— The most eye-popping fireworks show nearest to this southern Minnesota town on July 4th will occur in nearby New Auburn, where a company called Hollywood Pyrotechnics will oblige thrill-seekers with kaleidoscopic spectacles of spinners, comets, crossettes and brocades.

That Hollywood “Pyro” is headquartered in Eagan should make the show no less glitzy than if it were based in its California namesake.

Yet whatever patriotism New Auburn will showcase with its aerial explosions on Independence Day, Steve Gillaspie arguably exceeds here in Arlington, every day of the year.

“I bleed red, white and blue,” he said.

Gillaspie, 71, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star among other commendations, spoke the other day while seated in Veterans Mess Hall, his yet-to-be-opened restaurant on Arlington’s Main Street.

Ammo boxes for 7.62mm rounds were on each table and will hold napkins and vials of salt and pepper when the restaurant debuts, post-pandemic. Along with what Gillaspie calls “signature dishes” that he believes will draw diners from as far as 50 miles away, Spam, a staple of World War II grunts on the front lines, will also be on the cafe’s menu.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business before and it’s the worst business you can get into,” Gillaspie said. “You have to be crazy.”

The founder of a 501(c)(3) group called Veterans on the Water (veteransonthewater.com), which offers free fishing trips to military veterans, Gillaspie is a dreamer, a workaholic and an inveterate seeker of fish.

But he isn’t crazy.

Born in Iowa, he grew up in St. Charles, Ill., alongside the Fox River. It was there he nurtured his love of angling, and he intends to use proceeds from Veterans Mess Hall, when it opens, to fund Veterans on the Water.

“That way we can get more veterans out fishing,” he said. “We take trips to lakes as far north as Winnibigoshish and Kabetogama.”

Gillaspie never finished high school. But when others his age did, in 1967, he figured he’d get drafted and sent to Vietnam. So he saved the Army the trouble and enlisted, leaving the part out on his application about skipping high school.

Attaining the rank of staff sergeant, and becoming an Army Ranger, he was assigned to the combat-prone 199th Light Infantry Brigade and did a year in-country before returning to St. Charles, where he kicked around for a while, working in a factory.

Gillaspie today in some ways is light years from his days in Vietnam. But in other ways, he’s never left, consumed as he remains by those formative times, and especially by the band of brothers — and sisters — he refers to, simply, as veterans.

“As a country we forget about our veterans,” he said. “I’m not talking about only combat veterans, which the media glorifies, but everyone who served in the military, whether they were stationed overseas or not. We’re all veterans.”

Recognizing early on in his post-Army days he didn’t like working for other people, Gillaspie became a serial entrepreneur. Owning, over time, nearly 30 small businesses, he eventually gravitated to the Twin Cities, where he settled into the commercial printing trade.

Seventeen years ago, lured in part by southern Minnesota’s pastoral ambience, Gillaspie and his wife moved to a farmstead about 5 miles outside of Arlington.

The rural setting proved ideal, beginning in 2015, for amassing, reconditioning and painting — red, white and blue, of course — the small fleet of pontoons and fishing boats that now serve as conveyances for Veterans on the Water fishing trips.

“It’s been really good, getting the veterans out fishing,” said Kerry Wuetherich, 63, a Veterans on the Water volunteer boat driver who lives in nearby Gaylord. “It feels good when you can help a fellow veteran bait a hook and go fishing. Some have been as old as 94.”

Offering a visitor a tour the other day of the Veterans on the Water armada, both completed and, in effect, in dry dock, Gillaspie highlighted the boats’ home-fashioned lift systems that help veterans who use wheelchairs board pontoons, as well port-a-potties, special steps and other angler-friendly conveniences.

Color-matched SUVs and a small bus stood at the ready to transport veterans and pull the boats to their lakeside destinations.

“Our next trip will be to Lake Minnetonka on July 11,” Gillaspie said. “Then, later in the summer, we’ve got 30 veterans going to Winnibigoshish and Kabetogama. Veterans who make the trips don’t pay anything. It’s all free.”

Of Gillaspie’s duties, including, still, operating his print shop, his least favorite is asking for money to support Veterans on the Water. Which is why he’s willing to return again to the restaurant business, believing that Veterans Mess Hall will in time be a meal ticket for Veterans on the Water.

“As I said, we’ll have good food, including, I guess, broasted chicken,” he said. “Everyone around here thinks broasted chicken is fabulous.”

 

dennis.anderson@startribune.com