My only real exposure to the United States Navy is Channing Tatum’s spirited tap-dancing scene from the 2016 Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! He spends the scene crooning about dames, but he fails to mention one time-honored naval tradition that I read about in the Navy Times: drinking out of a filthy, mold-encrusted coffee mug.
Per the Times, Navy sailors—particularly high-ranking officers—never clean their coffee mugs. “The first time I learned of this I was 23 and working in an office in Washington,” writes Times reporter Sarah Sicard. “The director, a Navy veteran whose cubicle I shared, had a note stuck to his mug that read, “Don’t wash me.” The Navy vet had apparently picked up the practice as a sailor and had “simply grown to enjoy the taste of the weeks, months, or years old residue,” claiming that it added flavor like the seasoning on a cast iron skillet.
The Times reports that sailors drink out of filthy mugs for a few reasons, most notably as a means to fend off bad luck, to proclaim their seniority (the sailor with the filthiest mug has been here the longest, et cetera), or simply as a matter of taste. Regardless, cleaning another sailor’s mug is a definite no-no. “You clean a mug of one, it’s a death sentence for that person,” wrote one Reddit poster cited in the Times piece.
I dug a little further and found a blogger at the Navy Historical Foundation, who wrote about the advice he got from a higher-up at a naval museum:
“I know you are just starting out here, but I want to let you in on a little secret.” He was almost whispering. “If you intend to stay here at the museum, you can impress the Navy guys with your mug.” He went on to explain to me the significance of an unwashed or “seasoned” coffee mug, particularly in the Navy Chief community. “And keep it as tarry black as possible,” he added. “Sometimes it’s the only way you can drink this swill. But you will grow to love it and depend on the taste.” I would never think I would believe him. Boy, was I wrong.
The whole thing reminds me of an old coworker who used to drink tea out of the same tin mug every morning until a thick greenish moss appeared inside the vessel. Regardless, I don’t think I have the chops for the Navy. I’ll stick to patrolling my neighbor’s kiddie pool for bugs.