MANCHESTER — Three former homeless veterans were among the 60 senior citizens celebrating Christmas Tuesday at the fourth annual Howard McCarthy's Senior Luncheon at the Puritan Backroom.
"I got a whole plateful to be thankful for," said Joseph D. Brouillette, 59, who three months ago was living under an Interstate 393 bridge in Concord. Clean shaven and neatly dressed, he is unrecognizable from the photo on his cell phone of a scraggly, unkempt man with full beard.
He said he was a "raging alcoholic" who had lived on the streets off and on for about 21 years when he got a wake-up call. One of his homeless buddies died from alcoholism and another, Paul Tinkham, was beaten to death, he said. "That put me into a tailspin," he said.
The photograph was taken by a Concord Monitor photographer in August at the time of Tinkham's death. Police are uncertain if Tinkham was murdered or not, because some in the homeless community told investigators initially that he hit his head after slipping on some rocks. Later, police were informed he'd been beaten.
Brouillette said the photographer and reporter didn't come near him that day — he was only identified as "a man" when the photo ran — and, he said he didn't blame them. He said he was dirty and smelly and probably just a bit grumpy, unlike the personable man sitting awaiting a holiday meal at the Puritan Backroom.
A U.S. Army veteran, Brouillette sought help at the Veterans Administration which, in turn, referred him to Liberty House, provides housing for 10 homeless veterans as well as help with food, clothing, retraining and finding jobs. Today, he is sober and taking night classes to become a massage therapist.
"The VA has pointed me in the right direction," he said.
Brouillette and other Liberty House residents were luncheon guests of Lionel Leblanc, a 37-year-veteran of the U.S. Air Force who rose to the rank of master sergeant. The World War II veteran, who served on Okinawa, China and the Philippines, said he wanted the veterans to enjoy a holiday meal.
Bill Hildreth, 60, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran of the Vietnam War, came to Liberty House after construction work dried up and his unemployment benefits ran out.
He is from Winnisquam and said there simply are no jobs in the North Country, which is how he ended up in Manchester. "The economy up there has hit rock bottom," he said. "There's nothing for vets."
And no one wants to hire you when you are 60-years-old, he said. He took whatever work he could get, all temporary jobs, but now is in a program learning how to abate asbestos.
He thought Leblanc, who has taken an interest in the Liberty House residents and visits frequently, was taking him out to lunch and had no idea he was headed to a Christmas party. It was a pleasant surprise, although had he known he said he would have chosen a different set of clothes.
Leblanc said tickets for a senior holiday dinner held recently at the William B. Cashin Senior Citizen Center were priced at $12 apiece, which made them unaffordable for many, he said. So, the $8 ticket price for McCarthy's gala proved more appetizing to him and Glenn Ouellette also purchased 30 tickets so others in the Manchester homeless community could attend.
McCarthy, who will turn 86 the day after Christmas, graciously welcomed guests and later passed out flyers announcing the luncheon but with his added flourishing signature and a handwritten "Thanks" on each.
McCarthy, a U.S. Navy veteran who served for two years at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese bombed it, said it made him angry when the city decided to no longer sponsor the annual holiday dinner. It was more than a dinner, he said, it was a social event, a time for the city's elderly to get together and party.
"Why take it away?" he asked. "This is the most important time of the year. Christmas is about giving and loving and when the city took it away, it angered me."
The crowd enjoyed a chicken or ham dinner. Singing Christmas carols and other songs was part of the festivities, not surprisingly since McCarthy has his on television show which focuses on music on public access Channel 23 that airs at noon on Wednesdays.
"When I was young I could hit the high C. Now, I'm lucky if I hit a B flat," he said.
But Tuesday afternoon, all that mattered was having a good meal, good conversation and a good time.