America’s favorite drug

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 21, 2012

When one of my granddaughters was preparing for finals in her senior year at college, she posted this on her Facebook page:
Dear Coffee-
I’m so sorry for calling you so many terrible names when I was younger. I do NOT think you are disgusting, rotten, terrible, smelly, or any other foul name. You are sweet nectar sent to us.
Well, I could relate to this.
When I was a very little child, grownups would give me a spoonful every now and then. It would have just the right amount of cream and sugar in it, and they would be sure to blow on it so it was not too hot. I rather liked the taste, but was probably more taken by the fact that it was a “grownup” treat that I was being allowed to sample. My wife says this was a part of her own childhood experience in Denmark, so the practice is apparently common in other countries.
After that, though, I didn’t much bother with it. I drank milk in my boyhood and soda in my teen years — but then came military service. Coffee became almost a rite of passage. It became, in fact, the potion that got you through the mid watch, from midnight until four a.m.
What a brew it was, though. The last official duty the mess cook performed before he hit the sack himself, was to fill up the big coffee urn in the hanger and start it brewing — and that’s what it did all night.
By midnight it was really ripe, and by three or four in the morning it could pass for asphalt. Let me tell you — if you had to hop on a plane for a SAR call at 2 a.m., you were wide eyed, by golly. To make sure that vigilance was preserved, a thermos or two of the stuff went on the plane with you. I had long since forgotten the nectar offered me by grownups and didn’t realize that this military concoction bore only a passing resemblance to coffee.
There was a saying at the time that sailors “liked their women like their coffee – sweet and blonde!” Sure. In order to get this stuff down, lots of cream and sugar had to be added. Given that treatment, it could be tolerated.
In fact, I drank so much of this hanger coffee it became my idea of what real coffee actually was. I can’t say that I ever enjoyed it — it was a means to the end of staying awake through your watch. I wondered why anyone would drink it voluntarily, unless it was necessary.
My illusion was so complete that when occasionally, off base, I would get a cup of the civilian version, I would wonder what was wrong with it. Why was it so bland? So lacking in that bitter quality? Why did it not raise your bile? Why so watered down? Could anything this innocuous actually get you through the night? Serious questions these.
In time, of course, I realized that what I had been drinking was a horribly defiled version of the real thing. The scales fell from my eyes.
It was not unlike my wife’s experience in moving from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. She had come to Pennsylvania from Denmark via New York and thought that the world was pretty much defined by cold, damp, dreary weather. I had had several military assignments that took me south and she could scarcely believe me when I told her that there were parts of the country where the sun was known to shine for days at a time. “Get outta here!” she might have remarked, had she been familiar with American idiom at the time.
And so it was with my exposure to real coffee. Had this stuff been around all the time I was swilling the other?
I had no trouble working it into my daily regimen. One morning at the coffee station in the cafeteria of the plant I was working in, I was behind one fellow as he drew a king-sized cup. It was early on a Monday morning. I don’t know how his weekend had gone, but as he took a sip, he said, “Ahhhh…..America’s favorite drug!”
I had never looked at it that way, but it made sense to me, and I welcomed the change.
I was happier to see an addiction like this embedded in our culture than more noxious substances.
Within just a few years of this cafeteria exchange, I discovered exciting variations on coffee. There were cappuccinos, lattes, mochas – kids seemed to be opting for coffee shop hangouts over soda shops. I could envision my granddaughter hanging out with buds over a whipped cream topped peppermint mocha, and it warmed my heart to think of it.
Young couples moving to new locations began checking on the amenities near their new digs. Were the schools good? What about police and fire coverage? How about the neighborhood?
Was there a Starbucks nearby?
Chuck Thurston lives in Kannapolis. His email is A book of his collected columns, “Senior Scribbles Unearthed,” is available on Amazon.