They sat at what most consider the best winter table, the big Formica-topped booth in the sunlight at a coffee shop outside of Portland.

There were five of them, the slightest of them a thin man in a World War II veteran’s cap, sandwiched between two of the heavier ones. These were old guys, older than I am, and I fit perfectly into my mother’s favorite description of “no spring chicken.”

They had the skin and hands of men who had worked hard in their lives, probably in the factories, roofing and construction in Maine’s summer heat and numbing cold. They were clearly old friends and felt comfortable with one another. Of course they did. I have always felt as comfortable in the country of old men.

As a boy, I spent many a night at the feet of a posse of survivors, my father, uncles, and their friends, who shared that twilight hour after supper with one another, with the aroma of pork chops or fried chicken still floating in the air.

As a boy, I spent many a night at the feet of a posse of survivors, my father, uncles, and their friends, who shared that twilight hour after supper with one another, with the aroma of pork chops or fried chicken still floating in the air.

They were old friends and cousins sitting on the back porch with the last beer of the day, swatting mosquitos, munching toothpicks and sucking on the occasional cigar my mother would not allow in the house.

They were warriors who had survived the Spanish American War, the “Great War,” and the Great Depression. They had been shot, wounded, gassed and hobbled by frostbite and horse kicks.

They told great stories, these old men. They were my radio, my television and movies. They bought me bottles of Orange Crush, and let me sit among them and listen. I have often told my children that I have memories that don’t belong to me. They are the memories of others now long gone.

So I was, of course, intrigued by the camaraderie of this booth of old guys laughing and chatting. It brought back sharp and sweet memories. Hundreds of miles and many states and years apart, they were the same men. I moved into the booth behind them, opened my paper and eavesdropped.

They gossiped about politics of course, taxes, their grandchildren and the “sissies” who were still down in Florida. They spoke of cataracts, hip replacements, colonoscopies, funerals and weather — the chatter of the old.

Coffee cups were refilled, pastries shared, napkins crumpled and some gossip whispered followed by bursts of unanimous laughter. One of them, I noticed, kept rubbing his knee. I know that feeling. The man in the middle took out an envelope of snapshots. They were of his great-grandchildren in Texas, he said. They all took turns looking at them.

Then it changed. A latecomer arrived, a thick-bellied man with a slight limp. They all shouted at him, and he pulled up a chair and joined them. He had a surprise, he said.

He placed a cloth-covered tablet on the table and opened it up to reveal a new Apple iPad. His daughter had bought it for him for his birthday, he said, and said how it took him two weeks to learn how to use it.

A man at the next table, and his wife, came over to look at the new toy. They had smart phones with pictures of their grandkids as well, and showed them off.

But Mr. Late Comer clearly had the edge. Proudly he passed it around the table to great amazement. They all gathered around as he displayed his children, his grandchildren and the picture of a large dog.

Driving home, it occurred to me that what I had seen was an evolutionary snapshot. I remembered those old grade school pictures of early man amazing his clan with a flaming torch that lit up the caves and killed the darkness. He had discovered fire. His cave mates gathered around the flames as these coffee shop buddies did here, and these boys of radio and leather-covered family albums, sat there in the sunlight of the 21st century looking at the new fire.

And the beat goes on.

 


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