For a few weeks now, wedged in a booth pretending to mind my own business, I’ve spied a cozy circle of older gentlemen at a far corner of the dining room of the local Panera. During that time, employing my annoyingly curious reporter’s ear, I’ve lassoed comments that float into the ether.
Typically, the conversations are peppered with guffawing about the smoke-shrouded mountains, predictions on whether Broncos starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has a golden arm, and one affirmation that activated the trowel in my cluttered brain, turning the soil over multiple times: “God made strawberries to apologize for squash.”
That set a fruitful and festive tone for what followed. As I eavesdropped from a discreet distance, it became obvious that this crew was relaxed enough, secure enough, to let fly their opinions, rants, and bugaboos. The scenario plays out in an atmosphere where millennials queue and clutch their coffee and breakfast before dashing off to work. Watching the guys unfurl their emotional banners brought to mind a time-honored piece of gardening advice offered by Giuseppe Greenhouse, I believe: Always stop and smell the roses.
In this case, however, I didn’t spot any roses poking their petals from a cardboard box brimming with bright and beautiful tomatoes and cucumbers harvested from late-summer soil.
When at last the herd began to thin, I inched my way into their orbit to engage in a little prying. What’s the common denominator that lures them there like clockwork every week at the appointed time when the coffee is brewing and the baked egg souffles and fruit cups and oatmeal ride like the wind? High-school classmates, maybe? Retired ranchers – or life members of the American Legion? Members of the exclusive hole-in-one club at Twin Peaks Golf Course?
I got my answer from Ed McQueen. Rising from his spot at one of the five or six small tables pushed together to promote male bonding, McQueen “like Steve or Lightning,” he harrumphed, denoting an anthropomorphic stock car in the animated Pixar film Cars.
The entire group is connected through LifeBridge Christian Church on Highway 66. “I’ve only been coming a couple of years,” he added as his cohorts begin spying the tomatoes to take home as their farm-to-table souvenirs. “This is just a get together,” he added, emphasizing it’s not meant for Bible study. “We come to solve the world’s problems,” he quips, “but nobody’s listening.”
McQueen, 77, pastored the Rocky Mountain Christian Church from the time it opened in the quaint village of Niwot in 1984 until 2011. “We’re all older. I feel fine. The spirit is willing but the body is often pooped.”
Then there was Don Royer. At 70, the retired machinist is the baby of the group. “This is friendship with good people,” he confirms. “We talk about travels, local news, whatever comes up. We talk about how the Rockies are doing. I don’t give a hoot. And I don’t give a damn about the Broncos.”
Royer’s dad, Hal, 95, is also a regular. The Kansas native, who has lived in Boulder since 1961, “started out as a farm boy and ended up working at the Ball” – an aerospace plant in Boulder. “I went to a country school,” he recalled, holding a cane. “We had two rooms. It wasn’t a one-room school house. I rode a pony to school. When I tell my grandkids that, they say `yeah, right.’”
As goodbyes blanketed the room, Dick Herring popped into view. The 82-year-old grandfather of nine, who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from CU Boulder, said he’s the “original one still here,” as some of the guys have moved onto other local churches. Paring groups to smaller numbers, he acknowledges, fosters more male chatter. “Women tend to socialize a lot more than men. The old joke is women have 10,000 words to say a day, but husbands have a thousand.”
An outsider, sipping coffee in a nearby booth while mopping up all the banter, finally joined in the frivolity. “We’re herd animals. People are more comfortable when they’re with a herd … I’m a rebel without a cause.”
But Herring, who spent years helping poor countries improve their infrastructures through an all-volunteer group called Engineers Without Borders USA, couldn’t leave that remark alone. “No,” he said boldly, looking at the stranger squarely in the eye, “I had a cause.”
That’s it, I’m hooked. On a day when I feel especially bold, during one of those rare moments when I’m not using my reporter’s notebook as a barrier, this shameless interloper will request an application for `membership’ in the club.
Then again, what if I just show up?