In the summer of 1977 I was an Air Force ROTC cadet about to start my senior year, just one year away from commissioning as a second lieutenant and the start of what I hoped would be a long career as a pilot. One of the rituals for that summer was for many of us cadets to spend a month as a “third lieutenant.” We would be sent to bases throughout the country and spend some time in the environment that awaited us. That’s how I found myself at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.
Flying an F-4E Phantom II, even from the back seat, was a blast. At this point in my life the only stick time I had ever received was an hour in a T-38 the previous year. I flew three sorties that month, twice watching the pilot trying to shoot “tones” against a mock adversary and the final time towing a target while others attempted to shoot it with bullets. My only criterion for success was to ensure I enjoyed it and to hold on to my lunch. It was a success.
But it wasn’t just fun and games; we had to spend time with various officers in their day-to-day chores. These were called “shadow” days, in that we were to stick so close to the officer in question that we became their shadows. Most of these were a mixture of interesting and boring, usually worth an hour of time but certainly not an entire day. As I was selected to be the cadet wing commander at Purdue for the coming term, someone thought it would be a neat idea for me to shadow the fighter wing’s commander.
So at 0500 on the appointed day, I showed up at the wing commander’s house where he escorted me to the kitchen where Mrs. Wing Commander was making breakfast. She handed me a cup of hot, black coffee, which I gladly accepted. The colonel was already at work finishing off his coffee and poured himself a refill.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like coffee. I had my first cup at the age of 18, a freshman at Purdue. Now, three years later, I was accustomed to having at least a morning cup of Joe. I do believe the caffeine helped me start the day and maybe it woke me up.
Back to our story . . . after breakfast the wing commander drove us to his office, a palatial affair with an outer waiting room, a middle room for the secretary, and an inner sanctum for the man himself. As he tossed himself into the chair behind his massive desk, his secretary came in with a cup of coffee for us both. I accepted it, of course, but wondered about the double dose of caffeine.
He talked about the state of the Air Force just after Vietnam and the twenty-five years he had wearing the blue uniform. He was interested in my three years at Purdue and assured me that my next twenty-five years would be exciting. After an hour of that his secretary reminded him that the weekly staff meeting was about to begin. We walked down the hall where a collection of officers stood at attention as he entered. He took his seat at the front of the table where another cup of coffee had been prepositioned. Thankfully, there was no coffee for me. After an hour the meeting was over and the coffee cup was drained.
We spent the next two hours driving from location to location to inspect this or that, to meet officers who were doing the grunt work required to keep a fighter wing operating. At each location the officer in question greeted the colonel with a cup of coffee, usually emblazoned with his name. After the second meeting I realized the caffeine total was becoming impressive.
So let’s see: two at breakfast, one in his office, and another at the staff meeting. That makes four. Two meetings so far, now we are up to six. No, he is up to six. My count was still just two. We had six more meetings and by noon we were back at his office where he was greeted with more coffee. That makes thirteen.
“You got wheels?” he asked.
He tossed his keys at me. “Take the rest of the day and have some fun. Just leave the car in my driveway and put the keys in the mailbox.”
So whenever the subject of caffeine comes up, I always remember the day I saw a colonel toss back thirteen cups before noon.
Fast forward to 1994. I was the squadron commander of the 76th Airlift Squadron in Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Half of the squadron was housed in a bomb-hardened shelter and the other half just outside. My office was in the non-hardened side and adjoined the first sergeant’s office. I asked him about the coffee situation. I had noticed a large pot in the hardened side, where most of the pilots resided.
“Don’t touch their coffee, sir.” He explained that most of the youngsters preferred American Folgers and it was awful.
“I like Folgers,” I said.
“Have you had Jacobs?” he asked.
“Never heard of it,” I said.
“Give me a minute,” he said. With that he went to his office and returned with the most heavenly smelling coffee ever. It was like I had never really had coffee before; this stuff was on a level of its own. Now keep in mind, I like everything about Germany. The people, the food, the beer; everything. But, as of that moment, one of my favorite things about Germany became the coffee. If you’ve never had a cup of Jacobs Krönung, you haven’t really had coffee the way it was meant to taste.
For the next year we settled into a daily ritual. My secretary greeted me every morning with a cup of Jacobs. From that point on I would visit the rest of the squadron via the first sergeant’s office to refill my cup. It was great.
Then, one day about noon, there was a tap at my door. The first sergeant appeared with a worried look. “Sir, can I have a moment?”
“Of course,” I said.
“We are kinda worried about your health.”
“My health? I’m fine.”
“Well,” he stammered. “I think maybe you’ve been overdoing the coffee.”
“Nonsense!” I said. “I don’t drink that much.”
“Well, maybe you do,” he said. “I’ve been counting today, and it isn’t even noon yet.”
“How many?” I asked.
“Thirteen,” he said. “So far.”
So now I count. I’ve gotten much better. I am down to one. One pot.