It was a simple message that drew my attention quickly to one of several new emails last week.

The title line read: “Time goes by.” I could see immediately that it was sent by my long-time friend, Manfred Lachner, from his home in Nuremburg, Germany. It’s not unusual for me to receive periodic messages from Manfred, but somehow I knew this one would be different.

And, it was.

After his normal pleasantries, Manfred wrote: “How is your health? Better than ours, I hope.”

He went on to explain that his wife, Uschi, had suffered a stroke and that he had been diagnosed with a hereditary blood disease that had somehow gone undetected for the first 75 years of his life.

Reading those lines made me realize that, yes, “Time goes by…”

It also made me realize that Manfred and I had been together for, probably, the last time. It came more than 16 years ago when my wife and I visited Europe in December of 1999 and January of 2000. We had beaten the “Y2K” odds, survived our round trip flight and had actually returned home on time.

That was a wonderful time. Not only did my wife and I spend Christmas with the Lachners in Germany and spent a wonderful time with the members of my decades-old “Stammtisch” group, we had also visited my relatives in Sweden and Judy’s in Norway. It was the first time Judy had ever traveled outside the United States.

After Manfred spoke of his and Uschi’s health, he spoke of our long-ago “Stammtisch” gatherings. To explain, a Stammtisch is a group of friends that gathers at the same day and time every week, always at the same location. It’s something that’s uncommon in the U.S., but not in Germany.

An Army friend and I, the editor and sports editor, respectively, of an Army newspaper printed at the offices of the Nuremburg Afternoon Newspaper, had been invited by our contact at that newspaper to join his own Stammtisch on Friday evening at a place called the Katerinenklause in downtown Nuremburg. The group of 10 German couples was suddenly joined by two American soldiers.

It was an immediate “match.” We became a regular part of the Stammtisch. We gathered every Friday night at 8 o’clock at the Katerinenklause where we sipped the most common Bavarian beverage and sang – oh, how we sang. John, my American Army buddy, and I learned some favorite German songs, swaying back and forth with interlocked arms all around the big rectangular table. We taught our German friends some American tunes, also, and smiled as our friends sang “She’ll be Comin’ Around the Mountain” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” (We found it particularly amusing when our new friend, Manfred – the guitar player of the group – belted out the refrain, “With and oink, oink here and an oink, oink there…”)

I left the Stammtisch upon my discharge in April of 1968. However, I’d taken a European discharge and, after a summer spent playing baseball in Sweden and living with relatives there, I’d returned to Nuremburg for another Friday night Stammtisch before returning to America.

It was at that final Stammtisch that we’d promised each other that we would gather again at the Stammtisch to bring in the new Century with a big New Year’s Eve party on Dec. 31, 1999. That was more than 31 years after I’d departed Germany (oh, I’d returned twice in the next three-plus decades), but I never forgot my promise to return for one final Stammtisch.

So, we did. My wife and I returned to Germany in December of 1999, traveled a bit, but were with all our friends for a big New Year’s Eve Stammtisch. Of the original 22 people in the Stammtisch, 17 of us were together on that occasion, an astonishing number considering the time that had passed.

Before we returned home, we made another promise to each other. This wouldn’t be the last time we’d be together.

Alas, though, I think it probably was. Given Manfred and Uschi’s health problems, and the shear cost of such a trip for my wife and I, it’s time to accept the fact that the man I consider my best friend and I will meet only through emails, phone calls and photographs.

It’s hard to accept that fact.

But there are a lifetime of memories – from soccer to mountain climbing in the Alps and, yes, the Stammtisch – to cherish forever.

Thank you, my friend, for making life in the Military easier for at least one American.

It may be hard to accept sometimes, but it’s a fact: “Time goes by…”

(Bill Haglund can be reached at bhaglund13@msn.com.)