When we first heard of the Second Annual New York City Mess Night, a formal Marine Corps charity dinner with a hilarious set of 39 strictly enforced archaic rules, we were less interested in eating traditional Culotte de Boeuf Imperial than watching men in uniform doing push-ups as punishment. The Mess Night is meant to be a re-creation, down to the menu, of a mess attended by Winston Churchill in 1920. But for charity’s sake, standards have been relaxed and civilians may attend, including civilian women, who were banned as even a conversation topic in 1920. While we did find the dinner at the New York Athletic Club lacking in push-ups, it was high in entertainment value (with fines being ladled out for everything from elbows on the table to contraband bottles of vodka). And it raised a ton of dough for the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation and the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction. Below, a truncated timeline:
6:15 p.m. Speed-walking through the monsoon to the New York Athletic Club. Have already broken rule No. 4 (“Thou shalt be punctual”) and rule No. 8 (“Thou shalt not use foul language, speak smuttingly, or use loud, obtrusive remarks in any language”).
6:32 p.m. Meet the Strassberger sisters, Suzanne (“Suzie Sirloin”) and Andrea, who are being honored for giving away meat (literally). Andrea, an honorary Marine, brags that she donated the filet that propelled the Marines to an all-important victory over their Navy rivals in a recent Fleet Week cooking contest.
6:43 p.m. Run into a veritable celebrity here, Staff Sergeant David Karnes, who looks like Kevin Bacon, and who initiated the rescue of the two Port Authority police officers who were found alive in the World Trade Center rubble — and then re-enlisted to go to Iraq. He does NOT like Oliver Stone’s version, World Trade Center.
7:08 p.m. There’s a tasting table for Compass Box Scotch and whiskey! Love “Oak Cross” and “Asyla,” but we appear to be the only person tasting. Most commonly heard phrase: “Just pour me something and make it a double.”
7:42 p.m. Mess president Joe Lisi, a retired corporal and actor, welcomes the guests. He will be doling out punishments, while his right-hand man, “Mr. Vice,” a retired lieutenant colonel named Arthur V. Gorman Jr. who used to carry the nuclear codes for Ronald Reagan, looks for rule violations.
8:03 p.m. Mr. President asks all guests who have never been in the military to stand and be recognized. Then fines us $10 each.
8:10 p.m. A giant slab of meat is paraded into the room, carried by four Navy ROTC women, followed by four chefs, three in chefs’ hats, one in camouflage. Mr. President: “I declare this meat tasty and fit for human consumption.”
8:21 p.m. Our plates are taken away, which is confusing because we hadn’t eaten anything for fear of breaking some rule. Also, there are five forks, five knives, one spoon, two port glasses, a water glass, a red-wine glass, and a white-wine glass on our table. We nearly crack under the pressure.
8:24 p.m. Mr. Vice brings forth a “cheeseburger” (this is apparently an insult) who has no tie, brown shoes, and a light suit, and has committed the great offense of being French, and incredibly drunk. Turns out he’s the Murray’s Cheese rep and donated the cheese for the night. No fine.
8:35 p.m. Poulard rotîe Cocotte à la Mascotte arrives. Chicken with artichoke slices, and linguine with Parmesan. Tasty.
9:07 p.m. Biggest fine of the night: $3,000 to a corporate boss whose employee has offended all women in the room by referring to his wife as his mother. Boss can reduce fine by doing 25 “sissy” push-ups. He only makes it to 23.
9:10 p.m. Culotte de Boeuf Imperial, a steak split open and rubbed with herbs, then doused with a coffee-based sauce arrives. Likewise tasty.
9:21 p.m. One of the female Marines is charged with having succeeded in drinking our allies under the table while overseas. Cheers to that. No fine.
9:40 p.m. On the patio, the smoking lamp is lighted, giving guests permission to smoke. We spy more cigars than cigarettes, naturally.
10:20 p.m. Now there’s an “Uh-Rah” contest between the left and right sides of the room. We may be biased, but we think our side won.
10:30 p.m. Mmmm. Port wine! Two kinds! And cheese!
11:02 p.m. Toasts to the Marines of WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lebanon and Grenada, Desert Storm, and Marines currently deployed. One retired Marine in a red bow tie is so plastered from all the toasting that he cannot read his assigned toast. “I hope he’s not driving,” someone shouts out. Rule violation! We pray for push-ups. Alas, that part of the evening is over.
11:12 p.m. Toast to our fallen comrades. TAPS!
11:17 p.m. Singing the Marine Corps anthem. Surprisingly, we seem to know most of the words.
11:18 p.m. All civilians are asked to relieve the nearest Marine of his fines. We skip the after-dinner drinks and deposit our $10 fine for being a civilian, then grab our “gift bag,” an actual ammo can filled with Marine Corps paraphernalia, and head down to the subway. Now what are we going to do with an ammo can?