NEW CUMBERLAND - In a spartan meeting room furnished with a single table, four chairs and red-white-and-blue table settings, four elderly men raised shot glasses and listened as one of them read the solemn words of a well-worn toast:
"To us here, to our departed there, until we meet once more in fellowship!"
In that instant, the fellowship of 58 years and the camaraderie that only shared military service can bring united the four remaining members of the New Cumberland Last Man's Club.
A TOAST — Last Man’s Club members, from left, John Kuzio, Don King, Kenneth “Pat” Kessel and Charles Byrne offer a toast to their departed comrades on Monday at the Adam Poe VFW Post 3526 in New Cumberland. The four remaining members still get together once a year on Veterans Day to keep the traditions of the 58-year-old club. -- Stephen Huba
The World War II veterans paused a moment, then put down their glasses, whereupon Kenneth "Pat" Kessel exclaimed, "That was smooth."
Kessel, 85, of New Manchester, John Kuzio, 93, of New Cumberland, Charles Byrne, 85, of New Cumberland, and Don King, 86, of Crystal River, Fla., formerly of Toronto, Ohio, are the last surviving members of a Last Man's Club that started in 1955 with 55 members. Each year, they gather on Veterans Day to conduct club business, reminisce, eat and drink, and remember the club members who have gone on before them.
On Monday, they gathered again at the Adam Poe VFW Post 3526 in New Cumberland for their annual ritual meal.
"It's kind of nice that the four of us are still standing. We're all in fairly good health," Kessel said. "I'm just glad to see the other three ... and I think about the guys we used to know when we had 55."
As outgoing president, Kessel led the meeting, which started with beers on the house at the VFW bar and then moved upstairs for the meeting proper. The men, all wearing suits and ties, exchanged pleasantries and then got down to business.
First, the invocation: "Our heavenly father, bless us as we meet together once again among familiar friends. Help us to feel the spirit of good fellowship as we partake in this meeting together. Amen."
After the toast, the men sat down to a meal of salad, wedding soup, rolls, lasagna and pie - all prepared by Faith Buffington, of New Cumberland, who has been cooking for the Last Man's Club for seven or eight years.
The election of officers came later, followed by more fellowship. The presidency goes to the next-oldest member, so, in 2014, King will be president.
Kessel said he got nervous when, earlier this year, he tried to call King in Florida but got a recording saying the number was disconnected. "I thought, 'Uh, oh, we lost another one,' " Kessel said. He finally reached King on his cellphone.
The veterans last said goodbye to a member in January 2009, when Chester "Chet" Spilecki, 83, of New Cumberland, died. Just two months before, although suffering from poor health, Spilecki insisted on coming to the Last Man's Club meeting via ambulance.
"I just thank the good Lord," King said, reflecting on his status as one of the last men in the club. "You don't worry about it. You just hope and pray that each year the same guys will be back."
"I take it one year at a time," Byrne said.
The 55 founders of the Last Man's Club all qualified for membership by their military service during World War II. Many of them already knew each other socially through membership at the VFW.
The occasion of the first meeting, held at the Fort Pitt Inn, was the 1955 football game between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh. Since then, meetings have been held at venues in Weirton, Steubenville, East Liverpool and elsewhere. At one time, when the club was large, two or three cooks were needed to prepare the meal, and club dues covered the cost of meal preparation.
"This room used to be filled," Kessel said.
"We miss a bunch of good guys," King said.
Kuzio, the oldest of the four, said he hasn't missed a meeting in all these years.
"That's a lot of meetings," Kessel said.
Mostly, Kuzio said, "I feel fortunate that I survived 33 months in New Guinea."
During the war, Kuzio served in the Pacific theater as a staff sergeant with the Army Air Force Ordnance Corps. Kessel served on the U.S.S. General A.E. Anderson, a troop transport ship that operated in the Pacific in the waning days of World War II. Byrne was stationed with the Army in Alaska - he re-enlisted for a stint with the Navy in Korea - and King served as a gunner's mate, third class, in the Navy in the Pacific.
Not surprisingly, the Last Man's Club has a ritual for the member who is the last man standing. It requires him to make a toast with a 1955 bottle of champagne that the club has kept in storage.
On Monday, that solitary bottle sat unopened, as the men had beer with their Veterans Day meal.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)