A Mess Night is a formal stag dinner in mess by all members, or by the noncommissioned officers of a particular post or unit. Spouses do not attend. This may cause some irritation, but must cheerfully be accepted as one of the many hardships a soldier's spouse must bear. A Dining In allows for the spouse to attend. Mess nights may be held periodically, for example, to celebrate special anniversaries (such as that of a battle in which the unit has participated); to "dine out" NCOs being detached: or to honor guests from another unit, service, or country.
PLANS AND PREPARATIONS. The first step in preparing for a mess night is to designate the noncommissioned officer who will act as Vice President (or "Mr. Vice", as he is traditionally called). In some messes or organizations, the vice president is the junior staff sergeant present. However, it is good practice to rotate the job among all staff sergeants on board so that all may gain experience. In any case, the function of the vice presidentat least beforehandis to un- dertake all preliminary arrangements, i.e., guest list (to be approved by the mess president), seating diagram (also to be approved), menu and catering, music, decorations, etc. The success of the evening depends on the vice president.
Subject to local or unit customs and to facilities which are available, here are specific arrangements which should be made for a mess night.
- After approval of the guest list, invitations should be prepared and mailed or delivered at least two weeks in advance of the Mess Night. Each guest, regardless of organization or of sponsor in the host unit, is a guest of the Mess and should be so treated.
- The table is set with complete ditiner servicewine glasses, candles, and flowers. Unit or post silver and trophies should be used as ornaments on the table or in places where they will show to advantage. Naturally, they should be in a high state of polish.
- Unless the post or unit sergeant major or the president of the staff NCO mess desires to preside, a sergeant major is detailed as President of the Mess for the occasion. As stated before, a junior staff sergeant acts as Vice President.
- Uniform is dress blues (or, at tropical stations, white-blue- whites). Civilians invited to a mess night should wear black tie with miniature medals (if they rate them) or dark suit and tie with large medals (if they rate them). Noncommissioned or petty officer guests from other services should wear equivalent uniforms. Retired NCOs who are invited may either attend in uniform or wear civilian clothes with medals, as above.
- The National Color and the Marine Corps Color are placed behind the president's chair. At organizational mess nights, guidons of companies and batteries can be banked behind the top table. Drums can also be used to good effect, if pyramided up. Another idea is to place all barracks caps of those present on bandstands or a trestle, in a row or rows in rear of the vice president's place. Stacks of rifles in each corner of the room (out of the way, of course) are another touch.
- The mess president sits at the head of the table, the vice presi- dent at the foot. Other guests and members take seat by rank except that guests of honor are on the right and left of the president. A seating diagram should be posted in advance, and place cards and menu cards prepared. All preliminary arrangements are supervised by the vice president.
Typical Seating Layout for a Mess Night
- If available, a three- or four-piece military string orchestra should be detailed to provide dinner music, and should know the national anthems and regimental marches of guests. If suitable "live" music is not available, a good-quality public-address system with taped or recorded selections will serve as a substitute. The musical program should be checked and timed by the vice president, and should always include Semper Fidelis and the unit song or march of each guest. If live music is available, coordinate all these and other musical arrangements with the bandmaster.
- Advance planning with the mess includes arrangements as to cost, menu (usually roast beef), wine (a good rose goes with any menu), and the 1775 rum punch which is often used as the traditional drink for the toasts. Give the mess manager at least two weeks for his own planning, based on a tentative attendance figure from you, being sure sufficient private space is available for cocktails, dinner, and drinks afterward. A week beforehand, give the mess manager a final figure on who is coming.
- The vice president should be at the mess early on the morning of the dinner with a working party to assist in final preparations. Decorations and trophies are placed, table is set, and place cards are checked against the seating diagram, which should be posted in the mess lobby or cocktail lounge. If the toasts are being drunk in traditional rum punch, the punch bowl is positioned for best service.
- The vice president should be on hand a half hour before the appointed hour for cocktails. This provides time for a last-minute check of details.
PROCEDURE. Staff NCOs and guests assemble punctually 45 minutes before dinner for cocktails. This allows time for all to arrive, but not too much time for preliminary drinks (remember, there will be a long stretch ahead). The cocktail hour should be the occasion for all SNCOs to speak to each guest and make him feel welcome; also for the mess president to welcome each guest on board individually. In addition, the younger NCOs should take this occasion to pay their respects informally on sergeants major and first sergeants and senior chief petty officers; this is much appreciated by the older men.
If possible, a section from the unit band should provide semiclassical or light musical background, but, if there is nothing better, a record player or tape recorder will do.
Dinner is announced in accordance with local custom. If a field music is available, the preferred way is to have him sound the old-time First Sergeants' Call. Then music can follow, such as Semper Fidelis or (for drum and bugle corps) Sea Soldiers. Another variation, for fife and drum, is The Roast Beef of Old England (which used to be played aboard ship as "Officers' Mess Gear" or for all hands when a holiday ration was to be served). When playing any of the foregoing, musics usually strike up in the mess proper, march through the cocktail lounge, back into the mess, around the table, and return to the lounge, where they halt and continue to play.
Depending on local ground rules, members and guests proceed informally to their places; or, where more formality is the custom, those seated at the top table enter in a body after all others are in place waiting to sit down. In any case, neither drinks nor cigarettes should be carried in from the lounge, as a courtesy to those members and guests at the dining table. When going in, each guest should be escorted by a member of the mess. Grace is said by the chaplain, if present, otherwise by the president. All hands then take seats. The ranking guest, seated at the mess president's right, is served first, then the president, and so on counterclockwise without further re- gard to seniority. Appropriate wines are served with each course (however, remember that chilled rose goes with all food combina- tions, has a light, pleasant taste, and is inexpensive; in other words, you don't have to be a wine snob to run a good mess night). There should be no smoking during dinner, and no noncommissioned officer may leave the table until after the toasts, except by permission from the president. (If for any reason, official or otherwise, you arrive late, you should express your regrets to the mess president before taking your seat.)
In some organizations, when roast beef is the entree, the head waiter rolls on the beef, halts behind the president, cuts him a small but choice piece and lays it before him on a plate. The president then tastes it and, if satisfied, pronounces, "This beef is tasty and fit for human consumption."
Dinner then proceeds. When the president and senior guests have finished, the table is cleared. The president raps for attention with gavel or spoon (but not on a glass; if crystal it might shatter), and says or obtains silence for the chaplain to say a short concluding Grace. Note for Chaplains: don't make a sermon out of Grace.)
On some occasions, port is drunk with the toasts after dinner, in the English fashion. If so, here are certain traditional rules:
Don't drink toasts bottoms-up.
Port is served from decanters passed clockwise from the president and vice president.
Never drink a toast from an empty glass, or worse, in water.
If toasts are drunk in the 1775 rum punch (see below for recipe), there are no decanters to pass, and it is up to waiters to keep glasses or punch cups charged during intervals between toasts.
In any case, when port decanters have made their rounds or all cups have been charged with 1775 rum punch, the president raps for silence. If a foreign military, naval, or other official guest is present, the president rises, lifts his glass, and says, "Mr. Vice, His Majesty, King _______ of _______." The vice president then rises, glass in hand, waits until all have risen, and gives the toast. "Gentlemen, His Majesty, King _______ of _______." The orchestra plays the foreign national anthem, following which all say, "King _______ of _______ ," drink, and resume seats. After about a minute, the president again raps for silence, the senior foreign officer rises, and says "Gentlemen, the President of the United States," and the orchestra plays the National Anthem. This toast is called "The Loyal Toast." If no foreign guests are present, the first toast is to the President of the United States, and in any case the concluding toast is to the Marine Corps, during which, if music is available, "The Marines' Hymn" is played. The wording of this toast should be, "Mr. Vice, Corps and Country," and the custom has grown up that the vice president replies in words taken from a Revolutionary War recruiting poster of the Continental Marines "Long live the United States, and success to the Marines!" If the guest of honor be a Marine, he may take this occasion to proceed to a few remarks. If the guest of honor is from another service, a toast to his service is in order. He may respond and speak. Before leaving the subject of toasts, note that toasts may be divided into four classes, and that they are given in the following order:
- Toasts of Protocol: Toasts to foreign governments or chiefs of state; toast to the President of the United States.
- Official Toasts: Toasts to other services, military organizations, Gov- ernment departments, agencies, or institutions.
- Traditional Toast: "Corps and Country."
- Personal Toasts: Toasts to individuals (distinguished guests, officer being dined out, etc.)
Note: To make 1775 rum punch, mix four parts dark rum; two parts lime juice; and one part pure maple syrup. Add small amount of grenadine syrup to taste. Ice generously and stir well. The maple syrup, incidentally, was originally used because of the British blockade which cut off supplies of West Indies sugar cane.
The traditional toast ends the formal part of the evening. Personal toasts and speeches may follow at a suitable interval afterward, as described below.
Following the toasts, coffee is served, the president announces, "The smoking lamp is lighted," (never say "lit"), and individual drinks or liqueurs may be ordered. At this point or whenever the orchestra is released, the president may send for the bandmaster, and offer him a drink. If speeches are planned (other than remarks associated with toasts), they are made now. In "dining out" a departing messmate, the president makes brief, usually humorous remarks, whereupon the noncommissioned officer being honored replies in the same vein. In some messes the orchestra remains and plays the regimental march of each guest, during which the individual stands. When speeches are over, the top table guests rise, following which the remainder of the party adjourn individually to the bar and anteroom, where songs are generally sung and sea stories recounted. All hands should remain until the ranking guest and the president leave, after which anyone may secure at discretion.
Circumstances will frequently not permit a mess night with all formalities as to uniform, catering, and table service that are outlined herein, or it may not be desired. This should not deter an organization from making the effort. The idea is to do the best you can with what you have, and let the spirit of the occasion take care of the rest. Do not, in particular, let yourself be overcome by the apparent formality of mess nights; the object is the pleasure and. comradeship of all hands.
As to timing, it is better not to schedule mess nights regularly. It is much preferable that people begin asking when the next one will take place. Thus a mess night will be looked forward to with anticipation and never as a burden.
Note: The costs of a mess night, like other "chip-in" Marine Corps functions, should be prorated by rank so that people who make the most, pay the most.
Information taken from the "Handbook for Marine NCOs"