Amidst the outdoor seating between Whole Foods and Peet’s Coffee at Napa’s Bel Aire Plaza, one particular table stands out. And it’s not just because of the self-described “curmudgeons” who gather there three mornings a week.
Unlike the others around it, this tabletop is painted red, white and blue, and includes small plaques inscribed with members’ names. Emblems from the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard decorate its surface. In the middle is a black square that represents prisoners of war, and the names of two from the group who have passed on.
“We call the table ‘TOB,’” said Nick Sanza. As in: “Tough Old Bastards.”
Sanza is a member of the TOB, which totals about 12 people, primarily veterans.
For the past 10 or so years, the group has shared coffee, stories, a hefty dose of good-natured ribbing, and something else equally important: their companionship.
Some of the original TOB members include Napans Scott Templeton and Charlie Kampton, who would sit in front of Peet’s while they sipped coffee and bantered about their military backgrounds. From there, the group grew to include a handful of other like-minded men.
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That handful includes guys like Gene Dick, 80, a retired Oakland firefighter. On a recent Monday morning, Dick supplied cushions for the metal chairs, along with a box of cookies from Trader Joe’s.
It’s all about good friends getting together and sharing stories, said Dick. It’s important to maintain those social ties, “because as you get older, you start losing friends,” he noted. Plus, it’s good to get out of the house and “get away from the TV for a while.”
The group expanded when Kampton called Sanza, who served in the Army in Vietnam.
“He said ‘Get your butt over here,’” recalled Sanza, who is 69. “I said, ‘Oh, what the hell.’”
These days, the group meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7:30 to 9 a.m., “or whenever,” said Sanza.
About three years ago, Sanza got an idea to take “their” table to the next level.
Sanza removed the original round tabletop and added a larger rectangular tabletop underneath it. Under his guidance, Napa’s Sign Dimensions then painted it in patriotic colors. The table was then reinstalled in its proper place.
“We’re all patriots here and much of our discussion has to do with what’s going on in the country,” said Tom Atkinson, 84. Atkinson served in the Naval Reserve for 31 years and also worked at Mare Island Naval Shipyard as a marine engineer.
Atkinson “recruited” Frank Hauck, 68, to the group. The two men are neighbors.
As a kid, “I really wanted to join the Navy,” recalled Hauck. After graduating from the Naval Academy, “I ended up going from active duty to the Naval Reserve.” In total, he served 24 years, while also pursuing a civilian career in emergency services.
“Everybody’s welcome at this table,” said Hauck. “There isn’t any special handshake … but they need to be a patriot.”
The men described their group as conservative.
“We all have common interests (and) similar philosophies about a lot of stuff,” said Napan Clay Parker. At age 84, he’s currently the oldest of the bunch.
All topics, especially politics, are fair game, Parker noted. The only subject that is off the table is secular religion.
“I’ve been here going on three-plus years,” said Parker of the TOB table. “I hardly ever miss a beat.” Even during the height of COVID, the group met at Kennedy Park with chairs appropriately spaced apart.
What keeps him coming back?
“The camaraderie,” said Parker. That and being with other men, he said. “I live with three females, so I’m pretty much whipped,” he said jokingly. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he added seriously, “and that’s the truth.”
Doug Duin, 81, is also an Army veteran. He followed his sister to Napa, but apart from her, he knew no one.
One day “I got a coffee from Peet’s (and) I saw the group and sh*t, I just fit right in,” said Duin. “We’ve got the same politics, and that’s a big one.”
Napan Mike Pavlik isn’t a veteran, but joked that he got invited to join the group because “they needed a mascot.”
But seriously, “I’m just privileged to be here,” said Pavlik. His father was in World War II and a grandfather was a bugler in World War I, he noted. “I’m a conservative guy, also. I respect the fact that these guys took risks” for their country.
The group gets encouragement from other regulars at Bel Aire Plaza. Some even bring cards, treats or other tokens of appreciation.
“We are proud to support American veterans and are delighted that they meet regularly at Peet’s Coffee at Bel Aire Plaza,” wrote Heather Sarno, senior property manager with Crosspoint Realty Services Inc.
“Thank you to all veterans who have served our country,” she wrote. “We encourage all to meet often at the dedicated veterans’ table when they are in the area.”
The TOB table particularly enjoys when active-duty members stop by or notice them.
“It’s great to talk to the young whippersnappers,” in the military today, said Hauck.
In fact, one day, “We’d like to turn the table over to the next generation.”
Photos: These Napa veterans (and friends) found a special way to celebrate their service
You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 707-256-2218 or [email protected]