The Canadian detachment at the United States Air Force’s Western Air Defense Sector recently celebrated the 92nd anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The celebratory mess dinner, held on April 15, 2016, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the state of Washington, was an opportunity to celebrate RCAF history and heritage and for the Canadians to introduce their American colleagues to Canadian mess customs.
The Canadian Detachment has been working side by side with the United States at McChord Field as part of NORAD since its construction in mid 1950s. WADS is a joint, bi-national organization that ensures control over all U.S. airspace, conducts air defense and airborne counter-drug operations.
Mess dinners are common to all military services and are formal occasions filled with pageantry, customs and traditions, according to Warrant Officer Richard Martin, the Canadian unit warrant officer.
“During a multi-course dinner, toasts are proposed, music played and speeches, preferably brief, are given.”
The guest speaker, Canada’s Lieutenant-General Pierre St. Amand, deputy commander of NORAD, upheld the brief speech tradition but took the time to touch on the long history of the RCAF. He praised the long-standing close relationship the U.S. and Canadian military have shared, specifically in NORAD and at the Western Air Defense Sector.
According to Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Wappler, the Canadian Detachment commander, a tradition of Canadian mess dinners is to “closely guard your seating name card since they are the preferred method of passing notes to the President of the Mess Committee (PMC)”, who presides over the dinner.
Unfortunately for Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Bergren, commander of 225th Air Defense Squadron B-Flight, his name card somehow ended up in the hands of Captain Stephen Buckley, the PMC. Captain Buckley announced to the attendees at the mess dinner that Lieutenant-Colonel Bergren, as a penalty for losing his name card, was requested to sing a song to Chief Master Sergeant Daniel Rebstock, superintendent of 225th Support Squadron. To the diners’ great surprise, Lieutenant-Colonel Bergren performed a great rendition of “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’”.
But the tables were turned on Captain Buckley when he was unable to maintain possession of the PMC’s official wooden gavel that gave him the authority to enforce the rules of the mess dinner. Colonel Kristen Leist, commander of 173rd Medical Group, noticed the gavel was not properly secured and, with the help of other mess attendees, including her husband, Colonel Gregor Leist, WADS commander, she was able pass the gavel secretively under the table to the Warrant Officer Martin for safekeeping.
PMCs who lose their gavels often resort to using their shoe instead, but Captain Buckley had a reserve gavel – a red and blue plastic Fisher Price hammer procured from his children’s toy box.
The final tradition of the night is the “passing of the port.” At the end of a mess dinner, port decanters are passed amongst the attendees who pour themselves a small glass for the Loyal Toast (the toast to the reigning monarch).
The way the port is passed is determined by the military service. The Royal Canadian Air Force likes to “fly over the table,” according to Lieutenant-Colonel Wappler. Thus the port passes from hand to hand and the decanter never touches the table until it needs to be refilled or has reached the end of the table. In the Royal Canadian Navy, on the other hand, the decanter is always touching the table, even when being poured. “Like a ship floating on the sea,” commented Warrant Officer Martin.
“The passing of the port can definitely become complicated when there are over 100 attendees representing all branches of the Canadian and U.S. military,” added Lieutenant-Colonel Wappler.