I first read about this tradition at Lex's.
Applebee's in New Port Richey had The Empty Chair set out for Veteran's Day.
Edit 24Mar16: Lex's post in its entirety below the cut. This is HIS chair now. Dammit!
By lex, Tue – December 21, 2004
In the wardroom onboard the aircraft carrier from which I recently
debarked was a small, round table, with single chair. No one ever sat
there, and the reasons, both for the table being there, and for the fact
that the chair was always empty, will tell the reader a little bit
about who we are as a culture.
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.