Charlie sat in the diner on his usual stool at the end of the counter just like he did every Saturday morning for the past four years. With a half- finished omelet, some home fries on his plate and a lukewarm cup of coffee, he sat there with his hands folded, twiddling his thumbs.
“Everything ok over here, Charlie?”
Judy, a waitress, asked. He nodded without looking up from his hands. He didn’t smile much.
Charlie was an 81- year old man who had been through a lot. He joined the Air Force at the age of eighteen and fought over seas. He had seen many of his friends die for their country and he was lucky enough to come back alive. He then married the love of his life whom he had meet in high school and she waited for him to come back from war to get married. They had four beautiful children together, two of which were still alive. The other two were killed in battle as they followed in their father’s footsteps by joining the military. After coming back from the war and starting a family, Charlie spent most of his time working at a local tire factory or coaching one of his kid’s sports teams. As the years went on, Charlie and his wife, Rose, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary together surrounded by friends and family. They had grown to be parents, grandparents, and great- grandparents. Things changed for Charlie two years ago when Rose passed away. It was a sad time for Charlie being that he had lost so many of his friends in battle, two of his sons, and now his wife. Still, he never missed a day of coming to the diner, just as he and Rose did every Saturday morning.
Charlie caught Judy’s attention behind the counter and tapped the top of his coffee cup, gesturing for her to top off his drink. As she poured his coffee, the bell on the door rang as someone opened and in walked a young boy, probably about nine years old. He sat down at the counter leaving an open stool between himself and Charlie. Judy went up to him and asked what she could help him with.
“I’m here to pick up an order for my mom.” he said.
Judy went over to the cash register and looked through some ticket slips.
“Last name Miller?” she asked.
The boy nodded and Judy told him that it would be another ten minutes.
The boy sat there tapping his hands on the counter while looking around the diner. He looked over at Charlie who was finishing up his home fries. The boy noticed Charlie’s hat on the counter next to him. It was navy blue with gold embroidery reading “U.S. Air Force” and had a picture of a plane on it with a few pins on it. He looked at the hat, and then Charlie, then again at the hat, and back to Charlie. Out of the corner of his eye, Charlie saw the boy looking at him. He took a sip of coffee and turned his head towards the boy.
“Do you still fly planes?” the boy asked.
Charlie set his coffee cup down and turned to the boy.
“Not anymore kid. I served my time.”
“Oh. Well it’s cool hat. I like the pins.” the boy said without breaking his gaze on the hat. “How many planes did you fly?”
Clearly the boy wasn’t going to stop the conversation. Charlie took a deep breath in, “Well what they do is assign you a plane, and sometimes they’ll switch you to another, but I kept mine for quite some time. I flew a total of six planes.”
“Wow. So can you still fly them?”
“Oh I don’t know. Maybe. Might be a bit rusty after all this time.”
“Why? How old are you?”
“I’m 81, son. Name’s Charlie.”
“Oh. I’m Billy. I’m nine years old. I’m going to join the military someday just like my big brother.”
“Oh are you now? Well good luck with that.” Charlie turned back to his plate.
“What’s the Air Force like, Charlie?” Billy asked. He moved over on to the seat next to Charlie.
“Well Billy…” and then Charlie went on to talk about his life serving in the Air Force and then started to talk about his family and what he’s gone through. Charlie told Billy about how his sons and wife passed away, how he worked in a tire factory, and how he was a great-grandfather. Billy was all ears listening and didn’t take his eyes off Charlie the whole time he talked.
“Here you go Mr. Miller. Sorry for the wait. That’ll be $8.19”
Judy came over and set down a styrofoam container in front of Billy. Charlie got up and walked to the bathroom.
Billy said and he handed her a twenty-dollar bill.
“This is for Charlie’s breakfast too.” he added.
“Well that’s very nice of you.” Judy said. Charlie came back and Billy hopped off his stool.
“Hey Charlie if I come in next Saturday will you be here?” Billy asked.
“Can you tell me more about the war and flying planes then?”
“Sure thing, kid. You have a good day now. Enjoy your breakfast.”
“Thanks Charlie. You have a good day too. See you next Saturday.” Billy said as he walked out the door.
Charlie sat there staring at his empty plate and once again folded his hands and twiddled his thumbs.
“Nice kid, huh?” Judy asked as she came over to take his plate.
“Yeah. Nice to see there’s still some good kids in this bunch. I’ll take the check whenever you’re ready, Judy.”
Charlie reached for his wallet in his back pocket.
“Oh don’t worry about it Charlie, your little friend already paid for it.”
Charlie smiled and put his wallet back. This was the first time he was happy and felt appreciated since Rose had passed away. It was also one of the few times Judy had seen Charlie smile.
Following his usual Saturday routine, Charlie left the diner and went over to the cemetery to visit Rose’s grave. He told her about how Billy paid for his meal and how he was so interested in the Air Force and Charlie’s life. He told Rose that their children, grandchildren, and great- grandchildren were all doing all right and then he went home.
The next Saturday, Charlie sat at the same stool and ordered the same breakfast just as he did the week before. Not long after he finished his first cup of decaf, Billy walked in the door. An older man followed the boy, maybe a few years younger than Charlie and they both sat down next to him.
“Hi Charlie. This is my grandpa, George. He was in the Air Force too. Grandpa this is Charlie. I talked to him last week about the war and he flew six planes.”
George stuck his hand out,
“Nice to meet you Charlie. Billy has been telling me about your war stories. I went through a lot of the same stuff.”
“Nice to meet you too, George.”
The two men talked all through breakfast, exchanging stories about the war and their lives. Billy sat in the middle of them looking up at each war veteran as they talked. He didn’t talk, just listened and watched as the old men bonded over their pasts. For the next year, George and Charlie would meet at the same diner in the same stools and exchanged stories or just talked. This was exactly what Charlie needed after his best friend, Rose, had passed away. Charlie was very thankful that Billy had introduced him and George and neither George or Charlie skipped out on a Saturday breakfast for the next year and sometimes they would go visit their wives together at the cemetery.
One Saturday morning, Charlie did not show up for breakfast, which George found to be strange. He continued on with his meal thinking that maybe Charlie was late getting to the diner. By the time he had finished his breakfast, Charlie still hadn’t shown up and George asked Judy if she knew where his friend was. She slid the local newspaper down the counter towards him with the obituary section open. George couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Charlie’s obituary on the page. He read the blurb under his picture and at the end of the paragraph he saw his own name and focused in on the sentence. “He is also survived by his good friend George, whom he has shared many a Saturday morning breakfasts’ with.” George smiled and closed the paper. He paid the bill and walked out the door. The diner would never feel the same without Charlie’s presence.
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