COEUR d’ALENE — They are called popcorn stories and Syd Albright sits back to listen.
The shades are drawn to keep the morning sun from splashing into JB’s Restaurant along Appleway in Coeur d’Alene, and the 50 to 60 participants in today’s gathering of the local history club sip coffee, nibble at toast or eggs and otherwise kick back as a popcorn story unfolds.
Albright, a local historian who started the history club seven years ago to share his interest in local culture — and color — with anyone with a similar hobby, is at the table up front.
“These are stories you tell your grandkids,” Albright explains before the storytelling starts. “Write the stories down, because that way they will be preserved for posterity.”
Club members tell the stories to the audience to try them out, to get a feel for story writing and storytelling.
“You’re at the front line of history,” Albright says. “These stories will be out there forever.”
And he expects that after hearing them, grandkids will learn a new appreciation for grandma or grandpa.
A ballcap with a U.S. Air Force emblem graces Albright’s table along with a pot of coffee and a notepad.
Most of the members of the group, which sometimes overflows during the weekly Wednesday morning meetings in the back room of JB’s, have similar affiliations.
They wear veteran ball caps with the words Vietnam, or Korea, Navy, the Army eagle insignia or the red hats that show the eagle, globe and anchor.
They also wear their histories on their sleeves.
“Quiet!” barks Kenny Moore.
Moore, an Annapolis grad who served several tours in Vietnam with the Marines, covers his short, bulldog stature with a red checkered shirt, jeans and an insulated vest.
Moore stands at the front of the room before Albright’s table and kicks off today’s club meeting.
“Let’s show some protocol!” he growls.
Moore also served with Gen. James Mattis, the former commander of troops in Iraq, and U.S. secretary of defense, and he went to China with the Nixon delegation.
He introduces today’s speakers and topics.
“Permission to speak, sir,” someone pipes up, and the room breaks out in chuckles.
Moore enjoys the weekly gatherings, he says, because he is among friends with similar backgrounds and interests, although not everyone has a military history.
“There are veterans, there are people who worked in the mines, there is a whole cross-section,” Larry Telles says.
Telles has a film background. He taught at a technical college, writes books and spent eight years in the Navy.
Mostly, he joined the club to share his knowledge of film history.
“I didn’t fit right in because I am a film person,” Telles says. “But I am a piece of the culture in the U.S.”
As people visit, laugh and greet each other before the popcorn stories begin, waitress Brenda Sheets briskly fills coffee cups and brings breakfast plates to the group.
She has worked at JB’s 30 years.
“Since it opened here,” Sheets said.
She enjoys the meeting and the clientele.
“We’ve got a full house today,” she says.
Sheriff candidate Richard Whitehead starts off today’s popcorn stories with a memory from his days as a deputy in Texas.
“A lot of the calls we got were rattlesnake calls,” Whitehead tells the group. “I hate snakes.”
He was called to take care of a 6-foot rattler coiled under a rolling stand-up toolbox in a Texas garage. Some of the deputies caught the snakes and released them later, Whitehead says, but his way of dealing with snakes was to shoot them.
He eventually shot the rattler with a handgun, but not before the blast sent the snake flying back toward the shooter and almost into his lap, he tells the group.
He had a belt made from the snake’s hide.
The audience likes his story and lets him know with applause.
Whitehead said he joined the group to decompress and to be around people who share his interest in history and local lore.
“It’s a good group, a lot of friendly people, and it’s a safe place to land,” Whitehead says. “It’s a good place to take a break.”
Albright said the group is about as informal as it gets. There are no dues, no minutes, nor a formal sign-up sheet.
“We took Robert’s Rules of Order and threw them out the window,” he said.
Albright — a former instructor who has written several books and screenplays, proffers a background in journalism, political science and international relations, and who writes regularly on historical topics for The Press — said preserving the history and culture of the U.S. is, in large part, the club’s focus.
“We’re trying to promote the interest and appreciation of history,” he said.
Albright has traveled widely to more than 50 countries. Moore has visited more than 120 countries and both men are students of other cultures.
“As imperfect as America is,” Albright says, “ours is the best and needs to be appreciated and protected.”
In addition to meeting regularly, telling and hearing stories and sharing experiences, the club is in the process of tracking down two Howitzers captured by an Idaho regiment in the Filipino-American War.
They want the cannons back in Idaho. It’s one of the civil service projects that the group has undertaken.
In all, however, the weekly meetings that begin at 10 each Wednesday are small footprints left on the landscape of history.
And the food’s pretty good too.
“We’re about as laid back a group as you’ll find,” Albright says.