The White Table
The tablecloth is pure white.
As the children carefully place a white plate and a black napkin at each setting, they talk softly with each other.
This household is following a tradition that started back in the terrible days of Vietnam. Started by the River Rats of Vietnam (the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association), the tradition has spread to other branches of the U.S. military where remembrance tables are set when units or commands gather for dinners or reunions.
The tradition has become more popular recently with the publication of the popular children’s book America’s White Table by Margot Raven Theis. Miss Raven is scheduled to read her book during a Memorial Day weekend combined meeting of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association and NAM-POWS, the Vietnam War prisoner of war association, in Washington, D.C., this year.
“This is for Uncle Charlie,” says little Marsha, placing another napkin.
“Is he coming this time?” Bobbie asks.
“He’s out of the Veteran’s Hospital,” Susie replies. “He’ll be here.”
“This is for Jock.” Marsha places a black napkin at her brother’s place.
“Home on leave,” Susie says.
Marsha places a black napkin at the head of the table. “Daddy,” she says.
“He’s putting on his uniform,” Bobby says. “It still fits.”
“Almost.” Susie is the oldest and knows about these things.
Next, Bobby sets a short white candle at each place. Marsha carefully places a lemon slice on each plate, and Susie follows with the salt-shaker, putting a small mound of salt next to each lemon slice.
They add the silverware, and then Mom and Dad – Dad in his slightly undersize uniform – enter the room. Uncle Charlie limps in. Since his uniform doesn’t fit anymore, he wears a suit, but a row of small medals adorns his chest. And Jock, resplendent in his freshly pressed dress khakis, follows, crooked grin on his face.
They take their places standing, and Dad says, “The white tablecloth represents …. ”
“Purity.” Everyone answers in unison.
The black napkin represents …. ”
“Sorrow of captivity.”
“The white candle represents …. ”
“The lemon slice represents …. ”
“The missing service member’s bitter fate.”
“The salt represents …. ”
“Tears shed by the families of the missing.”
The chair next to Uncle Charlie on Dad’s left is empty. Charlie slides it out and tilts it against the table.
“Billy,” Susie says softly. “I miss him so much.”
The chair on Dad’s right is also empty. Dad tilts it against the table as well.
“Who’s that for?” Susie asks, since the family circle was all accounted for.
“Hack,” Dad answers.
“Yah,” Bobby interjects. “He was the best!”
Little Marsha’s eyes grow large and fill with tears. “I’m so sad,” she says as the family joins hands and bow their heads.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor