Tight band of local military veterans back together at Windsor cafe after long pandemic hiatus
Alexa woke Mark Tannehill at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday of the pandemic, Amazon’s soothing virtual assistant’s reminding the retired Navy veteran that he was supposed to be meeting friends for breakfast.
Tannehill, instead, would get up, putter, and read news stories online.
For 14 months, despite the gentle nudges, he did this. Because of COVID-19 and California’s shutdown efforts to curb the virus’ spread, he had no group meal to attend.
“I did think a couple times of turning the alarm off,” Tannehill said. “But I liked hearing it go off.”
To Tannehill, Alexa’s wake-up call felt like a connection to his pre-COVID life. And on a Saturday in mid-May, he finally answered that call. Tannehill drove just down the road to Castañeda’s Marketplace in Windsor and headed inside for Mexican food and coffee, a simple act he hadn’t reprised since March 2020.
There he merged with a small stream of military veterans, his weekly companions for years.
The vets were there on a subsequent Saturday, too, easily identifiable by their age demographic and by the Navy and Army ball caps some wore as they sat down at their usual table.
“I missed it more than anything ever,” said Rob Geidl, 67, a retired Navy enlisted man.
In fact, most of the Korean and Vietnam war veterans say now, the hole in their Saturday mornings affected them more profoundly than they had expected. Sometimes you don’t really know what you have until it’s stolen by a pandemic.
These men have been meeting at Castañeda’s for nearly a decade now. Their 10-year anniversary is June 12, and Jose Castañeda, owner of the market, has promised to do something special. You have to wear your military uniforms, he told them, sparking a lively discussion of which of their expanded frames might now be squeezed into their old regalia.
Champion for veterans
The breakfasts started when Castañeda was asked to donate food to an organization composed of military moms. He met some people at the event and suggested they send veterans to the market for meals. In the early days, it was a breakfast burrito for everyone. Now Castañeda lets the gentlemen order anything from the menu. He has yet to charge them a dime.
Castañeda said he funds the Saturday-morning meals by donating 10% of the proceeds from his catering business, Paella Guy.
“I was worried Jose would use the break during COVID to find a reason to end it,” said Joe Narez, an Air Force retiree. “But when I saw him, the first thing he said was, ‘When are you coming back?’”
Castañeda also delivered meals for local schools during the pandemic, and offered free food to Coast Guard employees who had been furloughed. That’s par for the course, the veterans say. They recognized Castañeda a couple years ago by nominating him for a Hometown Hero award. The plaque hangs in the dining area of the market.
Core group from across North Bay
Castañeda’s has hosted as many as 50 veterans at a time, Jose said, though it’s usually a core of 10-15 guys who show up. Most live in Sonoma County, but Norman Birkenstock, who served in the Air Force, drives up from San Rafael and Bill Robinson who was in the Navy, comes over from Lake County. The oldest of the bunch is Harold Goldman — Air Force — who will turn 91 this week. The youngest are active-duty servicemen who occasionally stop by to pay their respects when they’re on leave.
“The last couple years, if I know someone in the community is going into the armed services, we’ll invite them and their parents and give them a send-off,” Castañeda said. “The new recruit sits with the old farts, and they give the kid some advice.”
Some of the older veterans came as tag-alongs and never stopped showing up. The driving force behind this ritual was Bill Matz, one of the few officers — a Navy first lieutenant, in his case — in the group. He’s considered a founding member, along with Narez and Bill Robinson.
“I was done with that part of my life. I didn’t want to join any veterans groups,” said Steve Henrickson,** retired Army. “I let Bill Matz talk me into coming once, and one time only.”