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METHUEN, Mass. — Six young men who grew up together on Howe Street in Methuen, back when the Loop was farmland they played baseball on, facing a difficult job market and an impending draft, decided to make a move.

On Aug. 12, 1948, they walked into a recruiting office in Lawrence and joined the U.S. Army. They were not able to stay all together during their service, but in the time since they have met regularly and commemorate their enlistment. After lives in the Army, in construction, the Postal Service, Western Electric and in the brickyards, the self-named Howe Street Gang kept in touch over the years.

In the afternoon of Aug. 13, 65 years and one day after joining the Army together as neighborhood friends, Bob Dufresne, 82, and John Kopacz, 84, walked into Olive Garden, which stands on their former pickup baseball field, at the Loop to smiles and handshakes from three of the others — Ken Keamy, 83, Ernest Piccirillo, 84, and Phil Carpenito, 83.

The sixth man, Al Pacheco, died in 2010.

They asked about wives and children and illnesses and pulled out envelopes holding black and white photographs. Everyone lives locally, and Piccirillo still lives on Howe Street.

When asked why they still get together through the decades, even as their lives diverged, the answer was simple: "We grew up together," Kopacz said.

They were close as kids, playing baseball and football together, going to the same school and working at Merrimack Valley Golf Club as caddies. But in 1948, work was scarce as the U.S. was emerging from a deep post-war recession and local manufacturing jobs were beginning to move to the South, and President Harry S. Truman had just instituted a peacetime draft, they said.

So in a decision that would sound familiar to many young people today, the Howe Street Gang enlisted. "You could join for one year, or be drafted for four," Keamy said.

They tried the Marines, but said they could not join because some were missing teeth from playing baseball. "He was too ugly," Dufresne said, pointing at Carpenito. They tried the Army next, and all six signed up.

The Howe Street Gang, not to be equated with the more modern use of the word "gang," immediately was split, assigned to different Army bases and different units.

Three men, Piccirillo, Carpenito and Kopacz, served in the Korean War, which began in 1950. Two spent decades in the military. Piccirillo served for 27 years and was deployed not only to Korea, but to Vietnam as well. "I was working at Pacific Mill, and I looked up at four walls (in 1948) and said this is not for me," he said. "So I went into the service to make a career out of it."

Kopacz spent 20 years and seven days in the Army. "I stayed in to give them a hard time," he joked.

They kept in touch through the years, meeting with the Knights of Columbus and whenever they could.

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