Copyright 1999 - 2002 Bob Persons

The New Coffee Machine

One day there appeared a large packing crate in the mess hall, next to the rail along the serving line. In it, through the slats, could be seen gleaming stainless steel patched here and there with brown paper and tape.

"What is it?" said a voice. "What is it?" said another. Everybody, it seemed, was asking, "What is it?" But nobody went up to read the tiny stenciled letters on one of the slats. For days, the mysterious crate sat there, unchanging, gleaming. The cooks were asked, "What is it?" but they answered with a why- the-hell-is-it-any-of-your-business look, and nobody asked again.

After the crate had sat there for somewhere around two weeks, Pvt Xavier went up to the crate, squinted at it, and announced softly, "It is a new coffee machine." Suddenly the constant murmur - which was ordinarily not noticed - stopped dead, and the quiet gave a start of fear to many hearts. The astounding silence hung, mouths stopped chewing, silverware stopped clinking, serving spoons paused in midair dripping gravy and juices, for a moment short in time span but eternal in the wondrous revelation. Then, just as suddenly, as if from a prearranged signal, the interrupted motion resumed. Mouths chewed, silverware clinked, and dripping serving spoons plopped potatos and gravy and vegetables onto outstretched plates. But the usual constant murmur was different. There seemed to hang on this murmur, as from a clothesline, heavy clothespins of fear and the ponderous dripping wet wash of mental grogginess.

"It is a new coffee machine," was whispered. And, "It is about time; the old one is always breaking down." "Yeah. How long do you think it will be, before they hook it up?" "Well, based on previous experience, I would say at least two months."

The new coffee machine stood there, next to the serving line, beaming between the wood slats, unchanging, never moving, while the busy people all around forgot it was even there. Guys hurried past it with trays of food, looking for empty tables. DROs pushed brooms past it, scraping the bottom slat with rrrri-i-i-itt of wood-on-wood, and slung mops with abandon, dampening the same slat, without ever seeing it. And cooks stretched their necks to look around it at the clock without ever really noticing what it was that blocked their view.

Some people remembered it, though, when the old machine broke down. Repairmen were brought in, and they sprawled on the floor with screwdrivers and monkey wrenches, sticking their heads and arms inside the little doors in the base, and pulling their heads and arms out again. And somebody said, "Why do they not junk it and put in the new machine?" And somebody else said, "Yeah. Why do they not?" And so the new coffee machine was once again remembered. And for a few days everybody looked at the crate when they came into the mess hall, and said, "Why do they not put the new one in?" Then they forgot all about it again.

After the new coffee machine had sat for three months unchanged, it suddenly disappeared. Nobody noticed it was gone. Guys with trays full of food hurried past the spot where it had stood, looking for empty tables. DROs calmly pushed brooms over the slite rectangular crease in the floor where the crate had stood, and slung mops with abandon over the newly- bared spot, without ever remembering that anything had been there. The cooks no longer stretched their necks to see around it at the clock, because it was no longer there, and they did not recall ever stretching their necks to see around it at the clock. Until the old coffee machine broke down again. And the repairmen sprawled out on the floor again, poking their heads and arms into the little doors and pulling them out again after tinkering with wrenches and screwdrivers. "Why do they not put in the new machine?" "Yeah, why do they not?" "Hey, by the way, where is the new coffee machine?" "Yeah, where is it?" A KP soon came up with the answer. "It is in the kitchen, up against the back wall." "Why do they not put it in? How long has it been anyway, and they still have not put it in?" "It must be five months." "No, not that long. I have not been here five months, and that thing first came in here after I was already here. Three months maybe." "Well, three, four months it has been sitting around, while the old machine keeps breaking down and making lousy coffee to boot." Then the cooks were asked "Why do you not put the new coffee machine in?" But they answered with a why-the-hell-is-it-any-of-your-business look, and nobody asked again.

After a few days the new coffee machine was once again forgotten. It sat against the back wall of the kitchen, gleaming between the wood slats, unnoticed, never moving, unchanged, for a month and a half.

Then one day for no apparent reason, the mess sergeant remembered. He decided to install the new machine. six installation men were called to the mess hall. The KPs were called upon to assist two of the installation men, while the other four installation men sat around drinking what coffee was left in the old machine and told dirty stories.

The two installation men and the KPs pried the slats off the machine and tore the brown paper tape from the gleaming stainless steel surfaces and stepped on the cockroaches that frantically scurried to and fro in a daze from the invasion.

Then the two installation men went into the serving area and sprawled on the floor, sticking their heads and arms inside the little doors in the base of the old machine, and tinkered with their screwdrivers and wrenches. Then they got up, and the KPs were called upon to help move the machine, while the other four installation men drank chocolate milk because all the coffee was gone and told dirty stories.

The two installation men and the KPs moved the machine about five feet, so that it partially blocked the doorway to the sink area. Three pipes stuck straight out about two feet from beneath the end of the serving line.

The two installation men and the KPs then pushed the new coffee machine from the back wall of the kitchen to the serving area, so that it partially blocked the doorway to the kitchen. Then one of the installation men sprawled on the floor and stuck his head and arms into the little doors in the base of the new machine, while the other of the two installation men opened a large cardboard box and took out gleaming stainless steel legs and pipe sections and nipples and elbow joints and several pieces wrapped up in brown paper and tape. Then the first installation man pulled his head and arms out of the little doors smiling, and sat up on the floor and laughed. "It is steam," he said. "It is steam." "What?" the other installation man said. "The old machine has a gas heater. And this one has steam." Again, the first installation man laughed.

The mess sergeant waved his arms and paced back and forth, speaking loudly but unintelligibly and to no one in particular, when he heard of the preposterous boner. "Five and a half months it has been sitting there," the 1st Sgt said, "and now we discover it is steam." (Everybody it seemed, was pronouncing steam in italics.) "It said so on the crate, too. It said 'Coffee Urn Steam Automatic.' Eleven hundred dollars we paid for it, and now we cannot put it in."

The six installation men and the KPs sat at the tables and laughed and drank chocolate milk and told dirty stories. The mess sergeant walked back and forth, in and out, mumbling something about a steam extension from the serving line and getting an insulated pipe. Then he said, "Put the old one back."

So the two installation men and the KPs got up and lifted the old machine back into place over the three pipes sticking strait out beneath the end of the serving line. And the two installation men stuck their heads and arms inside the little doors and tinkered with screwdrivers and wrenches, and pulled their heads and arms out again. Then the six installation men drove off in their truck, and the KPs mopped up the water that had dripped from the old coffee machine.

Everybody once again noticed the new coffee machine. At least, those who walked from the kitchen to the serving area and those who walked from the serving area to the kitchen. The cooks had to squeeze past the new machine carrying heavy pans of soup and the heavy meat slicer to the serving line. And every time they did, they muttered, "That goddam coffee machine." The fat cook could not get through that doorway at all, with the machine standing there. He had to go around into the sink area, and through the other doorway into the serving area. And every time he did, he muttered, "That goddam coffee machine."

When the KPs mopped the floor, the mop strands frequently got caught under the corners of the new coffee machine. And occasionally they would accidentally bump a bucket of dirty mop water into the machine, while negotiating the now-narrow doorway, and tip the bucket over, spilling the dirty mop water all over the floor. They would then have to mop again, and the mop strands would again get caught under the corners of the machine. When such things happened, the KPs muttered, "That goddam coffee machine."

Every time the mess sergeant passed the new coffee machine, he glared at it and muttered, "That goddam coffee machine."

The new coffee machine sat there, gleaming, never moving, and unchanged, for four days, partially blocking the doorway to the kitchen, while cooks and KPs and the mess sergeant became more and more irritated with it.

On the fourth day, the mess officer came in, with an urgent need to hurry through the doorway to the kitchen, and he caught his foot on a corner of the machine and fell on his face. He got up, shouting, "Why does not someone move that goddam coffee machine!". The mess sergeant immediately put all six KPs on the machine, and they pushed it four feet, into the corner, where it was in nobody's way.

And so the new coffee machine sat in the corner, gleaming, never moving, unchanged, and completely forgotten.

2 1/2 months later, an insulated pipe arrived. It took the mess sergeant three days to figure out why he had ordered an insulated pipe. Then he remembered the new coffee machine, muttered, "steam" in italics, and sent for the installation men.

2 1/2 weeks later, the six installation men came. Two of the installation men and the KPs moved the old machine and put the legs on the new one and installed it, while the other four installation men drank chocolate milk and told dirty stories. They moved the old machine into the corner, and it stayed there until the PDO men came and took it away three months later, and sold it for $35.

Everybody immediately noticed the gleaming stainless steel new coffee machine. "Hey, look, they finally got around to putting the new coffee machine in." "Yeah, but i bet the coffee still tastes lousy. Same cooks, you know."

After a few days, the novelty of newness wore off, and nobody talked about it anymore. One day it broke down, and the repairmen sprawled on the floor and poked their heads and arms inside the little doors in its base and tinkered with screwdrivers and wrenches. And everybody says, "It is about time we got a new coffee amchine." "Yeah. It should not take any lomger than a year to get one." And everybody laughed.

 


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