The Girl Watchers Club is the title of a 2004 book by Harry Stein and it is not what you might think. The subtitle of the book is Lessons from the Battlefields of Life which is an accurate description of the contents. It is a book well worth reading no matter what your age is. I first came to know of it through an excerpt in the AARP magazine and immediately put it on my reading list though it was several years before I got around to it.
The Girl Watchers Club is the name of an informal group of men in their late seventies to late eighties who have been meeting regularly for lunch for the better part of four decades.( The name of the club was coined in a moment of whimsy; the Girl watchers may enjoy looking at girls but have a respect for women that is as charming as it is rare today). These men who live in the Bay Area, were born in different parts of the country ( Texas, Oregon, Montana, Arkansas etc.), practiced a variety of professions( college professors, divorce lawyer, fighter pilot), follow different religions and have political leanings ranging from staunchly conservative to diehard liberal. What they share is a Depression-era upbringing and their service in World War II, experiences that molded their character and led to successful lives and long , happy marriages. This does not mean their lives have been free of tragedy but they have weathered their setbacks with grace and fortitude. Their long familiarity leads to no-holds barred conversations in which no topic is off limits and which are only possible because of their affection for each other. The author Harry Stein is the son-in-law of John Turner Jr. (” Moe”), one of the regulars, and he gives us fascinating portraits of six of the Girl Watchers by sitting in on their meetings, and with some in-depth interviews and one-on-one conversations.
To me, the most admirable of these men is Boyd Huff ( b.1915). Huff fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was taken prisoner and survived a German POW camp. Stateside after the war, he taught history for thirty two years at the Naval Postgraduate School and wrote classified reports for naval intelligence. His first wife, whom he had married before going off to war, died of Alzheimer’s after a long illness through which he lovingly tended her. Of their three children, one died early, another was killed in a gun-related accident when a teenager and the third , a son Jerry, became a schizophrenic. One of the most moving chapters in the book is when the author accompanies Huff on a visit to meet Jerry, now a 55 year old, at the halfway group home where he now lives. Huff lived through all these tragedies and continued with his other activities which included sailing competitively and winning races when he was in his eighties. When he was eighty four , he met, fell in love with and married Beverly, a vivacious widow more than twenty years younger than him. A remarkable, remarkable man.
The other Girl watchers are also admirable , each in his own way. The book begins with a meeting held immediately after 9/11. When most of us were still reeling from the shock of the attacks, these men display an unflagging confidence in the future. No pessimism here, just a clear-eyed assessment of events and a desire for settling scores. At this meeting and in later conversations they exhibit those virtues which were a hallmark of The Greatest Generation. Love of Country, a strong work ethic, a sense of duty, a commitment to family , innate decency and respect for women and a sense of purpose and optimism.
Unlike today’s youth, the Girl Watchers led unstructured lives as kids and the freedom they enjoyed led to an intense creativity and independence. They returned from their WW II service with a strong desire to make up for lost time. Going to college on the GI Bill, they completed their education, started their careers and families often at the same time. It must have been incredibly difficult but they somehow did it . As a result, they grew up to be well rounded adults free of the selfishness of the baby boomers , the narcissism of the eighties and nineties and the pessimism and sense of victimhood of later generations.
The book’s descriptions of conversations between the Girl Watchers are a vehicle to tell us their views on subjects like the experience of war, the dropping of the H-bomb on Hiroshima, marriage and divorce, women, crime and punishment, integrity,the father-son bond and aging. The last of these is especially enlightening. The manner in which the Girl watchers deal with growing older, facing up to the inevitable problems while maintaining a sense of humor and enjoying every moment is an object lesson for the rest of us. Towards the end of the book, one of the Girl watchers is stricken with cancer and passes away. The others mourn his passing but soldier on , living their lives in a manner that the rest of us can only admire. Reading about these men and their exemplary lives makes me wish that I too could enjoy their company.
Read this book.
The Girl Watchers Club. Harry Stein. Harper Collins ( 2004) $ 24.95