I've never been much of a joiner, and I don't know why. If I were gilding the lily, I'd say it's due to my keen sense of individuality. More likely, however, I'm just an oddball who never fit into any groups.
Thus, for me to participate in a group activity, any group activity, is a rare thing, so rare there's only one noticeable exception: the annual Lions Club's veterans' dinner.
When I go, I always shlep a few friends with me, and this year was no exception.
The first person I asked was my pal Dave Riotto, a World War II U.S. Navy cook. (As a point of interest, Dave wrote a book about it, called "The Belly Robbers," and since he spent his entire life in publishing, I expected it'd be a good read. But he surprised me - it's a great read).
I ran into Dave and his charming wife, Marilyn, earlier in the week and asked him to go to the dinner with me, and he agreed. Then we chatted a bit and Marilyn, innocent that she is, asked if we were going to wear our dress blues.
We both burst into laughter.
"What's so funny?" she asked. "Don't you know where they are?"
"I know exactly where they are," I said.
"So why wouldn't you wear them?" she asked.
"For the same reason none of us will," I said. "Because we CAN'T."
"You mean, because it's illegal?"
"No," I said. "Because it's impossible."
Then both Dave and I explained how - surprising as it might've seemed - we're both a bit more, shall we say, "filled out" than we were in our days in uniform. So while the uniform has stayed the same size, we haven't.
"You mean you can't button the buttons?" asked Marilyn.
"Button them?" I said. "Hey, I can't even get my bellbottoms over my knees."
And on and on, laughing about things that in some ways are no laughing matters.
Three other Navy vets said they'd go, and Whispering Tom Dudones said he'd go, too, representing the Air Force. So it looked like we'd have three generations of Navy vets, among them, two women (a rare item to me, since I never saw a Wave the whole time I was in the Navy).
Alas, the best laid plans of mice and Dopes being what they are, it didn't turn out that way. Instead, the final tally for my crew was three, counting me. But any disappointment I had in the numbers was more than compensated for by good times.
The dinner started at 6:30, which, given my leisurely approach to both punctuality and dining, was when I left my house to pick up Whispering Tom. Of course, WT, having an even more leisurely approach, wasn't ready when I arrived.
I went into his house, passed his pair of barking but harmless curs, and shouted for him. He came out from the back of the house.
"What the hell are you doing?" I said, peeved at being kept from the feed bag and losing my legendary cool.
"Looking for my field jacket," he said.
"Your field jacket?" I asked, incredulous. "You think you can still fit into it?"
"I know I can," he said.
"You weigh the same as when you were in the service?" I asked.
"Of course not," he said. "But when it was issued to me it was three sizes too big."
He disappeared into the back of the house and a minute or so later reappeared, wearing his field jacket.
"See," he said, "it fits, heh?"
"Yes, it does," I said. "But do yourself and your ego a favor."
"Don't even attempt to zip it up."
He shrugged but not very broadly and we were off.
I know nothing about veterans' dinners other than the Lions', but I can tell you one immutable truth about it - when they say it starts at 6:30 (or if your prefer, 1830), it starts on the dot. When Tom and I got there, which was no later than 6:40, not only were we the last ones there, but everyone else had already been seated and was chowing down to their hearts' content.
We got a seat at the end of the room, right next to Dave and Marilyn, and had only a little time to chat before our meals arrived, artfully served by a team of Boy Scouts and members of the high school honor society. Of course, the Boy Scouts' wait staff had a major advantage since one of them's a ringer - Gianni Fontana, whose parents own my favorite eatery, the Blue Moon.
OK, so the service was fine, but what about the spaghetti? In a word, delicioso. Chef Dave Bodah acquitted himself admirably, so admirably that, in pursuing a career in electronics, he may have missed his true calling.
After dinner came the speeches - one by Frank Camelo and one by Judge Glover. Both were wonderful for two reasons: they were heartfelt and they were short.
Then it was time to go, and as I stood up, the strangest thing happened. I looked around the room and suddenly realized I knew almost no one else there.
It was the oddest feeling. Here I was, among a whole roomful of folks from My Home Town, and they were strangers to me.
For a long moment, I felt weird and alienated.
Then I realized, of course they're strangers, since the only thing we had in common was we're veterans.
And finally, I realized that was the only thing that mattered anyway.