Every Thursday, a group of men gather at the Weswal Cafe in Tamworth, at the foot of the Oxley Lookout.
Collectively they’ve got almost a millennia of life experience, with an average age of 90.
They call themselves The Optimist Club – a tongue in cheek name, because “at our age, we’ve got to be optimistic we’ll be here next week”.
They sing out greetings in between bites of toast and sips of coffee, and you can physically feel the warm exuding from the members as they greet each newcomer – particularly if it’s someone who’s making their return from sick leave.
And if one of them doesn’t show up, they’ll be sure to get a call from another member, making sure they’re OK.
It’s a joyful atmosphere, filled with jokes (both good and bad), laughter and good-natured banter.
The baby of the group “by 20 plus years”, John Rouvray, summed it up perfectly when he quoted Yogi Berra, a baseball player famous for his paradoxical statements: “It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much”.
“There’s no rules, but you’re not allowed to be negative,” Mr Rouvray said.
“They’re all optimistic, given their ages, that they’ll be here next week. It’s something they look forward to every week, they have a reason to get out of bed and chat to their mates. It’s like a men’s shed without the tools.”
They’re men of all different backgrounds – farmers, bankers, pilots, a theatre manager and a solicitor just to name a few. And after getting together for the better part of two decades, they know just about everything there is to know about each other.
“Well, all that we want to divulge anyway,” founding member Dick Hays chuckled.
The other rule that’s not a rule, is that on your birthday, you shout everyone coffee. When The Leader dropped in, it just so happened to be Bill Graham’s 90th birthday the following day.
“Happy birthday Bill…. I hope you get there tomorrow,” Doug Campbell calls out, as the group bursts into laughter.
A former lawyer and mayor of Tamworth, Mr Campbell, was at the very first meeting that established the Tamworth Rugby Club.
“I remember only 10 blokes showed up,” the 93-year-old recalls.
The club’s “unofficial noisy chairman” Dick Howard calls everyone to attention, entertaining them with a poem dedicated to Mr Graham and his recently acquired “hot wheels” (his mobility scooter).
“He still thinks he’s 19, not 90, the way that he speeds,” Mr Howard said.
Nevell McDonald, who is the oldest member of the group, just celebrated his 102nd birthday, and is quick of wit and lucid of mind. He’s a life member of the Tamworth City Bowling Club and still goes down there twice a week.
Recently, Mr McDonald’s doctor asked him for his medical history
“I don’t have one,” he replied drily, with a cheeky grin.
Other than getting his appendix out as a kid and a horse accident in the late 1930s that left the teen-aged Mr McDonald with a broken back, he’s had a clean bill of health.
There’s Russell Godden – or Russ as he’s known around the table – who was a bomber in World War II. He was recently awarded the French Legion of Honour medal.
Despite it being the highest honour the French government can bestow on a non-French citizen, Mr Godden is a humble man, and insists there were others that did far more than he. While Mr Godden is not one to glorify war – he doesn’t march on Anzac Day, which he believes has become a celebration of something “that should never be celebrated” – he did take his medal in to show his fellow Optimists.
Mr Godden said the best flying he ever did was after the war, returning British Prisoners of War home to England.
“These fellows were scruffy, they hadn’t had time to get cleaned up, and they had pitifully little luggage,” he said.
They’ve each got a story that deserves it’s own feature length article – Cyril Hunter was a Rat of Tobruk with the British Army, while Syd Howard just got back from the Outback Car Trek, the 3500km bush bash around Australia to raise money for the Rural Flying Doctor Service.
Once you get to their age, no topic is off limits. While The Leader was there, they spoke about the drought and desperate need for rain, and about the future of the live sheep export industry, which of course led to a discussion on vegetarians and vegans.
The embattled local member Barnaby Joyce came up once or twice.
Isobel and Sandy Allan have been the club’s host for well over a decade, and know their orders off by heart – “they never change their order”, Mrs Allan said with a giggle.
“When you see them all together having a laugh, it gives you a good feeling, it really does,” Mr Allan said.
“We have youngsters come in, and they can’t help but overhear what they’re talking about – and they’re fascinated by the conversation, they’ve never heard it before.
“Some of it is stories about the war. Others are about days long gone by – Nevell had a good one the other day. He said in the Great Depression, they often went to bed hungry unless dad caught a fish or a rabbit.”
Ms Allan said despite all these years, the group continues to amaze her – even if they do tell the occasional risque joke.
“Sometimes they’re telling a joke and they see me coming out, so they stop,” she said, laughing.
“I wouldn’t mind growing old if I’m as sharp as them. It really is the highlight of their week. And if someone doesn’t come, there’s usually a good reason.”
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