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The weekend before Veteran’s Day, I was drinking a cup of coffee and browsing through some old pictures when I found one of my grandfather in his Army uniform from about 1918. I smiled when I saw it because a) Daddy Mac was the man who introduced me to coffee before I could walk and b) the Army was, oddly enough, the only place where my love of it ever caused me any problems.
It happened when I arrived for boot camp at Ft. Jackson, SC. I figured I was fairly well prepared for the ordeal because I was older than most of the recruits, in pretty good shape and I’d been yelled at enough that the drill sergeants didn’t worry me much. Plus, a couple of friends assured me that the worst part of it was just being there.
As it happens, they were horribly wrong. The worst part by a long shot was when I found out coffee wasn’t part of a new recruit’s meal plan.
Just 10 years before, they were putting cigarettes in C-rations. But when I get there, they suddenly decide coffee is no good. Classic Army logic: Gassing the recruits is fine, but for heavens’ sake, don’t let them have caffeine.
In my mind, not having coffee wasn’t just bad, it was downright cruel. So, I decided to do something about it as soon as I got the chance.
Luckily, it didn’t take long. A drill sergeant came out of the private dining area one morning to give us our daily, ear-splitting order to clear out of the chow hall. As he did, I noticed he was holding a piping hot cup of coffee.
I knew it had to have come from inside that very building, so while he was screaming and making apelike gestures at my buddies, I slipped back behind the wall that separated the cadre from the recruits.
There, in a little alcove hidden from the trainees, was a giant coffee dispenser filled with the substance that would make my next eight weeks much more tolerable. From then on, all I had to do was walk past the end of the chow line, turn hard left, fill my cup and sit down.
There was some experimentation involved. For instance, I had to put enough milk in the cup to cool it down so I could drink in a hurry. I didn’t have time to put sugar in it, and I had to use a tumbler rather than a cup. Also, I had to make sure I accounted for all the drill sergeants.
That last part I learned the hard way when the surliest sergeant in the bunch caught me red-handed one morning.
“Private, do you really think the Army put that coffee here for you?” he growled from behind me. He was so close that I could feel the words coming off his lips.
I wanted to say, “No, I think God put it here for me and you were hiding it.” But better judgment caused me to simply look him in the eyes and answer, “Yes, sergeant.”
To my surprise, he chuckled and said, “You better drink it in a damn hurry, boy.”
Nothing else was ever said about it until a few weeks later on the rifle range. My company was getting ready to qualify with our M-16s. On range days, we’d have breakfast in the field, which meant I only had MRE coffee – and that was if there was any hot water available.
As I was sitting there with my MRE, trying to figure out how much force it takes to break a dehydrated pork patty, I heard a familiar voice yell, “Private!” About forty of us jumped up, but I saw the drill sergeant was pointing at me.
“You, come here.”
I scrambled over and noticed he was holding two cups. He handed me one and said, “Here, I don’t want you screwing up your score because you didn’t have any coffee this morning.”
* * *
A few years later, I was a platoon leader and our company was in the field. We had a hot breakfast scheduled, but when it arrived, there was no coffee. The chow hall was “out,” I was told.
That was a disaster in the making, but I knew what to do. My platoon sergeant and I drove back on post to talk the mess cook into giving us coffee for 50 soldiers. But no matter how nicely I asked or how much I pleaded, he said we got on on his schedule late and he didn’t have enough to spare.
I didn’t give up, though. I kept talking because I knew what a difference a cup of coffee could make for morale. I kept talking because I knew my guys expected me to take care of them.
Most of all, I kept talking because I could see my platoon sergeant sneaking canisters of fresh, hot coffee out the back door and onto our truck.
I drove away smiling, secure in the knowledge that my basic training had finally paid off.