I arrived in Fulda, Germany, in January of 1988, which was in the middle of a German winter. In case you ever wondered just how cold that can be, please take my word for it – German temperatures plummet during the winter months. I had barely completed in-processing for the 11th ACR and picked up my TA-50 from Regimental Supply when the 511th was deployed to Wildflecken for a few weeks. I had some experience with snow camping as a Boy Scout when I was younger, but this was my first experience sharing an 8-man squad tent far out in the German woods for weeks on end. As soon as that deployment had ended, we were deployed to Meissner for a couple of weeks, and then I was deployed somewhere else along the border for a couple of weeks, etc. (By the end of 1988, I had been deployed for 40 of the 52 weeks.)
But I noticed one interesting thing about each of my winter deployments: one squad member always seemed to get up before everyone else every morning to face the cold alone, and he made the coffee for the rest of the squad. Everyone loved that guy, and I decided that I wanted to be that guy. It wasn't because I wanted to be liked by everyone; it was because this guy's act of daily self-sacrifice brought a brief moment of joy to an otherwise miserable moment in everyone's lives.
I don't think that anyone ever asked the original "Coffee Guy" to take on the dubious honor of climbing out of a warm [sic] sleeping bag and venturing out into the snow to brew a strong pot of joe for his fellow comrades-in-arms; I'm sure he simply thought that everyone else would like to wake up to the wonderful aroma of caffeine gently wafting through the tent. By the time I had arrived in Fulda, the self-appointed role of coffee steward had been assumed by SGT "Heave" Mauer. (Note: Everyone in our unit had a nickname; mine was "Fred" because of Fred MacMurray, and you can probably guess where Heave got his.)
Heave was a good guy, and he usually hung out with an assorted collection of ne'er-do-wells (Skip, Duncan, Sleazer, Punky, etc.) They had all been in Fulda long before I was assigned to the company, which made me "The Newbie" during the first six months or so of my tenure there. Despite my branded status as a new guy, Heave was always nice to me – he taught me a lot about how the 511th worked, how to organize a deployment, how to keep your vehicle combat loaded at all times, and how he got his nickname.
It was fairly early on when I noticed that Heave was making the coffee every morning, which I attributed to his "nice guy" disposition. But as the months wore on, I realized that a little bit of effort on his part made a big difference for squad morale. I know that it sounds like a line from a bad coffee commercial, but there is something about waking up with a warm cup of coffee that helps start your day with a better attitude.
Heave was "Old School" about his coffee making; he used an ancient, WWII-era portable Army stove – the Aladdin M-42 – and a beat-up percolator to brew his demitasse. Heave's style showed an extra level of dedication; his particular method was a long process which required patience and persistence. As the winter months gave way to spring and summer, I slowly lost my newbie status, and somewhere along the way I started to join Heave during his morning java routine. I'm not what you call a "Morning Person," so getting up when the world was still dark was a bit of a sacrifice for me. But I thought that Heave's efforts were a noble cause, and if he could do it every day, perhaps he could use some company.
Heave continued to use his old-fashioned brewing methods, but I'm not so antiquated – I started to drag my Mr. Coffee machine with us when we deployed to the border, and I'd plug that into the generators that we used for the radios. I could make more coffee in less time, but nevertheless – my approach to coffee-making was cause for repeated scorn from Heave. He would ask me where was my devotion to tradition, and I would be forced to admit that I had none – I simply wanted some caffeine to start my day.
I formed an emotional attachment to coffee during the winter months, because it was the only thing warm that I would have all day. We were usually deployed somewhere along the East German border, and we generally ate MREs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, we were frequently forced to eat those cold, so coffee was almost always my only source of heat for the day. I would fill my metal canteen cup with java, then I would wrap my fingers around the cup and let the warmth seep into my body while I inhaled the wonderful fragrance that is adored by coffee lovers everywhere. I would eventually drink my cup of coffee, of course, but I would do so with a sense that everything was going to be okay.
I think that it was sometime around the end of my first year in Germany when Heave's time in the Army was up, and he headed back to the United States. But I kept the tradition going after his departure – and I continued to get up every morning and make the coffee for everyone else as we headed into another German winter. I may not have used Heave's methods, but I don't think that mattered to anyone else. No one criticized my technique; everyone was simply happy to have coffee.
My morning ritual consisted of crawling out of my sleeping bag at zero-dark-thirty, getting dressed in subzero temperatures, heading out into the pre-dawn blackness, firing up the generator, and brewing the first pot of the day. I'll be honest – no one else was up at that hour, so I usually filled my personal thermos with the initial fruits of my labor, and by the time I finished brewing the second pot of coffee, some of the remaining squad members would start to drift out of the tent. By my third year in Germany, I had amended my morning routine slightly: I purchased a pair of propane heaters, so I would get up in the morning, light the heaters to take the initial chill out of the air for everyone else, and then I would head outside to make the coffee.
I had a lot of amusing experiences greeting the day before everyone else; here are just a couple examples:
- I vividly recall one wintry dawn at the Schlossberg when I was trying to fill the coffee pot with water; I started to pour water from a five-gallon jug, and I had barely poured an inch of water into the carafe when the water froze in motion and clogged the mouth of the five-gallon jug. I grabbed another five-gallon jug and had a similar experience. Three jugs later and I had five useless water jugs with barely a few inches of water in the pot. I held up the carafe, and as I watched – the few inches of water froze before my eyes. I remember thinking to myself, "What in the world am I doing here?"
- On a different frosty morning at our Wanfried site, I was drinking my first cup of the day as Duncan came stumbling out of the tent. He sauntered over through the snow and commented, "You know, it doesn't matter how old you get – whenever you wake up and see snow on the ground, just for a moment you think to yourself, 'Hey, maybe there's no school today...'"
It has been almost 25 years since the events of these assorted memories took place, but I still love a good cup of joe. I no longer have to drag myself out of bed in the hours before dawn and shuffle through snow to brew my coffee for the day, but the emotional attachment is still there. It's not about the caffeine anymore since I gave that up several years ago; there's just something about holding a warm cup of coffee in the morning that still makes me think that everything is going to be okay.