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Day By Day© by Chris Muir.


Friday, April 14, 2006

musings about submarine coffee

i'm getting ready for work, and i've got my favorite coffee in the world, Major Dickason's blend from Peets brewing in the french press.
i love coffee. i've been drinking it since i was a kid, and i've had great coffee, and i've had really really terrible sour nasty make you want to wash your mouth out coffee over the years.

the worst stretch of my life, though, was an underway on the seawolf.
some wizard decided that the boat didn't need coffee grounds. instead, they installed these coffee makers that took a jar of Taster's Choice instant coffee. you stuck your cup in the machine, pushed a button, and it started to whirl, mixing instant coffee with hot water, dispensing it into your cup.
it was horrible. i don't know if they've made any significant changes to the taste in the intervening years since 1976, but i'm here to tell you that what we were drinking was swamp water, septic tank runoff, chrome plating shop holding tank fluid. eeechhh.
fortunately, there were those of us that quietly rebelled. well, quietly would be mis-representing the case. we were vocal as hell. they installed these machines in the crews mess, and in the engineroom during the refit period prior to a spec op. so we had a chance to try out the coffee before getting underway. it was horrible. oh, i think i already said that.
this coffee was so nasty, and when we did garbage disposal unit (GDU) ops, dropping our trash and garbage out the end of a big pipe with weights in the bottom of the mesh bags we used, it was not unusual for sonar to report hearing a jar of this stuff implode as the water pressure increased during descent to the bottom. muffed booms. sonar calling cards. giant "hey you, we're over here" noises that submariners deplore. yet it still happened, even with the skipper threatening torpedo tube ejection while at depth. the crew hated this stuff and were willing to risk anything to get rid of it.
the word was, no grounds. makes too much of a mess, and the containers were too hard to get rid of at sea. never understood that, because we still had to get rid of the damned jars, didn't we? i'll concede that the accumulation of grounds could be problematic, but not undoable.
so, to make a long story even longer, we stole appropriated 10 twenty pound cans of navy coffee, and squirreled them away outboard the main engine reduction gears. you had to be a dedicated sombich to find them, because there were a lot of obstacles between you and the coffee. and at least then, the coffee the navy bought and shipped out to the fleet was pretty good stuff. i.e. not portapotty liquid like the instant swill they were trying to foist off on us.
once we were underway, the 30 cup aluminum coffee pot came out of hiding, and on my watchsection, we always brewed a fresh pot of coffee. it didn't take long for the coners and wardroom to discover the nukes had real coffee. hell, you could smell it forward when we brewed it in the engineroom. all of a sudden, officers were fighting to get on the engineering watchbill, rather than standing officer of the deck. dudes we never saw aft of frame 45 during an underway were showing up in the engineroom to shoot the breeze. always with an empty cup in their hands, by the way.
it got to where the captain, Charlie Mac, would come aft with a cup, and ask if he could have a cup of our coffee.
see, we made a huge deal about our bringing our own personal coffee, stored in our own personal storage spots under our bunks. that was the only way we could get away with it. if the command figured out we had navy coffee, stored in the engineroom and not in our personal storage, taking place of candy, smokes, skivvies or whatever else you might take to sea with you, we would have been stomped flat.
but, make it sound like you were willing to sacrifice your own couple of cubic inches of storage to bring real coffee... hell, now you are a hero.
and since the rest of the crew all bought it that this was coffee bought out of our own paychecks at the grocery store, they didn't abuse our stash.
the whole thing was an elaborate exercise. we didn't have ziplock bags then. so when it was time to replenish the coffee, i would climb outboard the main engine carrying a 12 x 24 green poly bag, open a can, fill the bag, then tape the bag shut.
when people saw the coffee in taped bags that laid relatively flat, they bought the whole "personal space" line.
when we got back from our spec op, the skipper had the shipyard tear out the instant coffee dispensers, and had the supply office turn in the unused instant for credit on real grounds.
we were heroes in the eyes of the crew, willing to give up personal space and a large chunk of our paycheck just to drink real coffee. it was all a sham, but it worked!

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Blogger BobG said...

Instant coffee is nasty stuff; the inventor of it should have been drowned in the stuff as a reward. Some people take it backpacking (to cut down on weight), but I prefer taking the type that is in bags like tea; slightly more weight, but worth it.

4/14/06, 9:05 AM  
Blogger bhd said...

I love it! And read it while drinking my own (and only) daily cuppa joe, good stuff, can stand a spoon up in it. I know that instant crap you're talking about. I used to work at Kraft, and that's the swill they tried to make us drink in the mini-kitchens. Luckily I got transferred to corp. hq where they had the huge commercial Bunns and all the decent coffee we could chug.

4/14/06, 10:36 AM  
Blogger geezernuke said...

Up till last month I would have agreed that there is no good instant coffee machine. Then I went aboard the cruise ship "Legend of the Sea", Royal Caribbean Lines, which had a few of the never run out machines and I was surprised find that it was pretty good coffee. As I went from one machine to another I found that they each had a different strenth and you could actually choose the one you preferred. Fortunatly the one I liked best was out on the pool deck area and was accessible 24-7; (just like the urn in the crews mess on the boats).

I've been retired for 30yrs but still have a cup handle callus on my finger. I am definitely a dedicated coffee abuser. I don't go anywhere without my mug of just right mud.

4/14/06, 7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Bo,

remember when a 20lb can of navy coffee could get a yardbird to do anything. it was a whole lot faster than a work requisition. then the bean shortage hit, and only 5lb cans could be had. i remember when i was mess cooking, i opened up the coffee machine and it was all black on the inside, caked up crap. got myself a green scrub pad with soap & water and started to clean it up. the mess chief (think it was Krause), old salty started going off on me. told me never to clean the inside again.

4/15/06, 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was on the USS Thomas Jefferson (SSBN 618 G) in the mid-late 70's we had that gawd awful "Mud Spitter" also. However we did have a regular "Mister Coffee" down in MCC and the chop managed to supply us with a tin or two of regular navy coffee. The Goat locker might have had a regular coffee pot also but CRS prevents specific recollection of that. Only folks that I knew that liked that Tasters Choice stuff was the ladies in Chinhae, Korea. We managed to off load most of it there. Then came the great "what happened to all the coffee" investigation once we put back to sea.

4/15/06, 9:25 PM  
Blogger Va Beach Herb said...


I can still remember the smell of those Navy coffee cans after opening. You are right it was pretty good stuff. I want to turn you on to my favorite for about the last ten years. It is from a company called Community Coffee out of New Orleans. Their "red bag" coffee comes in a dark roast version that is amazing. It is as good or better than anything Starbucks puts out and it sells for about $5 a pound. I'm sure you don't have any Winn Dixie stores in Cali., but they do have a website and even with the shipping it is still cheap. I also love their Sumatra Mandheling (sp?).
When we were building USS Tortuga (LSD 46) in N.O. we all got hooked on this stuff, and my CO had the Suppo buy 2 50lb bags for the wardroom which lasted about 18 months.

4/17/06, 6:36 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

Great memories! Neither the smoke boat Navy or the Nukes could survive without Navy coffee. The challenge of being a striker on the diesel boats learning how to carry 6 cups at a time, sometimes 8. How do you get through an overhaul without tins of coffee?I went from qualifing on smoke boats to Nucie Pu school in Bainbridge Maryland and all we got was tapwater instant. The worst memories of my Naval career was lukewarm coffee keeping me awake during class. Argggg! Great Post*****

4/17/06, 6:44 PM  
Blogger Distant Timbers Echo said...

Oh, that's just wrong. You old salts deserve something a lot stronger than Taster's Choice. Being a submarine cook like I was, I learned quickly the value of a good cup of joe underway, especially during the midwatch.

A buddy of mine even perfected the "Truckdriver's Drink" for the guys in Control and in the Engineroom at O'Dark Thirty: Equal parts hot chocolate, Coca-Cola and hot coffee. Tasted like bilgescrapings but it woke 'em up!

I can certainly believe that they were trying to foist that crap on you. During an onload of groceries one time before underway, I inspected the meat that the Navy had approved. Stamped on the side of each box: Grade F Meat. Not For Prison Use.

But a Coffee Dispensing machine? That whirrs and makes noise? That's unheardof in today's fleet. Yeesh, we were hard pressed just to get a tiny radio into the galley to listen to tapes while we burned stew!

4/18/06, 11:09 AM  

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