Nectar of the Bean

The 24-hour diner is crowded, even at 4 a.m. I took a corner booth, just inches from the last stool at the counter. There's a hefty, hung-over man on the stool. I smell liquor fumes amidst collective aroma of bacon, eggs and brewing coffee. Not altogether unpleasant.

I don't especially enjoy my eye-level closeness to the drunk's ample posterior, so I compensate by staring straight ahead. Still, I have to cut my eyes to the left now and then.

Can't help it.

No matter. Here's my coffee -- nectar of gods, amongst early risers, lard-butt drunks and on-the-road waterfowlers. No finer coffee in the universe, the brew offered in open-all-night joints that smell like breakfast 24 hours a day.

Coffee is as much a part of a duck hunter's life as guns, blinds and Labradors. I'll never completely trust self-proclaimed waterfowlers who don't drink it. They're likely mere pretenders. Real waterfowlers arise early, hunt all day and stay up at night lying about their shooting and calling abilities. For that, brethren, you gotta have coffee. Period.

My mother introduced me to coffee when I was 4 years old. Of course, that was in 1956, and she was no "enlightened" modernist. I was also allowed to drink from water hoses and eat unrefrigerated eggs. If I drop dead from amebic dysentery, salmonella or caffeine toxicity before finishing this column, it's all Mom's fault.

There's an old saying about life's pleasures that goes, "The worst I ever had was wonderful." Not so with coffee. I've had a few truly awful cupfuls. My buddy, Virgil, once brewed a potful with muddy river water, complete with rocks and twigs stirred up by his bare feet. Cost me a broken tooth. Cletus Monroe's duck-camp coffee won't kill you, which is its one positive attribute. What it will do is cause heartburn a boxcar full of Tums can't cure. It tastes a lot like a paper mill smells.

But oh, the good ones! Andy Arnesen's duck-blind coffee tastes like heaven, and once kept me from freezing to death during a Maryland ice storm. My friend, Robert, who still uses an old-fashioned boiling pot, even at home, makes the best wake-up juice in the Mississippi Delta. Della Boudreaux, an old Cajun angel, served me a wonderful cup of chicory-laced brew from a kettle by her fireplace. Made me not only want to shoot ducks all day, but hand-catch alligators as well.

My grandfather once allowed me to order my own cup and drink it with him in a little north Florida café. I was 9. We were going duck hunting together for the first time, and I felt all grown up. Best dadgum cup of coffee I ever had.

"Huh? What's that? Oh hello, Mildred. Nah, just daydreaming, I reckon. Another cup? You bet."

I'll finish my second and get back on the road. Might not even stop before I get home. Well, maybe once or twice to, shall I say, "outsource" this fine java. That's OK. It'll give me a chance to stretch my legs.

Mildred (I looked on her name badge) asked me earlier if I wanted regular or decaf. I told her regular, as decaf keeps me awake. She looked perplexed.

"You didn't misunderstand, honey," I said. "Decaf makes me lie awake wanting a cup of coffee."

You know, Mildred has a pretty laugh. Think I'll write about it sometime.

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