CAPE CORAL, Fla. -- The beach wasn’t the same and neither were they, but when the three men reunited to recreate a 50-year-old photo, something else clicked: an old friendship.
Two of the men hadn’t seen each other since the trio were working summers at restaurants in Cape Cod to pay for college. That’s how Hal Kuehl, Peter Wilfert and Jeffrey Smith all met.
A half century later, the men reconvened in March, crashing a few days at Kuehl’s place in Cape Coral.
After greeting each other with a man hug, Smith later told Wilfert in jest, "Jesus, I didn’t know if you were going to turn out to be the same jerk from 50 years ago."
Wilfert quipped, "I thought the same thing about you."
The first photo was shot in Longnook Beach in Cape Cod when nothing was certain but their routine: beach, beer, girls and work. Not always in that order. It was the summer of 1966, two of them think, though one of them pegged it a few years earlier. The buddies became roommates in Provincetown and worked late nights to save money.
“We were all young and we were full of ambition,” said Wilfert, 72, who lives in Coconut Creek on the east coast of Florida. “We liked the girls on the beach. What’s not to like? We went to the beach all day and worked all night.”
What exactly did they do?
“On the advice of my attorney, I plead the fifth,” said Smith, 72.
After their summers in Provincetown, Kuehl was drafted for Vietnam. He would go on to own restaurants and tax preparation franchises.
Smith became a dentist and joined the Navy.
Wilfert was a teacher before entering sales and marketing.
Now, they’re all retired.
Over the years, when Kuehl, now 73, drove east he’d stop to see Smith, who worked in Massachusetts. But Wilfert fell off his radar until Kuehl found him online. A handful of years ago, Kuehl called Wilfert out of the blue.
Guess who this is? Kuehl asked Wilfert.
Wilfert knew immediately.
They met. At some point, the idea took hold to duplicate the beach picture, which has become something of a trend among buddies of a certain age. Eventually, they agreed to meet in March. Smith booked a flight from South Carolina, where he retired. Wilfert drove from Coconut Creek.
The picture was the motivation for the reunion, but not the highlight. They posed in a sandy spot before the flat waters off Cape Coral, which paled to the beach in Cape Cod where they slid down towering sand dunes on cardboard and body surfed in the waves.
“It wasn’t a pretty beach actually compared to Cape Cod. I don’t want the west coast people to hate me for saying that,” Wilfert said. “We just went in and out of the water. It wasn’t very pleasant. It was all mucky on the bottom.”
Smith thought the photo turned out horrible, at least of him. “I was kind of leaning forward and it looked like I was pregnant. The good news is after I saw that picture, since then I’ve been home, and I’ve taken off 10 pounds.”
Despite the inevitable physical changes, the friends fared well, considering.
“We’ve gone through life’s ups and downs, divorces and marriages, successes and failures, but all and all we came through it pretty well,” said Wilfert. “None of us are dead.”
Some of the best times came over card games. Instead of the $2 pitchers of beer they drank as college kids, they sipped, at Smith’s suggestion, a more waistline-friendly blend of diet blueberry green tea, diet blueberry juice and rum.
“We had the greatest time, up to 1:30 every night talking about old times,” said Kuehl, who typically tucks in around 9 p.m.
The lesson in this is don’t wait 50 years to reconnect with old friends.
“After that reunion, I was kind of saddened and disappointed that we hadn’t kept in touch better over the years,” Smith said.
What other advice would Smith extend to those tan young men in the first photo?
“We might all three of us say the same thing: Don’t marry your first wife.”