By Suzy Kridner
New Smyrna Beach - You may have seen them in the Indian River Village shopping center. A group of men sitting on the porch in front of the New Smyrna Steakhouse. It's not an infrequent gathering.
Every morning, seven days a week, while drinking coffee from brown mugs, the men are discussing the day's news - and reminiscing about the past.
The topics can range from sports to world news and local affairs. On a recent Friday, the rising cost of college tuition was one topic, as well as the student loan problem.
Rarely does the conversation include religion or politics (well more than some would like) but never sex.
"What's that?" asked one of the group of nine that met on the porch recently.
About 50 men are members of the informal group that refer to themselves as the "Steakhouse Gang" or the "Veterans Gang." Not everyone shows up every day. Some have already left for their summer homes up north. Others who are fulltime residents of the New Smyrna Beach area may miss a morning for a doctors' or other appointments.
They tell tall tales about the past, talk about the "real" wars, and share jokes they've printed from the Internet.
The group used to meet at Publix's coffee pot near the front of the store. But when it was remodeled about seven years ago, the Steakhouse manager let them gather next door.
Almost all of the men are veterans, some serving in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Only one of the group that day didn't have military service but Dave Miller had served in another capacity, coaching and teaching for 30 years at Oviedo High School.
Harry Land, the unofficial leader, said he played professional baseball 14 years in the Chicago Cubs chain. Showing a baseball card of him with Joe DiMaggio taken in 1943, Mr. Land, who turns 90 this month, said about the card, "you can get a cup of coffee with this but be sure you have the $2."
That picture was "photoshopped," joked one of the group.
Mr. Land showed off his five broken fingers, now permanently deformed, that he got as a baseball catcher.
After the war, Mr. Land said he continued to play ball until a serious beaning curtailed his career. Mr. Land said he then scouted for several major league teams and worked 35 years for a beverage distributor.
Jimmy Hebert, a waiter at the Steakhouse and a member of the gang, sticks his head out the door to check on his friends. He makes the coffee by 9 a.m. when they arrive to gather until around 11 a.m.
"I've been hanging with them since Day 1 when they pulled the old Publix down," Mr. Hebert said. "They come 365 days, even Christmas Day."
When asked if the wives were happy their spouses had somewhere to go every morning, "You know they are," said Henry Freeman, a longtime salesman for the Mormort Co.
That's one of the reasons they meet, to talk man talk.
"If you don't like to get insulted, you're in the wrong place," said Mr. Land.
Occasionally, they take their wives to lunch at the Steakhouse, where Mr. Hebert waits on them.
"Usually the last Friday of the month," said Dave Miller, who's from Wisconsin.
"When we have lunch, we toast the members who have left us," said Nick Dounias, a retired airline attendant.
One time, a woman passing by figured out they were veterans by their conversation and some of their attire with military insignias on them.
She said she was grateful for their military service "so she threw a $100 bill on the table for us to go to lunch," said Mr. Land.
On a recent Friday, Lee Johnson, who's the oldest at 92, was wearing a hat with the 517 Parachute Regimental Combat group on it.
"I jumped into France at 4:30 a.m. Aug. 15 (1944), part of Operation Dragoon."
Research shows that his outfit endured some of the heaviest fighting of the European campaigns, from Italy, through the invasion of Southern France, then the bitter winter in the Ardennes (in the Battle of the Bulge) and the final thrust into Germany.
Mr. Johnson said, "Sometimes we embellish and exaggerate but we always deal in reality."
He wasn't the only one wearing a hat with his military outfit on it.
Earl Tingle Jr., 67, was a career army veteran and served in Vietnam. He said he's also very proud of his late father, a Coast Guard veteran and three-term mayor of Edgewater.
"The residence hall at the Coast Guard station in Ponce Inlet is dedicated to my dad," Mr. Tingle said.
Another member of the group was working that Friday.
"Our mascot and honorary member is Mike White, 49, a bagger at Publix," Mr. Land said. "When he's not working, Mike is with the gang."
Others at the table were Nat Wells from Pennsylvania, who worked with heavy trucks before he retired, and Ralph Spinelli, a former New York investment manager.
As the conversation was winding down, Dick Hobert, who is retired from the printing business, was the first to leave. "Guess who we're going to talk about now?" one of the group said.