T&D: The First Time I Made Coffee For The Captain of the USS Okinawa

Informal Learning – Trial & Error

In 1973-1975 I was in the US Navy – a Journalist by Rating – and because of my “Radio Voice” I was once made the Messenger of the Watch on the Bridge of the USS Okinawa LPH-3 in 1974. I stood that watch for 4 hours at a time – per the schedule given to me.

Just me, and a Petty Officer of the Watch, the Officer of the Deck, the Air Boss, and the Captain. But there could have been others as well – as this was 45 years ago.

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Here I am in my CCTV Studios in 1973 – rewinding a 16mm film before reboxing it to send off to the next ship along with all the rest of that week’s programming.

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When movie videos came a decade later and we were all asked to Please Rewind – I got it. It was a habit by then.

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On the shelf behind me – two photos back – are binders and binders of Technician’s Manuals for all of the equipment in our on-board studio.

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Today someone might call them Performance Support, or Job Aids, or Guidance, as the technician that I worked with referred to them occasionally, but only after he really got stumped. Just like in civilian life.

Here is my technician, the late Dennis McCain.

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But I digress.

Back to the Bridge

So my first day as the Messenger of the Bridge I learned how to use the 1MC to broadcast messages across the entire ship.

Think of it as an Intercom System that no one could escape as it broadcast EVERYWHERE and LOUD ENOUGH to wake the dead – or any Sailors or Marines asleep in their racks (beds).

The Captain would tell the Officer of the Deck to pass the word about something, he would relay that to the Petty Officer of the Watch, who would order me to do it. Just like in the movies, with a lot of aye-ayes said in response – some with a “sir” and a “yes sir” mixed in.

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Here is where my so-called Radio Voice came in handy. I could project “to the back row” as they might coach a stage actor.

They told me how to operate the 1MC – direct instruction – and that combined with what I had learned in boot camp about how to answer an order – more direct instruction with corrective feedback as necessary – and my prior knowledge/skill about projecting to the back row and my natural voice with the Johnny-Carson-Midwest-Accent, and my ability to recall an order and repeat it – it was easy peasy.

Everyone was pleased.

Then One Day

I was asked to make coffee for the Captain. I heard the request make its rounds down the order of rank until it hit me. I said, “Sir, yes sir” and went off the main compartment (room) of the Bridge to where the Coffee Mess was at.

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I had been in the Coffee Mess before to fetch coffee for Captain Salin and others – who were way too important to leave the Bridge and their Stations FOR ANY REASON let alone for something as mundane as a cup of coffee. That was part of my job when I wasn’t PASSING THE WORD. But I had never made coffee in there before. There was always some already going and I simply poured and delivered.

And I had never made coffee before – in my life. Although I had watched my parents do it hundreds if not thousands of time before.

So I thought – sure. Why not? How hard could it be?

I didn’t say a word, I just left the Bridge and entered the Coffee Mess and made coffee.

It was one of those big industrial coffee makers – 30 or 40 cups at a time. Tall, shining aluminum, with the metal basket with all the drainage holes where the coffee grounds went. Standard stuff I thought.

I found the coffee can. Read the laminated “Job Aid” posted on the wall of the Mess about how many scoops of coffee to add, so I did that and then I added water, plugged it in and waited.

I may have even taken that as an occasion for a smoke break – as I think I recall that it was there in the Coffee Mess where one could take 5 and catch a smoke. A bad habit I have long since given up on BTW.

When the coffee was done I poured a cup and took it to the Captain, and handed it to him with a most proper “Sir, here’s your coffee, sir.” I went back to my Watch Station after he took the cup from me, and stood by. Most of my job on the Bridge was to “stand by.” Until there was the word to be passed.

I stood at my post, with the others in my full view, along with the bow of the ship and the helicopters with their blades rotating as we were in Air Ops (Operations).

The Captain had set his coffee down as he surveyed his flight deck and observed the Air Boss doing his thing. There’s always a lot going on during Air Ops as foreground to the endless ocean that was our backdrop.

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I was doing my thing, standing by, when I saw the Captain pick up his cup of coffee, take a drink, and then spit it all out, across his window to his world, the active flight deck.

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So the Officer of the Deck and the Petty Officer of the Deck “jumped to” in unison as if they had practiced this hundreds of times before. They both grabbed me and immediately and without words, dragged me out of the Bridge, as if they had just caught a dangerous felon.

I was roughly pinned up against the bulkhead (wall) and questioned, until it dawned on me that they thought I had attempted to poison the Captain. I told them I had never made coffee before and I guess that I had not done it correctly.

They dragged me into the Coffee Mess and had me explain to them exactly what I had done.

When I got to the part where I turned on the hot water to add it to the coffee urn, they stopped me with a, “You never add hot water you dummy, you add cold water.”

We all went back to the Bridge where the OOD, the Officer of the Deck, informed the Captain that I had never made coffee before and that I had made it with scalding hot water instead of cold water.

We all laughed, me less than the others, as the Captain shook his head.

I asked the Captain, breaking 3 levels of the Chain of Command, “shall I try again, sir?”

And so I did, but I had to bring back two cups. One for the OOD to try first. Just in case.

My shipmate buddies who often hung out in my CCTV Studio – one of the few places on the ship with air conditioning – laughed their you-know-whats-off when I told them my Sea Story. That’s Captain-Kick-Back Len, Michael, Gerry and Guy chilling out while someone else ran the night’s programming.

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The Captain always gave me a look and a little smile when he requested coffee via the Chain of Command after that.

Back to Today

Every time I hear about Informal Learning I think back to this incident on the high seas.

Was it High Stakes Performance – deserving of more Formal Learning? Direct Instruction? Formal Coaching? A more explicit Job Aid?

Perhaps it all depends on your perspective.

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