Forced by circumstances to get a bite to eat at a “fast food” place, I expected to find that frenetic, machine-like service, centered on maximum efficiency and the worship of speed. Fast food facilities are designed to move people in and out quickly, with little concern for the pondering of anything. They are strictly focused on the act of eating. Consequently, extraordinary things rarely happen inside them.
That is why I was surprised by what I saw at this particular Chick-fil-A in Maryland. To all appearances, it seemed just like any other fast food place. However, right across from the cash registers, there was a special table taking up precious space. The table could not be more contrary to the obsessively functional spirit of the fast food industry. It clashed with everything around it.
A Solemn Scene in a Frenetic Place
The round table had a white tablecloth, nobly distinguishing it from the restaurant’s other eating areas, where all eat on plain bare tables with finished surfaces. Atop the clean tablecloth was a place setting of china, not the plastic trays used as plates by customers. There was silverware, not plastic ware. Instead of a graceless paper or Styrofoam cup, there was an upside-down glass goblet, as if waiting for the scheduled arrival of a distinguished guest. There was a candle, a flower, a small bread plate, an open Bible, a beautifully framed poem and other formal objects, usually never seen in such places.
The telltale symbol was a folded American flag resting on the plate. It indicated that this table had something to do with our soldiers. The whole scene was marked by solemnity in stark contrast with the normally frenzied environment. Intrigued, I could not help but stop and reflect on what it all meant.
“Missing Man Tables” Now Nationwide
I had stumbled upon a “Missing Man Table.” These are memorials honoring those military service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. The logic behind them is that the nation’s fallen heroes will eat with us no more. We thus remember and honor them by setting a special place for them at a table.
Later I learned that the fast food place I visited is not the only eating establishment with such tables. Dining franchises like Chick-fil-A and others encourage owners nationwide to honor military service members at their restaurants with such memorials. They reflect a keen desire by both owners and patrons to remember the fallen in a special way.
A Military Tradition
The practice came from a long military tradition of setting aside a table for the fallen at special events. Some call it the Remembrance Table, or the Fallen Soldier Table. The National League of POW-MIA Families calls it the Missing Man Table to reflect not only the dead but those long missing in action. It engraves upon people’s hearts and minds the tragic sacrifice made by those who gave up their lives or freedom so that we might continue to enjoy living in ordered liberty and the rule of law.
This military tradition has now expanded outside barracks and is found in homes, at weddings… and even in fast food restaurants. They are often set up for Memorial Day or other holidays. Whenever and wherever they are found, people are profoundly touched.
The Meaning Behind the Items on the Table
An original Missing Man Table ceremony consists of reading out a script explaining the meaning of every item at the table. The display like the one I witnessed had a framed explanation on the table.
I found myself marveling at the simple symbolism of the objects before me. The white tablecloth stands for the purity of intention of the service members’ motives when serving their nation. The empty chair represents an unknown face behind a loss that will never be filled. The round table is used to show that our concern for the fallen is never-ending. A black cloth napkin stands for the emptiness “these warriors have left in the hearts of their family and friends.”
The Bible is a sign of “the soldier’s faith in a higher power and the pledge to the country, founded as one nation under God.” A single red rose represents families and loved ones. A red ribbon around the vase symbolizes the love of country that inspired the soldiers to answer the nation’s call. The pinch of salt found on the small bread plate represents the tears shed for those who died. Also on the plate are slices of lemon to symbolize the soldiers’ bitter fate.
A yellow candle and accompanying ribbon represent the everlasting hope for those still missing. The upside down goblet signifies those distinguished comrades who will never be able to toast or join in the festivities that are part of our lives.
“If Ye Break Faith with Us Who Die”
I also saw upon the table a framed copy of the famous World War I memorial poem, “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae. In those verses we are asked to remember the dead who “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow; loved and were loved” and now lie amid the poppies in Flanders Fields.
The fallen call upon the living to take the torch “from failing hands,” which is now made ours, so that we might “hold it high.” The poem ends with a plea not to forget the fallen:
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow,
In Flanders Fields.
Who could not be touched upon witnessing this scene and reading these words—even in a fast food restaurant?
A Higher Reality
Indeed, there is a particular beauty in the modest symbolism of the table items. However, I sensed that the Missing Man Table is not just a lament over the loss of fellow Americans. These brave soldiers did not die just so that we might eat fast food and enjoy life in freedom.
They died for much more. Implicit in the choice of symbols is an affirmation that there are values greater than life that must be respected, served, and even revered. The displays teach us to think beyond self and develop a proper love of country. They point to a God in heaven who watches over our nation, founded under his Providence.
A Dramatic Clash of Values
All this is very beautiful, but perhaps a higher beauty lies in the dramatic clash of values found in the scene I witnessed. These symbol-laden, cherished tables boldly defy our politically correct culture that idolizes self-gratification and unrestraint.
The fact that these tables are so appreciated indicates there is a strong undercurrent in our materialistic and secular society that yearns for higher and spiritual things. In a culture of extreme individualism, there are those who are deeply moved by selfless dedication to the common good. In times of universal vulgarity, there are those who know how to honor others with beauty, honor, and distinction. In our postmodern chaos, we still find respect and enthusiasm for tradition and order.
A Cause for Hope
All of these fascinating paradoxes speak of an America that goes unreported by major media. They reveal another side of America, rekindling hope within me for the nation.
The Missing Man Table I saw at Chick-fil-A was a powerful statement that says the Culture War is far from over. Indeed, as long as there are numerous Americans who honor the supreme sacrifices of the fallen, there is hope. As long as there are many who implicitly recognize that there are values greater than life that must be defended, there is hope. As long as we continue to affirm our faith in God publicly, there is a tiny ember that might yet set America on fire.
These sentiments can still give rise to great deeds. They are a platform upon which God’s Grace might yet work. They are proof that we have not broken faith with those who died for America around the world and on Flanders Fields.
As seen on Crisis Magazine.