An old Army buddy came up and threw his arm around Paul Bebout's neck Thursday morning in the Ploughmans Room of the Drawbridge Inn, where Bebout and about 60 other World War II veterans from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment gathered for a reunion. "Bebout, you still alive?'' his buddy said; and the two men, both in their 80s, threw back their heads and laughed.
What is a little gallows humor to men who, as young soldiers fighting their way across Europe, cheated death more than 60 years ago?
Of the thousands of units that went to war in Europe then, few saw more opportunities to die in battle than the 501st, a unit of the "Screaming Eagles'' of the 101st Airborne Division.
They parachuted into Normandy behind enemy lines in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day; they fought in the frustrating Allied failure in Operation Market-Garden, an attempt by the Allies to seize bridges so armored troops could advance into the Lower Rhine Valley; and they became legends in the Battle of the Bulge, surrounded and outnumbered by the Nazi forces in the freezing cold of the Belgium village of Bastogne, where they earned their nickname - "the Battered Bastards of Bastogne.''
It was there, in Bastogne, when the Germans sent in a message seeking a surrender of the 101st Airborne, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe sent back the famous one-word reply that mystified the Nazis: Nuts.
About 60 men of the 501st have come to the Drawbridge for their 32nd reunion - many more are too infirm to come; and the list of those who have passed away since their last convention a year ago is almost as long as the list of those in attendance.
"Everyone here is family,'' said Glenna Amburgey of Wilder, Ky., whose late husband Eugene was a proud veteran of the 501st and one of the organizers of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment Association.
Amburgey and her daughter, Valerie, also of Wilder, have been organizing reunions since 1976.
This time, they brought the group to their own backyard for a weekend of meetings, banquets, sight-seeing and reminiscing with old pals that runs through Sunday.
Thursday morning, about 30 of the soldiers - along with their spouses, children and some grandchildren - gathered in the hospitality room to sit around tables for snacks and to catch up with old friends.
Bebout, who came with his wife, Annabelle, from the southeast Ohio town of McConnellsville, stood and traded stories with a buddy, Duane Harvey, a native Oklahoman, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M.
Pretty soon, the two were playing a friendly game of can-you-top-this with a visitor.
Harvey didn't parachute in with the rest in the Normandy invasion; he stayed behind in England for more parachute training and didn't parachute into Europe until that fall.
"Those were some pretty good months in England,'' Harvey said. "The rest of the guys were over there; and that meant there were more English girls for the rest of us.''
Both men, though, were among the American soldiers of the 101st Airborne surrounded by the Germans at Bastogne in December 1944, freezing in the cold, living on bland K-rations and holding off the Nazis with dwindling ammunition until Gen. George Patton's Third Army could break through and free them.
"There were five or six guys in my platoon who had no weapon and no ammunition,'' Bebout said. "The company commander ordered me to take the squad and go out and take a hill, with bayonets drawn. Take a hill with what? Half of them didn't have a rifle, much less a bayonet. But we did it anyway, somehow.''
Bebout and Harvey walked through the hospitality room, introducing their visitor to old buddies.
"Tell him about the bucket of peaches,'' Harvey said to John Primerano of Manchester, N.H.
Primerano laughed before launching into a tale about how, before they loaded onto the planes for a parachute drop into Holland, he grabbed a big can of peaches - "I was kind of a chow hound'' - and passed them around among his fellow paratroopers.
"Next thing you know, everybody was heaving,'' Primerano said, his buddies doubling over in laughter. "I don't know if it was the peaches, the plane or both, but I was so sick I can't even remember going out the door. I do remember throwing up on the way down.''
A Dutch farmer and his wife found the deathly ill Primerano lying in their field and nursed him back to health. Primerano said he returned to Holland in 1986 and found the woman who had helped him.
He visited her every year from then on until she died at the age of 100 years, 10 months.
"She was like a mother to me,'' Primerano said.
Bill Sefton, a former 1st lieutenant in the 501st, greeted the men as Primerano finished his story.
Sefton, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., has written a book about the unit.
"The thing you have to remember is that the biggest motivation for a man in battle is that you don't want the guys on each side of you to know how scared you are,'' Sefton said. "That's how we were.''
"There were a lot of good men in that outfit,'' Bebout told Sefton. "A lot of good men.''
"And,'' said Sefton, "a lot of good men who didn't come home.''