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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’s Marketplace owner José Castañeda greets a group of veterans, including from left, Paul Van Dalen and Bill Robinson, during the veterans Saturday morning breakfast at the market in Windsor, May 22, 2021. Castañeda has been hosting the vets for 10 years.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Castañeda’s Marketplace owner José Castañeda greets a group of veterans, including from left, Paul Van Dalen and Bill Robinson, during the veterans Saturday morning breakfast at the market in Windsor, May 22, 2021. Castañeda has been hosting the vets for 10 years. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

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.”

Air Force veteran Harold Goldman attends a weekly veterans breakfast at Castañeda’s Marketplace in Windsor, Saturday, May 29, 2021 in Windsor. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Air Force veteran Harold Goldman attends a weekly veterans breakfast at Castañeda’s Marketplace in Windsor, Saturday, May 29, 2021 in Windsor. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

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.”

“Now we can’t get rid of him,” Tannehill said, beaming.

The group has dealt with loss, too.

Matz died last August, struck down at 71 by aggressive lung cancer that some of his fellow veterans ascribe to exposure to Agent Orange during his duty in Southeast Asia.

Matz’s death rocked the other members of the breakfast club, who variously described him as “a brilliant kind of guy” and “a born genius.” To hear his friends tell it, he was a soft-spoken man who worked doggedly to help other veterans, using his law degree to do pro bono work on their behalf. Matz was probably the fittest of the bunch, too, a trim man who walked every day, could still fit nicely into his Navy uniform and was occasionally known to do yoga in the buff.

Colleagues arranged to give Matz a full military burial ceremony at the veterans’ cemetery in Dixon, with 21-gun salute and bagpipes. The whole deal. Most of the Castañeda’s crew was there.

“It was one of the few times I went to a place during the pandemic,” Tannehill said.

Pandemic severs ties

Some of the men were open about their feelings of isolation during the 14 months of shutdown. Henrickson runs a production company that had no concerts or festivals to stage, wiping out his income. And the inability to tour erased much of his social life, too. Henrickson works the same events every year. He’d set up a show in Bakersfield or Sonora, and he’d have a built-in social circle there.

“It was a double whammy,” he said.

As the pandemic dragged on, the veterans realized how much they missed Castañeda’s. They were eager to return to the gentle teasing and the chitchat.

“Every Saturday I’d wonder how guys are doing,” Bill Robinson said.

Geidl took it harder than most. He said he previously spent five years in self-imposed isolation, cast into depression by the interferon medication he took to fight off the effects of hepatitis C. He was lifted out of that funk, he said, by the work of Sonoma County Vet Connect, a renewed passion for sailing and the Saturday breakfasts at Castañeda’s.

“Those three things became my life after a while,” Geidl said. “COVID came and took out all three at one time.”

That explains the elation he and his comrades felt when Castañeda’s opened its doors again.

A refuge for easy talk, unspoken trauma

The conversation ambles easily there. The men talk about family, travel, their health and, frequently, the bureaucratic roadblocks they must navigate for VA benefits, medical coverage and other pieces of a safety net that doesn’t always support veterans. Several of the club members volunteer at Vet Connect, helping eligible retired military personnel locate services.

One thing the Windsor diners almost never talk about: combat. They don’t need to, really. Memories of military service and its traumas are the unseen, uninvited guests at these breakfast meetings.

On that recent morning, Henrickson was seated with his back to the expanse of Castañeda’s grocery aisles. He felt uncomfortable in that spot, he said, and in fact couldn’t remember sitting on that side of the table before. Geidl said there used to be a gym in the space above the dining area at Castañeda’s. “They’d drop a weight and we’d all kind of flinch,” he said. “You know, that big boom.”

Del Wolverton launched a successful business career after retiring from the Navy. He never really spent a lot of time exploring his years in the service, he said, and certainly hadn’t bothered to analyze how it may have impacted him psychologically. Then he was stopped at a stoplight in San Francisco one day when a legless Asian woman rolled by him, propelling herself on a small board.

“I couldn’t move,” Wolverton said. “I had to pull over and sit in my car and cry for an hour.”

Military veterans Steve Henrickson, left, and Del Wolverton share a laugh at their Saturday morning get together with other veterans, May 29, 2021 at Castañeda’s Marketplace in Windsor.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Military veterans Steve Henrickson, left, and Del Wolverton share a laugh at their Saturday morning get together with other veterans, May 29, 2021 at Castañeda’s Marketplace in Windsor. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Wolverton used to attend a men’s prayer breakfast through his church, Calvary Chapel The Rock. Never missed a session, in fact. Now he chooses Castañeda’s if there’s a scheduling conflict between the two. He sees more immediate purpose in the veterans’ gatherings.

It’s possible the men all value the breakfasts so deeply because in that space they don’t have to recount the difficult stories. The others around that table know what it was like to fight a war in place far removed from home, and what it was like to return to a civilian population that wasn’t always grateful, and to a government with a history of ignoring the needs of veterans.

The club is remarkable for its amiability, said Birkenstock, a dapper 79-year-old who plays the role of unofficial spokesman. Despite a spectrum of backgrounds and political views, he said, “There have been no differences, conflicts or altercations among the group in 10 years. I don’t want to necessarily characterize it as a model, the group at Castañeda’s, but there’s something to be learned.”

The veterans are aware of how rare this is in 2021 America. There was a time, several said, when people on opposite ends of the political discourse could talk through issues without anger or contempt.

“You no longer can,” Henrickson said. “But this group does.”

He paused a beat, then added with a smile, “I just politely let them know when they’re wrong.”

**Correction: Due to an editing error, Steve Henrickson’s last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. That misspelling has since been corrected.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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