An “old salt” is an old sailor who tells sea stories, also known as a raconteur. The history and traditions of early mariners have been passed from generation to generation this way. Like many “fish stories,” these sea tales can be true or be filled with some exaggeration.

Old Salts is the name of a group of local men who gather each Saturday morning for breakfast and fellowship. Telling stories and laughter are the hallmarks of every meeting. When Dick Elgin moved to the Jubilee active living retirement community in April 2007, he began having weekly breakfasts with a couple of neighbors, who had all served in the United States Navy. Soon the three were joined by more people who were looking to connect with their neighbors and share the stories of their past. They gave their group the name “Old Salts,” but quickly extended an invitation to all veterans of any branch of the military.

“We welcome anyone with any relationship to defense from veterans to defense contractors and civil servants,” explains founding member Dick Elgin. “We even have a guy from the Canadian military, so we are international.”

Bud Bell getting his breakfast
My father-in-law Bud Bell getting his breakfast hoping to be last! Photo credit: Michael Petra

I learned of the Old Salts from my own father-in-law, Bud Bell, who served as a captain in the United States Air Force. He and his wife moved to Jubilee and he was invited to join the weekly breakfast group. “It is just a great group of people,” shared my father-in-law. “We laugh and tell stories and we only have a couple of rules. We refrain from discussing politics for one.”

The group gathers at a different restaurant each Saturday, varying locations from week to week. They have met as far south as Tenino and meet in Lakewood from time to time. I wondered how everyone was able to travel to the breakfast each week, assuming that several members no longer drive. I learned that the members make certain that anyone who wishes to attend has a ride. “An email goes out each week with the location and a list of drivers,” explains Dick. “We take turns driving and no one is left behind.”

The rules are simple at the Saturday morning Old Salts breakfasts. Each member donates a dollar to the pot. Half the money is donated to a local charity like Salmon for Soldiers in Shelton, an organization that takes veterans fishing, or the Fisher House Foundation, which builds homes where military and veterans can stay free of charge while their loved one is in the hospital. The other half of the money is put it a pot and given to the last person served breakfast that day. Dick joked that no one complains anymore about slow service and some of the orders seem particularly complicated. The other rule is that new members must share a story. The telling of stories is the foundation of the group.

Old Salts originals
Original Old Salts. Photo courtesy: Michael Petra

Founding member Dick Elgin tells the story of the night he was counting out payroll on an ammunition ship. “I was the business manager and I had all the money in cash for payroll, 35,000-40,000 laid out on tables, when I realized that we were about to collide with another ship.” The ship Elgin was on carried over 25,000 tons of ammunition so he struggled to gather up all the cash and get it to the safe. “I could see the numbers on the other ship,” Dick tells me. “I realized that if we blew up the ship the money would be gone.” He managed to get it all stuffed into a desk drawer and fortunately the ships did not collide.

Some of the stories are more humorous like the member who was on a ship in Charleston, South Carolina, when they were doing maintenance on the engine. The engines were started in the muddy waters of the Charleston Harbor. Unfortunately for a submarine that was docked behind the ship, the churning of the water flipped hundreds of water moccasins up onto the deck of the submarine. “Guys were literally mopping snakes off the deck,” chuckles Elgin at the memory.

Bob Berell
100-year-old Old Salts member Bob Berell. Photo credit: Michael Petra

With over 60 members in the Old Salts, some of the stories are more sobering. Among the members is a commanding officer who got every single member of his crew off of a sinking mine sweeper before it disappeared into the sea. “He is a real hero,” says Dick Elgin. Among the members are men who were on ships that were hit by kamikaze airplanes and a man who flew 30 missions in a B17 Bombardier into Germany during WWII. Bob Burell, Jubilee resident and member of the Old Salts, celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year. Bob was a recipient of four air medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Old Salts have only missed one Saturday breakfast since they began meeting and that was for a member’s funeral. Weekly attendance ranges from 30 to 60 members sharing breakfast and fellowship. In addition to the weekly breakfast, the Old Salts organize an annual golf tournament and have put on various events for members such as the occasional ballgame or viewing parties for event such as the Army vs. Navy football game. They celebrate each other’s birthdays as well as the birthdays of all branches of the US military. Supporting one another through good times and bad, the Old Salts will continue to share the stories of their lives and hope to be served last at breakfast.

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