Sam Bass is an early riser. He gets up before 5 a.m. so he can get a walk in, rain or shine, unless there’s lightning. “Too dangerous,” he said.
Oddly enough, he gets his walk in early so he can make it to the Paula Manship branch of the YMCA of the Capital Area, where he’s been a member for about a decade. There, he meets a group of friends, mostly retired.
They do their workouts, often strength-training, Bass said, and then camp out at a set of tables looking out onto the pool, where they “solve the problems of the world” over cups of coffee — at least until water aerobics start at 8:30 a.m.
It’s what they call their vocal cord exercise, Sayi Malineni said.
Each person brings to the table his own expertise from life before retirement.
“Mostly, we talk about cooking,” said Mike Julian, who started coming to the Y after retiring from the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. But topics range from nature to television — the PBS series on the Roosevelts is a favorite — current events, weather, investments — occasionally, at least — and travel. Not much isn’t covered, Julian said.
Malineni, a retired geologist and chemist, now works with Save BR Water, savebrwater.com, a group trying to spread the word about saltwater intrusion into the Baton Rouge water supply.
“People don’t realize how serious this issue is,” he said. Baton Rouge has a great freshwater supply, he said, but if the saltwater intrusion spoils the freshwater aquifers around the city, “we’ll have to start getting our drinking water from the Mississippi River, and that would not be good.”
Malineni said that when he got to know the group, he decided to tell them all what he knew about the water supply. “I tell them, and they tell 10 people, and those 10 people tell 10 more,” he said.
This group approach also works with problems, Julien said. If anyone gets stumped about anything, they bring it to the group.
“We try to avoid politics, religion and sex,” Bass said, though they often can’t help but get into politics every now and then. “We don’t all agree on everything, but we’re congenial,” he said. If you happen to be at the Y between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., it’s easy to find the group — just follow the laughter.
And on Fridays, they’re especially easy to spot because they’re all wearing red T-shirts, hence their affectionate nickname of the Red Shirt Club.
Around the time of the first military conflict in Iraq, Bass started wearing a red shirt every Friday to honor veterans and active duty military members, he said. “It’s something I heard about on the radio somewhere, I think,” he said.
When the group noticed the trend, members asked about it, and all decided to do the same thing. It’s been a sea of red shirts around the coffee pot every Friday since. They’re not all men, either.
Carol Estorge, who moved to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina, said she found a kind of solace at the Y and in her new group of friends, after having to leave her home in Metairie. She sat with the group at the table for a few minutes, then joined her friend Joyclyn Suire in the facility’s gym, where they walked brisk laps around the outer edge of the basketball court.
“Obviously our topics of discussion will differ from theirs quite a bit,” Estorge said of the men. “But our support for our troops is the same.”
Though they sometimes move from branch to branch, they’ve stayed put at the Manship YMCA for a couple of years now, Bass said.
“It’s got a really great atmosphere, good energy,” Malineni said, though personnel and patrons would argue that the Red Shirt Club contributes much of that energy.
It’s like a home away from home, Bass said, and it’s that camaraderie that keeps them coming back.