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'Last Man Standing' pops the cork on 65 years of good memories

The years fly by. Life sometimes passes more quickly than we can grasp it. I think that is why they did it, 65 years ago. I think that is why Chet Samborski and 49 of his pals at the Third Warder Social Club decided to set aside the bottle.

Champagne is the drink of special occasions. A life long and well-lived is reason to celebrate. So in 1948, they put a bottle of San Benito sparkling wine in a glass case on the wall of the club in North Tonawanda. The plan was to gather for dinner every year, their numbers dwindling as men moved away or passed away. When only one of them was left, he – the Last Man Standing – would open the bottle and drink the contents. The moment would mark all of their lives, over all of that time.

If bottles could talk, this one would speak of 65 years of dances and dinners and celebrations. Nestled in a neighborhood of small, neat houses and corner bars, the Third Warder Social Club is equal parts hangout, bar and banquet center. For the mostly Polish-Americans who started it in the 1930s, it was – for weekly dues of five cents – a neighborhood clubhouse. There was dancing, sports leagues and Simon Pure on tap. “It's the place I most felt at home,” Anna, Chet's wife, told me. “Some nights, the guys would walk home on all fours.” Chet is 93, his hearing nearly gone, his sight blurry. He moves slowly, but grasps the world around him. Anna, 88, still has the spark that caught Chet's eye that first night their paths crossed in East Avenue Tavern, her uncle's bar.

Married 68 years, with two kids in their 60s, they nest in a tidy house in North Tonawanda. Wednesday evening, she patted his hand as they sat at the kitchen table. Anna repeated for him at higher volume the questions of visitors.

A half-century ago, they won a televised Pic-A-Polka contest, the prize a European vacation. In black-and-white photos of club gatherings, the men wore bow ties, the poufy-haired women sported frilly dresses.

They changed, and the world changed around them. Chet worked as an “adhesive cook” at Carborundum, making everything from emery boards to sandpaper. Anna ran a punch press at Remington Rand. Both outlived the companies they served. And Chet outlasted 49 other club members. The Second-to-Last Man, Frank Najuch, recently passed on in a nursing home.

On Wednesday night, Third Warder Club members Mike Janda and Jim Urbaniak unscrewed the glass case, removed the bottle and – aided by Eddy Dobosiewicz of Forgotten Buffalo Tours – drove to Chet's house. Shortly after 6 o'clock, Chet popped the cap on the 65-year-old bottle.

Someone said, “To the Last Man Standing,” and Chet raised the glass to his lips.

The moment came not with a dark-cloud sense of regret. Instead, it had the feeling of a celebration, of the memory of good times shared.

The sparkling wine had not aged as well as Chet and Anna. It tasted like vinegar. No matter. After 65 years, the drink of life is sweet nectar.