As long as anyone can remember, the old-timers have quietly gathered for coffee and companionship at Fairfax Hardware. Often they talk about friends, occasionally about politics, sometimes about the war they fought in almost five decades ago.

A few weeks ago, when Fred Kielsgard, 75, proved to the group that he could still fit into his World War II uniform, they were stirred by the sight. Others decided to see if they could do the same.

"Desert Storm Photo Session 9:00 A * Sat. 2/9/91," said a cardboard sign that immediately went up near the vacuum cleaner bags. "Report: In Uniform!!! With Weapon!!!"

And that they did. Fifty of the regulars gathered in uniform and recalled old times. So what if they didn't -- couldn't -- button their uniforms all the way? So what if the wife had to widen the waistband with a discreet little slit in the back?

"Okay, everybody suck it in!" somebody shouted yesterday, as the mostly World War II veterans were photographed outside the Fairfax City hardware store on Main Street.

They plan to send their group picture to "Stormin' Norman" -- also known as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the more than 550,000 members of the allied forces fighting the war against Iraq.

"We're going to let him know we're behind him," said George Hamill, 67, part of the Quartermaster Corps during the war. "Let him know we're here if he needs us."

Just as they do every morning except Sundays, the retired police officers, undertakers and construction workers teased one another relentlessly. But they also listened intently to the stories behind the medals proudly displayed on their uniforms.

William J. Price showed everyone his "ticket home" from World War II -- a piece of shrapnel removed from his left knee. Bill Sheads, 66, and Turner Hornbaker, 80, recalled how the mules would get shot at as they carried ammunition in the mountainous areas of Italy -- and never blink.

While most happily relived the past, the present was on everyone's minds. Henry Millan, 69, shared a letter he received yesterday from his son stationed overseas.

And everyone listened when Hornbaker, the oldest in the group, gave his view on the decision to go to war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Well, I think it's the only way out," said Hornbaker, a wheat farmer in the Reston area. "Can't let that fella run over us -- that's a sure thing."

The group that gathers for Hubert Dulaney's free coffee is as varied as the items spread about the store's shelves, but they share a common bond. Most are longtime or lifetime Fairfax residents who remember a much slower pace of life.

Like a magnet, they are drawn to Dulaney's store, where prized barracuda and red snapper are mounted on the walls and old hornets' nests hang from the ceiling. The fancy new facade out front conceals the history behind it. The store, which opened in 1953, has a day named after it: Feb. 17, Fairfax Hardware Store Day, so proclaimed by the Fairfax City Council last year.

Even the store's annual inventory cannot keep the friendly group away. Every year, group members show up to give Dulaney a hand, counting merchandise such as pointy glass ashtrays and cast-iron skillets. On other days, they wait on customers when Dulaney's busy.

"It's like one big, happy family," said Dulaney, 68, surveying the group. There was James M. Mahoney, 75, one of the six original members of the Fairfax County Police Department; Chuck West, 73, former part-owner of Everly Funeral Home; Patrick Rodio, 73, a member of the City Council.

Among the veterans gathered yesterday, everybody had a theory as to why they were having trouble buttoning their uniforms:

"They shrink a lot across the chest."

"This is desert casual." "Some of us have blossomed out more than others."

"I used to be lean and mean. Now I'm fat and ornery."

So how did Kielsgard, who inspired yesterday's command performance, get his jacket buttoned after all these years? "I haven't breathed for half an hour," he explained.