The Tune Inn & Captain James

A Two-Way Lesson in Kindness

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It’s over a month since an era ended at The Tune Inn. It was the day James Forward – best known as “Captain James” – died. For over 15 years he, and he alone, occupied the bar stool at the end, up against the wall. He’d take up residency at around 8:00 a.m. and leave 12 hours later.

Don’t try to calculate how many shots of bourbon that amounted to. As for the dosh involved, forget it. Invariably his bill was settled by customers of the legendary Capitol Hill watering hole. As for eating? Only when an “on the house” plate appeared.

And all the time – unless he felt like conversing with a customer whose observations of life tallied with his – the Tune Inn’s very own “grumpy old man” would have his nose in a book. Never a quick-read paperback. Always nonfiction, about an historical event, military heroism, a biography of someone as weighty as the book itself. Not bad for a dyslexic guy with a sixth-grade education. How did he acquire such a library? The books, like so much in his Tune Inn life, came from customers.

Captain James repaid the kindness by displaying his own to a group far worse off than him. Every fourth Sunday he’d take up his “reserved” stool late. Because Captain James was a Rogue Saint. For 20 years the Rogue Saints have served brunch to hundreds of homeless a few steps from the Tune Inn, at the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. Captain James was a stalwart, helping collect, prep, and cook the food. He was recruited in the earliest days by the Saints’ founder, his good friend Phil Yunger (a Tune Inn regular). Captain James was particularly vital because of his ability to pull in the cash. His methods bore no relation to the profession of fundraising but were direct and on-the-spot. Tune Inn customers constantly ponied up, many of them becoming regular donors.

The moniker Rogue Saints suited Captain James well because that was what he was for most of his 73 years. He’d pretty much lived life all ways up. At 16 he joined the Marines, serving in Poland and Morocco as part of embassy security. Both of his marriages blew apart. After the military he had good jobs, including theatrical scene-building and news/documentary cameraman, but they never lasted. Homelessness always hovered. His son Colin was 15 years old when they first met, but Captain James managed to lose him again. It was many years, and thanks to the efforts of the Tune Inn gang, that the pair were reunited.

His memorial service was held where he dished up all those meals. Not in the sanctuary – pews and crucifixes were not his bag – but in the basement. The only hymn, “Amazing Grace,” fitted him well. As the opening line goes: “Amazing Grace / How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Over 200 people crowded in to say farewell to him, including 20 of the homeless he cared for.

His son Colin, who lives in Denver, struggled to get through his eulogy. The line that struck home was, “He wasn’t a good dad, but he was a damn fine person.”

Ex-Marine Mike Tate, the longtime cook at the Tune Inn, slightly altered a well-known poem to fit his old friend. It went in part: “James we all love you … in death, we love you still. In our hearts we hold a place that only you can fill …”

Bartender Stephanie Hulbert movingly summed up what Captain James and his Tune Inn family meant to each other. She revealed how shortly before his death he talked about how he was sure few, if any, would come to his funeral. How wrong he was. As Stephanie pointed out, “Look at what you have here, a sure sign and testament to the amount of love you shared on a daily basis!”

In the end his days were confined to the Tune Inn, just a short distance from where he lived. The legendary dive bar provided a refuge where he could not only look after his alcohol needs but save his electricity bill during the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer.

Through that long occupancy of the stool in the window he preached a mantra, “Do the right thing and take care of each other.” The saying was reprinted in his memorial service program. Happily for Captain James, many Tune Inn regulars have takn his advice to heart and served it up, to his benefit, in bucketfuls.

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