Sunday, June 30, was the last night at the Kaikohe RSA. Reporter Peter de Graaf joins the regulars for a final drink and asks them what they'll miss most.
Fergie can't recall when he started coming to the Kaikohe RSA.
Seven nights a week, every week of the year, he'd call in for a few beers, maybe a round of pool, a ciggie or two in the courtyard, some laughs with old mates and a bit of friendly ribbing.
He shrugs when I ask him how long he's been the club's most regular regular.
"Who's been counting?" Fergie replies.
At that point another patron chimes in: "Since 1971". It's not clear if that's a genuine answer or more pub banter.
Earlier I asked bar staff to point out the regulars. They all pointed to the man with the face permanently crinkled in laughter and wearing a fleece top which is high-vis and camouflage at the same time.
I ask Fergie — it comes as a great surprise to everyone that Fergie has a name other than Fergie, which is Wayne Ferguson — what brings him to the RSA night after night, and where he'll go after bar staff lock up for the last time tonight.
"I come for the company, for the staff, for the friendship. And after this place has closed … I'll worry about that tomorrow."
I ask him if he feels sad.
"F***ing oath mate, everybody feels sad about tonight. But it had to happen. Financially it can't carry on. It's nationwide, eh."
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And Fergie's right. Around the country RSAs are struggling under a tide of rising costs and falling membership. The old soldiers are dying out and the new ones aren't joining up.
Some clubs, like Paihia, have managed to reinvent themselves; others, like Whangārei, have got lucky and found themselves sitting on a real estate gold mine.
But most find themselves in a quandary like Kaikohe's. The club owns a sprawling building built for another era, a car park the size of a small European country, and a function centre for hire which means it has to pay full commercial rates.
There's not much change from $100,000 once the annual rates, insurance and maintenance bills have been paid. Even a bar full of Fergies every night wouldn't have saved the Kaikohe RSA.
Neil MacMillan joined the RSA when he got back from Vietnam in 1971.
When the Waimate North, Ōkaihau and Kaikohe branches amalgamated a few years later he put his hand up to be the committee's Ōkaikau representative. Later, from 2009-13, he became club president.
Tonight he's reading the Ode to the Fallen for the last time. It's even more poignant than usual as the lights are dimmed and patrons bow their heads.
In Kaikohe the Ode is read first in te reo Māori, then in English. No one can tell me how long they've been doing that and I suspect they can't imagine doing it any other way. The Kaikohe RSA is genuinely bicultural without making a song and dance about it. It just is.
Then MacMillan thanks the staff and patrons and excuses himself because he has a long drive home to Utakura Valley.
Before he goes he tells me the Kaikohe RSA used to be down Mangakahia Rd. The club's current building at the top of Broadway was originally the DB Northland Hotel, one of the last big brewery-owned pubs built in New Zealand.
When the hotel went under in the mid-1990s the RSA bought it ''basically off the receivers''.
For years the bar was packed to the gunnels and the function centre was the best and biggest place in town for wakes, club get-togethers and quiz nights.
But the writing was already on the wall earlier this year when the number of paid-up members dropped from more than 500 to 350.
In June the committee held a ballot asking members for authority to explore all possible options, including selling the building.
''It's sad but I wanted us to make the decision while we can still pay the bills, rather than wait until someone else took over and made the decision for us,'' MacMillan says.
''It's not just about this club. All these big drinking places are past their use-by date. It's a sign of the times.''
Future options include buying smaller premises elsewhere in town, finding an investor who'll buy the building and lease part of it back to the RSA, or joining forces with the bowling club. Or it could join the ranks of RSAs around the country which survive without a building of their own.
Until a buyer is found, however, there's little point making plans. All members can do now is wait.
A happy man
The title of Kaikohe RSA's oldest soldier used to belong to Korean War veteran Noel Shapleski, who was 94 when he passed away in April, just a week shy of Anzac Day. His funeral notice is still on display behind the bar.
Tonight that title has passed to 82-year-old Navy veteran Des Walker.
''I never thought I'd be the oldest,'' he muses.
Originally from Taranaki, Des ended up in Kaikohe because his wife is Ngāpuhi. They lived in Otahuhu before heading north so he's ''only'' been a regular at the Kaikohe RSA for the past 16 years.
Des was on board the Navy frigate HMNZ Rotoiti in 1957 when New Zealand servicemen were used as human guinea pigs during Operation Grapple, Britain's nuclear tests at Christmas Island in what is now Kiribati.
He recalls being issued with protective clothing, then ordered to stand on deck with the rest of the crew as the bomb was dropped from an aircraft.
When he was allowed to turn around he saw a vast and ominous mushroom cloud climbing into the sky. It's a sight he'll never forget.
In 1958 he was on board the frigate Pukaki for another hydrogen bomb test.
''The first time we were given goggles and anti-flash suits. The second time we were almost down to our underpants,'' Des says. Four members of the Kaikohe RSA were veterans of Operation Grapple. Des, who suffered no ill effects and remains irrepressibly cheerful, is one of two still alive.
''I'm one of the lucky ones, a lot of my mates have gone. I'm happy. I've got four girls, four sons-in-law, 10 grandchildren, and about 12 great-grandchildren. And I've got my beer, and I can still drink some of these guys under the table.''
Friendship and safety
When I ask patrons what keeps bringing them back to the RSA the word "friendship" comes up most often. There's also praise for the staff and a few mention the food: ''Where else will I be able to get a platter big enough to feed six people for $25,'' one patron laments.
But I'm surprised by how often the word "safe" comes up. It's a place, I'm told, where you can let your guard down, have a few drinks and not worry about who's behind you.
That's certainly the case for the three Kaikohe cops in the bar tonight. You won't often see off-duty police in pubs because they bump into too many of their regular clients. That doesn't lend itself to a relaxing night out.
Senior Sergeant Ian Row, a police officer for 25 years and an RSA member for 23, says the RSA is different.
"The RSA is somewhere ex-service men and women can relax among people who understand the stresses and the environment they come from," he says.
"One of the biggest things you can do about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is to talk about what you've seen and done. If you can discuss these things in an environment where your experience is respected and understood, it can go a great way to dealing with the issue. That's why the RSA is important."
Row says he feels "deep sadness" that tonight is the club's last night.
"But I know it will reopen somewhere else and it will be fantastic for Kaikohe," he says.
Last part of the journey
Club vice-president Geoff Smith is also feeling sad.
''Looking at the people coming in, knowing it's the last part of the journey for the club … That's pretty difficult, to be honest."
It's a pity every night wasn't as busy as tonight, Smith says as he surveys the crowded tables and leaners where 750ml bottles of Lion Red jostle for space with plates and elbows.
But there's no single reason for the decline of the RSA, he adds.
Spiralling costs, declining patronage, drink-driving laws, cheap alcohol sales at supermarkets and off-licences – all those factors, and more, have conspired to end an era.
"There's no winners tonight. The staff have lost their jobs, the members have lost their establishment. But we look forward to the day we build it all back up again.''