The Peking Restaurant was quiet last Thursday, save for the hum of the air conditioner and the rumble of a handful of customers’ conversations in the red-and-yellow room.
“I want spaghetti,” a gray-haired Mari Barb said as she walked her way toward the steaming Peking buffet line, leaving her cane at the table.
Minutes later, Barb returned to her table, rounding the buffet corner with a plate of lo mein noodles — not spaghetti, but the closest alternative at an Asian restaurant.
On Sept. 15, Barb will have a real spaghetti meal — one of her favorites — at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4639.
The occasion? Barb, a World War II veteran and former CIA employee at Camp Peary, is turning 100 years old on Sept. 16.
Barb is well-known around the Williamsburg area. For years, she has been seen sitting and table-hopping at local bars and restaurants chatting up old friends and making new ones.
She is Williamsburg’s “beloved barfly.”
Barb insists her friends — and strangers — do not bring her cards, gifts or flowers for her birthday. All of it is too much work and, frankly, she’d rather see her friends than receive gifts.
“Everywhere, people know me,” Barb said. “But I don’t need anything. Come say happy birthday — that’s it.”
Barb said anyone who wants to come to her 100th birthday part is more than welcome to attend. The party will be from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the VFW Post 4639, 106 Jesters Lane behind the Monticello Avenue Target.
There will be a cash bar and live music by the Smith and Wade Band, the members of which are close friends of Barb’s.
Being almost 100 years old, Barb said, “feels a lot like 89.”
A full life
Born in the south of France on Armistice Day, a young Barb joined the French Resistance after World War II broke out, providing the Allies with intelligence information on German Nazi forces occupying France.
Barb also helped Allied soldiers and airmen trapped behind enemy lines escape through underground networks, which helped Allied troops advance through France after invasions at Normandy and Provence, her friend Nicole Metzger said.
While serving the French Resistance, Barb met her future brother-in-law, who worked with the Office of Strategic Services. Through him, she met James Barb, a U.S. Army first lieutenant, who she married in 1945.
James Barb died in 1988 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
After they were married, the Barbs were stationed in Germany. Barb later served and spent time in Saipan, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam and back in Williamsburg at Camp Peary. Some of her service involved training fighters in Tibet and Vietnam.
Barb also claims to speak several languages, including French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Mandarin.
At lunch at Peking last Thursday, Barb pulled aside a Ukranian waiter and asked “How are you?” in Russian. Later, Barb ventured up to the takeout counter and spoke a bit of Chinese to a waitress.
These days, Barb lives at Morningside of Williamsburg, an assisted living and memory care center, but she still frequently gets out to Golden Corral, Peking and other restaurants.
Anywhere she goes, Barb makes friends easily — especially with young people and children.
The 99-year-old said she was the type of person who was always asked to dress up as “the witch” at Halloween, or the Easter bunny for Easter.
In Germany after World War II, Barb served dinner to children when resources were short, and also gave shoes to a boy named Klaus who was seen barefoot in the wintertime.
At one point during lunch at Peking, Barb produced a stack of papers from her large red purse in the seat beside her, handing one to a longtime waitress.
“Come Celebrate Mari Barb’s 100th Birthday,” the invitation read.
The waitress, who said she has known Barb for years, hung the invitation near the door so customers would see it in passing.
When asked what the “secret” is to making it to nearly 100, Barb often shrugs and turns to a new subject.
But that Thursday, Barb humored the question for a fleeting moment.
“The doctor, he told me, ‘Mari, you will live to 100,’” she said. “I asked why. He told me ‘You eat what you want. You drink what you want.’ That is why.”
Metzger asks those who are interested in coming to Barb’s party to let her know by calling 757-847-8067.