Abe Milkis called the other day, asking if I wanted to have lunch with the last men of Gamma Lodge.
They're a fraternal group, he explained. He wasn't sure how they got their name.
"Some of the originals can tell you that," he said. "I'm one of the younger guys."
They meet the second Tuesday of each month in a private room at the Hilton on City Avenue, where between bites, they swap stories. Most had big adventures during the Second World War.
Bernie Mason was a member of the Ghost Army, which duped the Germans with sound machines and inflatable tanks. Leon Goldberg was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge. Milkis, whom friends call "Boomie," was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. "I landed in Normandy and 10 days later got shot by a sniper."
It's up to Marvin Ginsberg - a Ventnor, N.J., resident and, at 81, the baby of the group - to make the reservations. He never knows how many people are coming - a dozen, 14. On Tuesday, bandleaders Bobby Block and Marty Portnoy were AWOL - family health issues.
As promised, Lou Starkman kept the history. What began as a boys' club at Dimner Beeber Junior High School at the end of the 1930s evolved into a fraternity at Overbrook High School, hence the group's Greek handle.
In 1950, 10 of them met at the old Penn-Sherwood Hotel in University City to build an organization, each man bringing a friend. By the mid-'50s, the Gammas were 300 strong.
They were a charitable group, giving away clothes and gifts at the holidays, furnishing family rooms at local hospitals, handing out Man of the Year awards, honoring the likes of Mayor Joseph Clark and Channel 3's Taylor Grant. The singer Eddie Fisher showed up drunk.
The Gammas weren't big on formalities. Jerry Charen, who still practices law at age 86, recalls a treasurer whose reports contained no numbers. "When you'd ask him how much money we had in our account, he'd say, 'That's none of your business.' "
By the 1980s, the group was played out, many of the founders in bad health or worse. A few alums started gathering for lunch four years ago at the Tavern on Montgomery Avenue. The Gammas had life still.
"We just wanted to be together," said Ginsberg, who retired from the Shirt Corner, at Third and Market, and goes by "Mutty" because once there were too many Marvins.
The men took turns around the table swapping war stories. Goldberg, a CPA, painted his account of captivity by numbers: "At the Bulge, we were encircled. After three days we were out of ammo, out of food. Our lieutenant surrendered us to the Germans. It took us 13 days to get to prison camp, eight days marching, five days in a boxcar."
Mason told how he learned not to raise his hand after a drill sergeant asked if there were any artists in camp and the soldier spent two weeks painting garbage cans. But his background won him an invite to a force whose job was to fool the Germans about the Allies' formations.
"We were artists and actors," says the 92-year-old from Wynnewood, who graduated from Villanova at age 75. "We put on a show."
Other deceptions were discussed. Charen told how he couldn't get a pass to attend his sister's wedding, so he had to sweet-talk an MP who grabbed him at 30th Street Station.
"Does anyone know what AWOL means?" Mason offered.
Four men answered at once: "Absent Without Leave."
"Nope," Mason replied. "It's Absent Without Official Leave. Look it up on Google."
To which someone replied, "Is that Barney Google?"