Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, receives a presentation Tennessee coffee cup from a Third Class Quartermaster on the bridge of USS Picking (DD-685), circa 1955-1961.
Anybody who has had dealings with rust pickers and paint chippers knows that, absent serious intervention, they tend to sit around on their butts all day, bitching and moaning, and drinking endless quantities of battery-acid-strong coffee. I never realized, though, that they never washed their cups.
Naval Historical Foundation explains that they have a tradition concerning crusty coffee cups.
[It] was my first experience with â€œNavy coffee.â€ 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 â€œSignal Bridge Coffee,â€ 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 dayâ€™s angry fix. As I washed out my cup, I felt the sting of glaring eyes from behind my back. Iâ€™m sure whoever it was, they could sense my hesitation. I turned around to see GMC Dana Martin, the museumâ€™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 â€œnever wash it again,â€ 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.
â€œI donâ€™t understand,â€ I told him. â€I need to clean my cup.â€ 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). â€œI know you are just starting out here, but I want to let you in on a little secret.â€ He was almost whispering. â€If you intend to stay here at the museum, you can impress the Navy guys with your mug.â€ He went on to explain to me the significance of an unwashed or â€œseasonedâ€ coffee mug, particularly in the Navy Chief community. â€And keep it as tarry black as possible,â€ he added. â€Sometimes itâ€™s the only way you can drink this swill. But you will grow to love it and depend on the taste.â€ 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, â€œYou 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.â€