The diner itself probably dated from the mid-fifties or sixties and had not seen many upgrades since then. The same could be said for the assortment of employees and customers in attendance. Looking in from the sidewalk, through the foggy windows with the specials of the day that were written boldly in washable paint, it looked like an everyday business that was doing a steady trade.
I pushed open the outer metal door and then an inner wood door, passing through what served as a transition zone – in the winter to keep the warmth in and during the summer to keep the heat out. There was one seat left at the far end of the counter, closest to the restrooms and payphones. Seated at the counter and facing the kitchen with the food pass through and shelf, I could watch as the cook moved back and forth over his grill and griddle. This seating position is not optimal for many reasons, not the least of which is that you cannot see what is happening behind you or the people coming in the door. Besides the long counter and seats, there were several booths clad in faded red vinyl with a variety of odd shaped patches and repairs evident. Seemingly, out of character, a single large round table with seating for eight was positioned in the far corner from where I sat.
Sitting at the counter with a steaming cup of black coffee that immediately appeared in front of me, I thought, what could possibly be better on a bitter bone-chilling winter day. I read through the single sheet, two-sided menu, all text and no pictures – pretty much standard grill and fry food offerings. When the waitress reappeared with her order pad, out of habit and in deference to my paranoia of the first meals in new eateries, I asked for two eggs over easy, ham steak, hash browns, and wheat toast. I thought this was safe, yet still a hearty meal for a hungry man.
While I waited for the cook to put together my breakfast, I glanced down towards the round table and started to take in the five men that were seated there. They were deep in conversation over cups of coffee and remnant dishes from recent meals. Above them hung a cloud of blue-gray smoke just barely moving in the draft of the heater vent. The indistinct murmur of their voices increased in volume when the laughter started. Now, I was wishing I had sat at the other end of the counter in close proximity to the table. My curiosity was insatiable under most conditions and these people were definitely piquing my interest. Looking over my shoulder, I could see that two of the booths were occupied, one with a man and woman sitting on one side of the booth and the other by what appeared to be three businessmen, judging by their suits and ties. The round table discussions continued and my imagination was starting to go into overdrive about that group.
My breakfast arrived with a fresh refill of coffee, water, and a selection of packaged jellies for the toast. The waitress’ name was Earla, according to her name tag. I offered my thanks and then before I realized what I was doing, I blurted out, “What is the story with the round table and those men? They seem to be having a fine time.”
“Honey,” Earla replied, “That table has been there for over thirty-five years. Over time, some of the men have passed on and new ones have joined. Recently, the group has consisted of about twelve to fifteen men. We are open from five in the morning until midnight every day of the year. The guys come and go as they please, but there are usually at least two or three in residence at any given time and often the table will fill with extra chairs drawn near.”
“Maybe I’ll sit in next time and get to know them. They seem to be having a great time.” I said.
“Oh, Honey, you do not want to do that. It is a reserved table and membership, if you can call it that, is by invitation only.” Earla replied with a smile. “Besides, that group is called the ‘War Council’. None of us really understands all that goes on with that table or the agendas they talk and argue about.”
As I wiped the remaining egg yolk off the plate with the last piece of toast, I was filled with not just curiosity but a burning need to learn more. War Council, huh?
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