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A cup of coffee on the high seas

My uncle died last week. In addition to being a dedicated and loving father, an adoring husband, brother-in-law to my father, and uncle to me, he was also a highly decorated Naval officer and commander of the USS Memphis (SSN 691) fast attack submarine during the height of the Cold War.


And, while he couldn’t talk with specificity about most of the ribbons adorning his lapel, there was one hotly contested battle at sea he could discuss freely with his friends and family. It was the one for a warm cup of coffee.


You see, whenever on the surface during the wee hours of the morning or in the frigid waters of a foreign sea, my uncle enjoyed a warm cup of joe just as much as the rest of us. Actually, probably even more. Being a Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine, the Memphis could, and did, stay submerged for many months at a time. Time on the surface, no matter how brief, was treasured by the entire crew. So, when my uncle announced a contest to determine which sailor could deliver the warmest, fullest cup of coffee to the bridge, the sailors in the ship’s mess jumped at the opportunity.


The only problem was that getting a warm cup of coffee to the commanding officer in the conning tower high atop the sub’s sail was no easy feat. It involved not only navigating the sub’s narrow passages and steeply angled staircases leading from the sub’s galley, but also ascending several vertical ladders and passing through a circular hatch leading to the ship’s cramped bridge. More often than not, the obstacle course meant that the closest thing to a warm cup of coffee my uncle could expect was the quarter cup remaining in the bottom of his porcelain mug that had not spilled in transit or been absorbed by the attending sailor’s uniform.


At first, the results were promising. A ¾ full cup made it to the bridge and it looked like a winner would be declared. Regrettably though, the sailor had shown such care and diligence in not spilling more than ¼ of the cup that, by the time it reached my uncle, it was as cold as the sea air. This routine went on for quite some time, with multiple sailors bringing either very hot but very little coffee, or a moderately full cup of coffee but stone cold.


But then, one morning, it happened. A sailor delivered a piping hot cup of coffee, filled to the very brim, all the way to the bridge—earning him the opportunity to visit the bridge and fresh air day after day. To the envy of the rest of the crew, this particular sailor had mastered the art of delivering steaming-hot coffee to the top of the bridge without spilling a drop—in rough water and in calm.


Just as my uncle was becoming accustomed to the notion of starting every morning on the surface with a warm cup of joe, he learned the sailor’s secret.


One morning, as he scanned the horizon with his binoculars, he glanced down just long enough to spy the champion coffee deliverer stop a few ladder rungs short of the bridge, bring the CO’s mug beneath his lip, and top it off with mouthful of still steaming coffee.


I can’t tell you whether my uncle ever enjoyed a cup of coffee the same way again. Although I have a hunch there’s a sailor out there still telling the tale of how he used to share a warm cup of coffee with his commanding officer as they prowled the high seas.


Uncle Dennis, you will be missed.


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