NOAA Corps traditions of the Dining-In or Mess Night are lost to the shrouds of time. It is believed to have its origins in the revels of Viking clans on the occasion of their return from successful forays against distant shores, at which great quantities of food and drink were served. Like so many of our service traditions, the format used in the United States was derived from the British Navy. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Mess Night, or “Dining-In” became an integral part of life in the wardrooms of Navy Men of War, including the officers and vessels assigned to the Coast and Geodetic Survey after 1807.
In addition to serving as occasions of celebration, Dinings-In provided the younger officers a formal opportunity to meet with their seniors. In 1740, The Duty of an Ensign and How He Ought to Behave Himself noted that “He must be frugal some days in the week, that he may be enabled to keep company with his officers when they do him the honor to ask him to drink a bottle of wine with them….and the Ensigns were thereby capacitated to keep company at a tavern with their superior officers and thereby…improve themselves in many respects.”
Officers of the Mess
There are two officers of the mess: The President and the Vice President (affectionately called “Mr. Vice”). The President is normally the Commanding Officer of the unit having the Dining-In. The President oversees the Dining-In and maintains decorum, in addition to proposing toasts and recognizing members who wish to propose toasts.
Traditionally Mr. Vice is a person with keen wit and a fine sense of repartee, who can be expected to stimulate table conversation. For this reason, only Mr. Vice may address “items of interest to mess members” without the Presidents leave.
Entering the Dining Area
The cocktail hour will end promptly at 1900. The signal for dinner will be the ringing of the ships bell by Mr. Vice. Upon hearing the bell, all officers not seated at the head table should dispose of their drinks and proceed to their assigned seats. The prudent officer will have found his or her name tag on the seating chart posted, and will be able to proceed to their seat with a minimum of caterwauling, and inquiring of the way. When the members have located their places at the table, they stand quietly behind their chairs.
Those officers to be seated at the head table will remain in the cocktail area. When the senior officer indicates that he or she is ready to dine, the President will form those officers seated at the head table in the order in which they are to march into the dining area. When all the head table members are ready, the President will cause the NOAA Corps song to be played, and the head table will march into the dining area. When the members seated at the head table have reached their seats, and the music has stopped, the President will call the mess to attention. He will lead the members in the Pledge of Allegiance, which will be followed by the invocation. Note that when in uniform, the hand is NOT placed over the heart during the pledge, rather the officers should stand at the position of attention.
No one may take his or her place at the table after the head table has entered dining area without first going to the President and requesting to be seated late. Conversely, once seated, no one may leave the dining area without permission of the President. Under certain circumstances, such permission may be granted but will usually be accompanied by an appropriate penalty later in the evening.
Use of the Gavel
The gavel, in possession of the President of the Mess, will be used to signal the members thusly:
One rap: Members should take their seats.
Two raps: Members should rise and stand in place.
Three raps: Requires attention of the members of the mess.
Immediately following the Invocation, the President will seat the mess with one rap of the gavel. Brief introductory remarks will be made, along with an introduction of the honored guests. After the introductions, members will be invited to begin their dinners with the salads already on the table. Wine bottles will be on the table, and should always be passed from right to left (clockwise).
The roast beef will be brought to the President for sampling. If the beef is found fit for human consumption, the president will open the buffet. Members will proceed to the buffet table in the order indicated by the President.
The backbone of a good dinner is amicable and friendly conversation. Each officer is encouraged to enjoy him or herself to the utmost during the dinner. Officers are enjoined from discussing politics, religion, specific ladies, wagers, or controversial issues. Shop talk, i.e. matters pertaining to the internal affairs of a Command should also not be discussed, but matters of general interest to the service are proper subjects of conversation.
The term “toast” originated with the custom of the seventeenth century of putting a piece of toast in a wine glass to improve the flavor. Legend has it that during the reign of Charles II, the custom was aired in a humorous light one day as a celebrated beauty was bathing in public. One of her admirers took a glass of water in which she stood and drank to her health. Another fellow offered to jump in, not desiring drink but saying he would have some of the toast!
When all glasses are charged with port, the toasting will begin. It will be initiated by the President with a toast to the Commander in Chief of the United States. Other formal toasts will be offered to other Uniformed Services as well as other dignitaries. Toasts are normally made to an institution or office, never to persons by name.
The President controls the procedure. For formal toasts, the President will call on a member to offer the toast. The member will rise and offer the toast. At the sound of the gavel, the members rise and Mr. Vice seconds the toast. Members will in unison repeat the toast and raise their glasses to their lips.
After the formal toasts and evening’s presentation, informal toasts may be proposed by members of the mess after obtaining recognition from the President by rising and seeking “A Point of Order”. After being recognized by the president, the member then proposes a toast. When (and if) the gavel sounds, all members rise and Mr. Vice seconds the toast, members respond and the toast is drunk.
Toasting is a social voyage of some duration. The prudent mariner will not consume all their available stores early in the voyage. Generally the port is sipped in response to each toast. Members of the mess who do not wish to consume more port should still raise the glass to their lips to participate in the toast. Members caught in the lubberly position of having an uncharged glass during the toasting will be subject to penalties.
The final toast of the evening is proposed by the President to the NOAA Corps. This is the only toast of the evening which is “bottoms up.” Upon conclusion of this toast the mess will adjourn to the bar.
Examples of toasting procedure
A Formal Toast:
(three raps of the gavel)
Mr. President: ”I would like to call upon CDR Alpha to offer a toast to the Secretary of Commerce”
CDR Alpha (rises): “Ladies and Gentlemen, To the Secretary of Commerce”
(two raps of the gavel. The members rise)
Mr. Vice: “To the Secretary of Commerce”
Members: “To the Secretary of Commerce”
(one rap of the gavel. Members sit).
An Informal Toast:
Proposing member (CDR Alpha): “Mr. President, CDR Alpha has a point of order”
Mr. President: “The mess recognizes CDR Alpha”
CDR Alpha: “I would like to propose a toast to the caterer for preparing such a delicious repast”
(two raps of the gavel. The toast is accepted. Members rise)
Mr. Vice: “To the caterer”
Mess: “To the caterer”
(one rap of the gavel. Members sit).