Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 11, 1982
They wait
Two veterans, their war long over, recall past

Report on: Last Man's Club

They paid $5.72 for the bottle of French cognac in the late '30s, and the liquor has increased in value considerably since then, if only because it represents a reward for the survivor of a strange death pact.

Thirty-one men gathered at the George A. Amole post of the American Legion in Pottstown in 1938, all of them veterans of World War I, survivors not only of the carnage but also of 20 difficult years since the armistice was declared Nov. 11, 1918. They formed the Last Man's Club.

Today, only two graying infantrymen remain. They are among the last of their kind - they still call today's holiday Armistice Day, although it has been renamed Veterans Day. The one who lives longest will get the bottle of cognac, and with it he will toast his fallen comrades.

"In our own minds, we felt pretty proud of ourselves," says Harry Ginther, 86, the elder of the pair. "We still do, that we served in World War I and came through it without being dead." He chuckles. "We're still alive today. You know what I mean?"

Funny how things happen. Most of them were about 40 when they formed the club, wrote the charter and agreed to meet once a year in October to renew their bond. At that time, the club was primarily a reason to have a party.

The cognac, 20 years old when they bought it and made from grapes grown about the time the truce was declared, was a symbol of the nation where they fought in the war to end all wars.

As the years passed and their numbers declined, their meetings became more ritualistic - not to mention more sedate. The cognac, as well as a 44-year-old bottle of Perrier water, have become symbols of their mortality.

The cognac, Ginther says, "is a reminder that man's put here to serve his time, and then he dwindles away. And he's long forgotten."

Ginther, formerly an Army corporal, is a retired accountant living in a nursing home outside Pottstown. The other survivor is Thomas Kaas, 82; he was 16 when he enlisted in the Army and had to lie about his age to get in. Kaas was a file clerk at a Pottstown manufacturing plant before he retired.

On Monday, they got together again in Ginther's room at Manatawny Manor, to recall the history of their club. Whose idea it was to start the club is clouded in hazy memories; they remember only that the idea was not original.

The first last-man's club was "started back in the Civil War days," Kaas says. "Now it's sort of died out, although there's a Last Man's Club in Pottstown from World War II."

"Yeah, but that's a Last Two Men's Club," Ginther says with a touch of disdain toward the youths who fought in World War II. "It's not a Last Man's Club."

"Yeah, yeah," assents Kaas.

"It's a Last Two Men's Club," continues Ginther. "They didn't want to be alone at the end. That's the cry they put out. They tried to get into ours, but we wouldn't let them in. World War II fellows. See, we're all World War I."

"Somebody's got to be last," says the younger of the two.

"Yeah," Ginther says. "Either he or I."

They talk for a while of the conflict, of how World War I veterans tend to be a tighter bunch because most of the men in each company came from the same hometown. There are more veterans of World War II, and the companies drew their members from all over.

They talk about having to walk into battle, rather than riding in Jeeps like those World War II infantrymen. They talk about their battles, which few people remember.

"You hear a lot of talk about World War II and about Korea and all that," Ginther says, "but you don't hear a lot about World War I."

"Yeah," Kaas says, "but that happened 65 years ago. People forget it. Only old goats like him and I remember it."

They talk about being wounded in action, and the respect that gives you for life. Kaas was shot in the leg by a bullet in July 1918, only to heal and be hit by German mustard gas on the day before the armistice. Ginther's leg was pierced by a fragment from a bomb, and the wound still gives him trouble.

A year ago, there were three of them at their meeting, but Devin Yerger, who was 88, died in May. And so, even a larger share of last month's regular meeting was devoted to memorials.

"We just ate and talked normally like other people would," says Ginther, a bit peeved at the question about the sparse meeting. "We just got together and had a meeting, because it was supposed to be. It was the third Monday of the month."

"The third Monday of October," Kaas clarifies.

"It started out as a night thing," the elder one continues, "but as we got older, we had to change it to day time. We didn't want to travel at night. We were afraid somebody would get us, I guess. We used to run out into the country at some country hotel and have a little girlie show, maybe. You know, one of those good get-togethers with a lot of booze."

"It was just a big party," Kaas adds. "None of us thought which was going to be the last man. . . . But when we got down to the four or five of us, we began to think, who is going to be the last man? I'm not sure which of us, but one of us is going to be the last man."

"It was sort of a commemorative thing we did," Ginther interjects. "You know what I mean? We had a eulogy we did at each meeting to those who died since the last meeting. And at each meeting, we had chairs that were draped in black. Empty chairs. And we addressed those chairs as if the people were attending the meeting. Understand?

"And we also had goblets, large goblets made with our names on them. On one side, if the goblet was standing in the correct manner, you read your name - Harry J. Ginther. If you turned it over, you read it just the same, except the goblet was upside down. What we do with the glasses now is we turn them all over except our two. We turned them over when they died. And they're all turned over, but ours.

"It was kind of a sad affair when you sat there during the service, 'cause the fellows, we were so closely knit together in that organization, the Legion. In the early days, we were just like brothers. It was more or less a sad affair. Then, when the service was over, all hell broke loose." Ginther laughs. "We had some good times and we had some bad times, too."

"Yeah," Kaas adds, "when somebody especially close to you passed away - you know what I mean. You know how it is."

"So, here we are," says Ginther. "We kept it together."

Conversation returns to the cognac, an aging treasure in a ceramic bottle shaped like a French canteen. As it happens, Kaas stopped drinking 12 years ago. Ginther doesn't drink much himself, and besides, he doesn't care for cognac.

Even so, the cognac is compensation, in a sense. For when the last man dies, there will be no one there to deliver a eulogy, no one to talk to his empty chair, no one to turn over his goblet.

Ginther died in October, 1986, a few days after the annual club meeting. Kaas died nine months later. He bequeathed the unopened cognac to the American Legion post. home page   
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