brought the couple’s 3-year-old son, Colin Archer Forward, with her. Ten years later, Court was living in Orlando, Fla., when her new husband asked to legally adopt Colin Archer. To do so, Court reached out to her ex-husband through a friend, not knowing if he was alive or dead. What she found was a man still struggling with alcoholism but who very much wanted to meet his teenage son.
Forward went through a rigid detox program and prepared to reenter Colin Archer’s life.
“He called me, and he was way more nervous than I was,” recalled Colin Archer, now 23. “It was this Darth Vader moment when he said, ‘This is your father.’ ”
Colin Archer said he struggled to convince his father that he held no resentment toward him and wanted a relationship. But both lacked the funds to connect in person. That’s where the collegial atmosphere of the Tune Inn came in handy. Forward’s friends pitched in enough money to buy a plane ticket from Orlando to D.C., two neighbors of the bar picked up Colin Archer at the airport, and others chipped in to buy him a hotel room. The two met at the front table of the Tune Inn, and the tradition of supporting the father and son continues.
“There’s really no separating the relationship I have with my dad and the relationship I have with the Capitol Hill community,” Colin Archer said. “If it weren’t for the generosity of the people in that neighborhood, I wouldn’t have a relationship with my dad.”
Lobbyists, policemen, the American Legion, and members of Congress have all contributed money for Colin Archer’s trips to D.C. He says he has seen his father about twice a year for the past five years.
And over that time, Forward’s spirits have slowly been rising. Friends say he still depends on alcohol to get through the day, and he has trouble making doctor’s appointments. But he’s looking out for other people. He works at the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, where he cooks for the homeless on Sundays and holidays. Forward leads a group of veterans, who call themselves “The Rogue Saints,” on trips from the Tune Inn to the church to serve food on Sunday mornings. Then the group returns for what they call “communion”—a shot of whiskey.
“Somehow, this network around him has made a difference,” Court said. “He’s the most profane man you’ll ever meet, but he’s running a soup kitchen. Go figure.”
Forward’s friend Phil Younger, a fellow veteran who brought him into the soup kitchen, said Forward has a real knack for cooking and never misses a Sunday he’s signed up to serve.
“He does this in a struggle to forgive himself for that situation [in Morocco] and a struggle to forgive himself for being a screw-up for his son,” Younger said. “It breaks my heart that it’s not enough to get him to take better care of himself.”
Forward recently received enough money from contributions at the Tune Inn and the American Legion to start serving veterans every Saturday, starting in October.
Recently, a young woman sitting near Forward at the bar pointed to his Marine hat and said, “Thank you for your service.” He smiled back and said, “I got you fooled, too.”
This article appears in the July 11, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.