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WWII veteran Arles E. "Bud" Elliot gets thanks with his coffee

Arles E. “Bud” Elliott is a retired Navy man who eats breakfast every day at the Jersey Cafe.

Courtesy of Donald Elliott

Arles E. “Bud” Elliott is a retired Navy man who eats breakfast every day at the Jersey Cafe.

When the tall man with the cane, suspenders and thin mustache took his seat at the counter, waitress YaYa Rupert had his mug waiting for him, the one with "Chief Elliott'' printed on the side.

The coffee was black, the way he likes it, and served with a straw so that even with Parkinson's disease he could drink without spilling.

"They take care of me here,'' said Arles "Bud'' Elliott, 88, a retired chief petty officer and World War II veteran.

We always hear that noble feelings celebrated on holidays shouldn't be reserved for just those occasions — gratitude on Thanksgiving, for example, or reverence for fallen soldiers on Memorial Day.

Which is why I'm glad to report that at the Jersey Cafe, on State Road 50 in Spring Hill, every day is Veterans Day.

At least it is for Elliott, because, yes, owner Joe Cuce said, Elliott is special for reasons other than his 20 years of military service.

He's one of the "original regulars,'' a group of retirees who, even before Cuce bought the Jersey in February of 1985, used to fill the stools along the counter nearly every morning, "drinking about three pots of coffee and smoking a carton of cigarettes,'' Cuce said.

When Elliott (a non-smoker, by the way) officially became the last survivor three years ago, Cuce offered him free breakfasts for the rest of his life. Elliott declined. "It would have cost him a fortune,'' he said. But he does accept his morning coffee at no charge.

Another reason Cuce is good to Elliott is that he happens to be a great guy: one who served as a stand-in grandfather to Cuce's "restaurant brat'' kids, one who looked enough like Clark Gable 20 years ago to turn every female head when he walked through the door, one who has a tough sense of humor perfect for a classic diner like the Jersey.

On Monday, Cuce reminded Elliott about the time he was hospitalized a couple of years ago and the cafe sent over meals every day. "And if you don't show up here for a couple days, one of us will go to your house to look for you,'' Cuce said.

"I can't even die in peace,'' said Elliott, hunched over a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage.

But Elliott's military service is definitely one reason he's treated with extra respect, especially because Cuce, like me, is old enough to remember when World War II vets were neighborhood dads — vigorous guys who drove Chevy Impalas, and built their kids tree houses and mixed up pitchers of daiquiris — and now they're dying off.

"Of course they are. We're talking about a war that started nearly 70 years ago,'' said Cuce, 53. "I'm a history buff, big time. World War II — I'm obsessed with it. I know we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them.''

Elliott says he's never been one to glorifying military service.

He never joined the VFW. He's against U.S. involvement in the Middle East and resents that his Navy reservist son, Kevin, is serving a tour in Afghanistan at age 50.

His son was the one who bought the mug and sent it to the cafe, which surprised him with it a year ago. Bud Elliott's wife, not he, put the sticker on his truck bearing the name of the aircraft carrier, the USS Wasp, he served on during World War II.

"She was more gung ho than I was,'' he said.

Still, he appreciates having the Jersey as an adopted home, partly because he's already lost two others.

Elliott was 20 years old, delivering milk with a horse and wagon in Louisville, Ky., at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and enlisted on his first day off. Less than a year later, in September of 1942, he and the rest of the crew were forced to abandon the Wasp near Guadalcanal after Japanese torpedoes pierced its hull and ignited fires in several fuel tanks.

Elliott doesn't remember being scared, at least not until he saw sailors from the rescue vessel firing rifles into the water, which is when he realized it was infested with sharks.

He does remember being "kind of sad'' about losing all his personal belongings and the place he bunked with his buddies. Showing a photo of the smoke billowing from the sinking ship, he said, "That's your home burning.''

When he first retired to Brookridge about 25 years ago, he liked to fish for bass and tinker with model airplanes.

"But my hands got to shaking so bad, I can't fly them and I can't build them,'' he said.

Two and a half years ago, cancer killed his wife, Eula. "She took good care of me. I would have lived to 100 if she was still around,'' he said. "All my neighbors are too old to get around. All my friends are too old to get around, and this is the only time I get to see anybody.''

Just after he said this, waitress Stacey Cross passed by with a coffee pot and asked, "You doing all right, Mr. Bud?''

She didn't sound like a server, asking if he needed a refill. More like a friend, just wanting to make sure.

WWII veteran Arles E. "Bud" Elliot gets thanks with his coffee 11/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 8:07pm]
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