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Clandestine Coffee Breaks During the 1930s

Many CECOM employees have weighed in about their desire for good concessions near where they work.  The quality of the coffee has been especially important.  But long before Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts were ever considered, Fort Monmouth employees enjoyed the coffee break.  However, the coffee break was not always a part of the Fort Monmouth culture.  For some time, they were a clandestine operation, and Dr. Harold Zahl sheds light on how they became part of post life in the first chapter of Electrons Away.

CPT David Washburn (later BG) ran the scientific labs at Fort Monmouth during the 1930s with an iron fist.  Rules and regulations had instrument shop personnel arrive at 7:30am, and were allowed a forty-five-minute lunch break around noon. CPT Washburn had a hard time enforcing this in the shops, because at 10:00am, shop employees would tend to gather for coffee and a donut regardless of the rules.

A series of lookouts and early warning systems used by the shop personnel ensured they could continue their coffee breaks in peace, and in secret.  Until the day CPT Washburn entered the lab through a rear door, effectively avoiding the two usual sentries. 

But the shop employees hid the coffee pot and the hot plate into a cubicle before the Captain walked in.  Whew!

Except that brewing coffee gives off an aroma.  The Captain asked the shop personnel if they smelled any coffee.  Lying, the foreman shook his head and replied no.  Undeterred, the Captain went into the adjacent room to check for any of their contraband coffee.  That room was cleared – no coffee or brewing equipment visible, and no roasting bean smell wafting about the room.

Returning to the instrument shop, the CPT Washburn was still suspicious. And rightfully so.  He walked over to a wooden cabinet where, from a small compartment, traces of smoke could be seen emerging. Upon opening the door a big cloud of blue smoke engulfed his face.  The hot plate was singeing the inside of the cabinet.  The shop employees hid the coffeepot, but forgot to unplug it! 

Panic set in as they prepared for the Captain’s wrath. Instead, the Captain smiled.  Zahl reported that CPT Washburn said, “I think I was right in the first place when I said I smelled coffee. Why don’t you bring it out and we’ll all have some.”  With that, he sat down while ten shop personnel stumbled over themselves trying to be the first to give the captain a clean cup and a doughnut.

Ten minutes later the instrument shop had a relaxed atmosphere.  Coffee and donuts consumed, the Captain announced that he was going to go back to his desk and draft a new regulation: From 9:50am until 10:00am, all laboratory personnel may take time off for coffee.  Zahl wrote that CPT Washburn departed the shop that morning with the following words, “No more fire hazards. I’ll check on you tomorrow morning when I come back for my coffee.”

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