The wardroom, of course, is where the officers will dine; morning, noon and evening. It is not only a place to eat – it is also a kind of oasis from the sometimes dreary, often difficult exigencies of the service. A place of social discourse, of momentary relief from the burdens of the day. The only things explicitly forbidden by inviolable tradition in the wardroom are the wearing of a cover or sword by an officer not actually on watch, or conversation which touches upon politics or religion.
But aboard ships which observe the custom, another implicit taboo concerns the empty chair: No matter how crowded the room, no matter who is waiting to be seated, that chair is never moved, never taken.
The table is by the main entrance to the wardroom. You will see it when you enter, and you will see it when you leave. It draws your eyes because it is meant to. And because it draws your eyes it draws your thoughts. And though it will be there every day for as long as you are at sea, you will look at it every time and your eyes will momentarily grow distant as you think for a moment. As you quietly give thanks.
As you remember.
The small, round table is covered with a white linen tablecloth. A single place setting rests there, of fine bone china. A wineglass stands upon the table, inverted, empty. On the dinner plate is a pinch of salt. On the bread plate is a slice of lemon. Besides the plate lies a bible. There is a small vase with a single red rose upon the table. Around the vase is wound a yellow ribbon. There is the empty chair.
We will remember because over the course of our careers, we will have had the opportunity to enjoy many a formal evening of dinner and dancing in the fine company of those with whom we have the honor to serve, and their lovely ladies. And as the night wears on, our faces will in time become flushed with pleasure of each other’s company, with the exertions on the dance floor, with the effects of our libations. But while the feast is still at its best, order will be called to the room – we will be asked to raise our glasses to the empty table, and we will be asked to remember:
– The table is round to show our everlasting concern for those who are missing. The single setting reminds us that every one of them went to their fates alone, that every life was unique.
– The tablecloth is white symbolizing the purity of their motives when they answered the call to duty.
– The single red rose, displayed in a vase, reminds us of the life of each of the missing, and their loved ones who kept the faith.
– The yellow ribbon around the vase symbolizes our continued determination to remember them.
– The slice of lemon reminds us of the bitterness of their fate.
– The salt symbolizes the tears shed by those who loved them
– The bible represents the faith that sustained them.
– The glass is inverted — they cannot share in the toast.
– The chair is empty — they are not here. They are missing.
And we will remember, and we will raise our glasses to those who went before us, and who gave all that they had for us. And a part of the flush in our faces will pale as we remember that nothing worth having ever came without a cost. We will remember that many of our brothers and sisters have paid that cost in blood. We will remember that the reckoning is not over.
We many of us will settle with our families into our holiday season, our Christmas season for those who celebrate it, content in our fortune and prosperity. We will meet old friends with smiles and laughter. We will meet our members of our family with hugs. We will eat well, and exchange gifts and raise our glasses to the year passed in gratitude, and to the year to come with hope. We will sleep the sleep of the protected, secure in our homes, secure in our homeland.
But for many families, there will be an empty chair at the table this year. A place that is not filled.
We should remember.