By Amy Miller
I was already feeling a bit sentimental when I walked into work one day this week. I have a big birthday coming up, and a daughter home from freshman year in college. Flowers are revealing their spring colors and neighbors and friends are emerging from our New England winter’s hibernation. And so perhaps this all helps explain why I was so struck by the anguished solitude of the White Table set out in the lobby of my Boston workplace, more this year than in the past.
Every May the federal government puts out the White Table, a tribute to the men and women who have died or gone missing in service to our country. Called the Missing Man Table, or the Fallen Comrade Table, each feature of the setting – from the white table cloth to the red rose to the lone chair – carries symbolism.
The White Table, perhaps not so well known to the general public, had its origins with a group of fighter pilots who flew in Vietnam and it grew out of concern for the Vietnam POW/MIA issue. The table is only set for one person. A poster sign next to the table in the lobby of Five Post Office Square told the meaning of the different aspects of the table.
The white table cloth stands for the pure intentions of soldiers serving. The single rose in the vase represents bloodshed, and also the loved ones left behind. A slice of lemon is there to remind us of the bitter fate of soldiers and salt on the table tells us of tears shed by families.
The poster informed me that the glass was turned upside down to show that the soldier would not be returning to use the setting, and the candle sits as a ray of light in hopes that POWs or those MIA would find their way home.
Each day of our job at the EPA we work to protect the environment, and the health of the Earth’s living. It is a good day when we stop to remember the precious task at hand, the fragility of our planet and the life upon it.
So when I walked into the building where I work in Boston and saw the White Table, this stark reminder of people who gave up so much, it was in some ways a good day. For it was a chance to feel glad for life, and for the chance to make life in New England a little bit cleaner and a little bit healthier.
Amy Miller works in the public affairs office of EPA New England and edits the EPA New England blog.