The Silver Plated Coffee Pot
by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong
Officers ate forward… The animals chowed down aft… It was always like that.
The wardroom was a picture of decorum… Civility… Cloth napkins… China with little blue anchors on the rim… Nice silver and a silver plated coffee service. Nobody put their elbows on the table… Conversation was low-key, polite and intellectual on multiple levels. Emily Post would have felt right at home.
It wasn’t like that aft.
We ate off Pyrex plates, using stainless utensils that had been bent all to hell opening crates, boxes and varnish cans. We sat on padded potato lockers and didn’t give a damn where you put your elbows. As long as you didn’t park your boots in the mashed potatoes, you were okay. Nothing was off-limits when it came to table conversation… It was usually informative, disgusting and would have shut down a Sunday school picnic. Farmers talked about lancing bovine boils… Guys coming off liberty would expound on car wreck carnage… Old veterans would go into great detail about stuff they had picked up from wayward damsels in faraway places. Ghengis Khan and Ivan the Terrible would have been right at home. Emily Post would have had a heart attack.
Nobody understood the concept of civility.
“Hey Mike, toss me a couple of gahdam biscuits.”
“You want butter?”
“Yeah, slide it down.”
“Jeezus Christ Dex, how many pork chops you think you can get on that plate? You forget you have shipmates?”
“Look who’s talkin’. I seem to remember last night, you took enough meatloaf to fill the forward hold on Mother Onion.”
“Hey Jack, you gonna hog the spuds all night?”
“Pass the damn beans.”
And so it went. Red-blooded American bluejackets miles from the civilizing influence of the gentle sex. Who, when left on their own, reverted to the primitive ways of their Viking ancestors.
One thing smoke boat boys never forgot. We had the best mashed potatoes anyone ever turned out. The Army and Marines might put up with spuds out of a box… Powdered crap… But not the smoke boat service. We always had real live, peel ’em spuds. The mess cooks peeled ’em during movies… It was the only way a non-qual ever got to watch a movie… And if the lads were in a good mood, you could pass out peelers and have a mass peeling session along with your shoot ’em up.
They served mountains of them… Butter and great mashed potatoes.
We didn’t have a magic, Aladdin’s lamp silver plated coffee pot. We had a contraption called a coffee urn… Something akin to a pigmy water heater with a glass sight gauge that told you the closer you got to the bottom, the closer you got to roofing tar… From roofing tar, you went directly to ‘bottom of the pot asphalt’. You could stand a spoon up in after battery coffee.
The urn had a gravity drain that connected it directly to #2 sanitary tank wherein resided crew poop and rapidly decomposing head paper. The line had a small gate valve and a couple of kick throws… Failure to secure these little rascals before opening 225 lb. discharge air, allowed the charming contents of #2 to back up into the urn. Maxwell House and percolated doo doo make for one helluva cup of coffee… One of those fringe benefits of diesel boat submarining that Tom Clancy never shared with the lads he writes about.
Submarines carry folks called quartermasters… Guys who dabble in occult sciences remotely related to establishing a ship’s position as related to God knows what. These are men who worship at the altar of the LORAN god and who couldn’t find their ass with both hands and a flashlight. Guys whose entire vocabulary consists of,
“Anyone got a clean white hat? Me and the skipper are going up on the tender.”
But they had one thing on the rest of the animals… They got to drink coffee poured from the silver plated coffee pot forward… The marvelous device not connected to anything from which it could receive surprise gifts.
Quartermasters were sometimes invited to officer pow-wows and secret handshake meetings… I was an E-3 and had no idea what they did other than drink coffee and spend a lot of time trying to figure out where we were. We had a piece of equipment called a LORAN… A device that was about as reliable as a cinder block when it came to determining our position. The only difference between our LORAN and a Hindu tea leaf reader was that the LORAN didn’t steal oxygen.
The quartermasters and the officers used to study the charts… Drink chicken blood… Throw bones in the air and communicate with unseen spirits and something called the Naval Almanac… The stars… Wind direction… Earth rotation… Aunt Jemima… Jeezus… and use words like,
“We should be somewhere right about here…”
Hell, we should have been drinkin’ at Bells.
It had to be something that came out of that silver plated coffee pot because we always managed to find the international buoy… The Chesapeake Lightship and the light on top of the Cavalier Hotel at Virginia Beach… And once you could see that you knew you were only a couple of hours until you would be seeing that world-wide universal navigation beacon… A neon sign that read,
‘BELLS BAR and NAVAL TAILORS’
And the old faded cardboard sign in the window…
‘Let BELLS put you in a new set of blues – Only $29.95 – Credit available – Just ask’
How many of you still had your ass mortgaged to Bells two years after you tossed those Bells ‘nut-huggin’ blues in the lucky bag?
On the old 481, navigation was less of a science and more of a community crap shoot, but somehow or another, we managed to find our way there and back… Had to be that damn silver plated coffee pot.
If someone ever gives you a choice between a quartermaster and a seeing eye dog, do yourself a favor… Stock up on dog biscuits and learn rudimentary bark.