The obsession began over seven years ago. In 2006, I began at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum as a wide-eyed intern, ready to take on the new and fascinating world of naval history. I thought the coffee mess at work was reserved for staff and volunteers only. I did not feel comfortable partaking in the delicious brew until somebody told me I could. When I finally got the green light, I happily brought my coffee mug in the next day, eager to drink from the well all working class souls go to each morning.
This was my first experience with “Navy coffee.” It was hot and strong. Very strong. The thickness of it closely resembled crude oil. It tasted both wonderful and terrible at the same time. Your mind can trick you into believing anything. When a supreme pot of joe is brewed, many of the volunteers would call it “Signal Bridge Coffee,” recalling the nostalgia of long nights and many cups consumed.
After that first morning of coffee, I went to the break room to wash my cup and let it dry for the next day’s angry fix. As I washed out my cup, I felt the sting of glaring eyes from behind my back. I’m sure whoever it was, they could sense my hesitation. I turned around to see GMC Dana Martin, the museum’s active duty OIC. He had a puzzled, concerned look on his face. Chief Martin was grizzled and salty. He was by far one of the saltiest sailors I have ever met. He grabbled my arm washing the cup. My hesitation grew to fear. He leaned in close and told me to “never wash it again,” staring back down at my cup and back to me. I looked at him, puzzled with fascination and disbelief. Although I drink my coffee black, my mind struggled to find reason in the practice.
“I don’t understand,” I told him. “I need to clean my cup.” I was merely doing what I was taught. Bills should be paid on time. Five minutes early is five minutes late. Coffee mugs should be washed out after use. Simple, right? Wrong. I held my breath and found out just how wrong I really was.
He leaned in again, this time more relaxed (and less confrontational). “I know you are just starting out here, but I want to let you in on a little secret.” He was almost whispering. “If you intend to stay here at the museum, you can impress the Navy guys with your mug.” He went on to explain to me the significance of an unwashed or “seasoned” coffee mug, particularly in the Navy Chief community. “And keep it as tarry black as possible,” he added. “Sometimes it’s the only way you can drink this swill. But you will grow to love it and depend on the taste.” I would never think I would believe him. Boy, was I wrong.
Old coffee in a cup signifies seniority and stature in the military, particularly on deployment. As one blogger noted, “You may not be able to embrace your loved ones while you are gone, but at least you can still taste the same coffee you drank the day you left.”
To many in the military, this is nothing new. Ask anybody who served or is currently serving in the military, and they will likely give you a story about an experience involving the practice of “seasoning” their cup. Navy Chiefs, however, are considered by many to be the most Spartan of stalwarts to the unwashed coffee mug. I spoke to some retired CPOs who counted four or five deployments on a single unwashed cup. The August 1949 edition of All Hands Magazine declared that coffee was the “Lifeblood of the U.S. Navy.” The article goes on to discuss why many sailors take their coffee so seriously. The article opens with this paragraph:
The 1945 Cookbook of the United States Navy lists several reasons why a clean mug and pot of coffee is essential to a flavorful experience. All parts of the coffee mess had to be “scrupulously clean,” according to the cook book. Sailors today might read those guidelines and laugh at the rules and regulations.
Several recent articles about the practice surfaced on the internet on message boards and military news blogs. One blogger from the Military Times (Broadside Blog) wrote about it this past August. “There are only a few things you need to know about Navy coffee, and most of it involves the cup,” the blogger writes. “You do not wash a Navy coffee cup. Ever.”
I took Chief Martin’s advice, but not at first. For the first few weeks following our confrontation, I washed my cup out after he left for the day. But I got lazy after a while. I starting noticing dark brown rings inside my cup. My mug started to look like the inside of a tree, and I started to like it. The mug was white, so it was easy to measure my progress.
The rings grew larger and darker until the entire inside was jet back. Although I was never in the military, I felt a swelling of pride at my Frankenstein creation. Unfortunately, that mug did not survive. My latest and greatest creation came about in 2009. It has not been washed or cleaned since its purchase. I don’t know if my peers understand it. My wife surely doesn’t. I have a similar mug at home that she avoids looking at, and, on rare occasions, will clean when I am not looking.
Here is my (meager) contribution to this fine naval tradition. I warn you, if you are unfamiliar with the practice, you might be shocked. Behold: My four year “seasoned” mug: