Tom's Corner

Tom Irons © 2015

California Coffee Cup

By Tom Irons

California Coffee Cup

       It was October 1966, Lyndon Johnson was our president and I was humming “California Dreamin'”. Our country was having race riots, anti-war riots (Vietnam), and still coming to grips with a mass murder event on the campus of the University of Texas. Draft quotas had been increased by a power of 10 yet I was a happy (and oblivious) young man.

       I was standing at the head of the deep water dock on the Naval Construction Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, California on a wet, windy and cold day. In front of me, tied securely to the pier, was the USS Norton Sound AVM-1, a WWII sea plane tender that had been converted into a sea going weapons testing platform. The ‘Snortin’ Norton’ was my first ship assignment of my 9 year naval career and I relished the possibilities it represented.

       I was twenty years old when I reported aboard that behemoth: young and impressionable. I held high hopes for a stirring life on the high seas the likes of which Mitchener, Wouk, and Bassett wrote.

       I quickly surmised shipboard life on this particular vessel did not fit the mould of those grand yarn spinners. There were similarities to the ‘real navy’ but days at sea for the ‘Sound’ were greatly outweighed by those spent quayside. Civilian engineers and technicians came and went at their pleasure, the weapons systems we worked on were so new operating manuals were sometimes nonexistent, and we often were given raw editions to edit and field test. Being assigned to the Norton Sound was considered by many to be great duty, so much so that the navy did not consider time served on her as ‘sea duty’ at all. It was classified as ‘preferred’ duty and was tallied as a shore assignment. Towards the end of my service this fact would be an insurmountable wall in my plans for attaining an assignment at a real shore facility.

       Not long after reporting aboard I discovered that any sailor worth his salt possessed his own coffee cup. Each cup that I saw was unique: size, shape, design, monogram, color or hue. A sailor’s coffee mug spoke to his ego, rank, or state of mind. I also observed that the high grading (stealing) of another’s mug (due to its desirability, availability, or appearance) was a common occurrence.

       How to keep my cup in my possession? How to insure it didn’t go missing? I mulled these questions over for a while before hitting upon a plan of action. The next Saturday found me in town among a collection of retail shops: clothing, craft, and art stores framed an Hispanic flavored courtyard shaded by large acacia trees, paved with Saltillo tile, in small buildings painted in vivid but fading colors.

       I stepped into the first shop that displayed ceramics in the window and when the shop lady asked if I needed any help, I replied, “Yes. Do you have a really ugly coffee cup?”

       She was taken back by my unexpected request but didn’t loose her stride. Frowning slightly she turned and said, “Oh, yes I think I have just what you want.” Away she went down the isle toward the back of the store. She led me to a display in the corner hidden from the average customer. Picking up a ceramic mug and handing it to me, she asked, “Is this along the line of what you want?”

       I reached out and took from her hand a cylindrical cup 3 ¾” high, 3 ¼” in diameter. It had a rounded square shaped handle; one that I could easily slide three fingers into for stability and manly appearance. How I disdain those chic dainty cups made of bone china and possessing a handle big enough for only one finger. This mug was definitely of the macho ilk.

       My initial impression of the design was certainly not one of art. I could see no redeeming worth to the squares defined by brown lines and containing large round blue ink blots. This double pattern encircled the mug. The blue and brown hues employed by the artist were of indeterminate (ugly?) shades. What flashed through my mind was, “What artist would make something so awful?” Close on the heels of that came my spoken response, “Why, yes, it is perfect. What will you pay me to carry it away?”

       The lady laughed over that witticism but took the cup from my hand and turned the bottom up for my inspection. A small price tag was glued to the cup’s recessed bottom and it read, 49 cents.

       “I’ll take it.” I told her.

       Forty-nine years and many, many miles and experiences later I still have that ugly mug. I’ve grown fond of it even. I use it every morning for my coffee, water throughout the day and now and then for a bit of good Tennessee sour mash whiskey of an evening. That mug fits snugly into the curve of my hand from the tip of my thumb to the end of my index finger. Gripping the mug or the handle gives me a feeling of all things being right with the world.


Homer, Alaska

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