Secret Of The Masons: It's Not So Secret

NPR Highlights New Masons

Rachel Martin of NPR files this story about contemporary Freemasonry. Similar in tone to the famous LA Times story of 2008, the story highlights the new generation of masons and show them in a favorable light.  Both stories emphasize new – that is 21st century – Masonry, where the Flintstone-esque attraction of Lodge Night replete with outrageous hats and grandiose titles is replaced by something more esoteric – an inward quest for self-awareness.  And high time, too.

Still, there seems a basic lack of understanding by people outside our mystic circle that to me seems curious.  Mark Tabbert, for instance, who is quoted in the article, is listed as a Massachusetts Grand Master, by the author, who clearly is confusing Mark’s “Masonic super-hero” alter ego with an altogether different heroic Grand Master.

But all kidding aside, Tabbert’s thoughts are right on the money. He says,

In the quest to be larger and to do more good and to have more fun, [Freemasonry] let in a lot more people, and it dropped the standards of the fraternity.

He says the current renewed interest in Freemasonry has brought in men who take a more serious approach to the ritual than older generations did, and who want to tighten initiation standards and raise dues. But he says the fraternity must watch out for men who sign up because of misguided theories linking Freemasonry to “divine secrets.”

Once you get through the romanticism of a quest that doesn’t exist, or foolishness about the Knights Templar or the Arc of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, you find out that there actually is a quest,” Tabbert says. “And the quest is the inner journey, the self improvement, to be useful in society and improve yourself.

NPR can’t bring itself to completely ditch the Templar treasure/ Holy Grail story line, though:  “While the Masons may not have any big secrets, they do have treasures – including the gavel that George Washington used to hammer in the cornerstone on the Capitol building in 1793…. It’s one of the most treasured Masonic artifacts, guarded by a lodge in the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C.” [emphasis added] which makes it sound like it’s watched over by two giant Anubis-headed warriors like in Night of the Museum. And who knows – maybe it is and they were just gone the day I saw it.

On the whole, however, the article is a positive take on the Craft and will – undoubtedly – generate some interest.

Originally posted under audevidetace

vintage sanka ad

Always Been Good Enough – The Emblematical Instant Coffee of Refreshment

vintage sanka adA budget debate in Excelsior Lodge focused on memorial contributions for deceased brethren.  In the jurisdiction, it is customary for Lodges to remit a nominal amount as a memorial contribution to the state-wide Masonic charity, and I may reliably report that since time immemorial, that amount has been ten dollars.  I know this because several brethren of Excelsior Lodge have been Masons since time immemorial ;  one of them – Roy Mantooth —  was even Past-Master of Antediluvian Lodge No. 1, before he transferred, and his membership number, barely visible on his faded dues card, is four.

You read that right: Four.

Mine is 127598.  His is 4.

So the story goes, when they decided they ought to assign membership numbers, Solomon took number one, then Hiram King of Tyre, then the other Hiram, and then Mantooth because he was the one who always filled the coffee pot. With Sanka.   Anyway – so since forever Excelsior Lodge has sent ten dollars as a memorial, until this year’s  sitting master – a dangerous and revolutionary firebrand, not to mention a financial daredevil  – decided to make the contribution twenty-five dollars and chaos ensued.

As discontent is concerned, it was pretty mild, like most things Masonic. No shouting or anything (that’s for The Elks, or worse: The Eagles). No, it was more like watching dandelions taking over your garden, slow, inexorable, and not really noticeable, but you wake up one morning and think,  wow – where’d all those weeds come from?  But like discontent everywhere, it was deeply rooted.

“We need to lower that memorial contribution back down to ten dollars,” Mantooth was saying in his forceful manner, “it’s been ten dollars since I’ve been here and that’s always been good enough in the past.”

Always been good enough in the past.  You run into this sentiment a lot in Masonry.  In fact, I think it’s a Masonic motto: Is est satis pro habenae opus. A few nods from some of the older fellows and Mantooth started gathering more steam, “ I mean, if we were going to send flowers to the funeral – instead of sending a memorial to the Charity – we wouldn’t spend more than ten dollars, anyway…”

To be fair, Mantooth is not a florist, but one of the younger fellows piped up at that, saying  “that would be a pretty lame bunch of flowers for ten bucks,” but  it didn’t register.

And the problem is, it usually doesn’t register, because the divide between the older and younger members is very deep.  We’ve all noticed them in a hundred small ways – the emblematical instant coffee, for example, which, with a plate of day-old snickerdoodles from Albertson’s, is the Alpha and Omega of a typical Masonic fête.  Our meetings are slack, our regalia tattered, and our dress codes are either from 1974, or would shock the staff at the City Rescue Mission, take your pick. But more alarmingly, our lodge halls are crumbling.  In some halls this occurs because the members have fled the instant coffee for the latte house, but in others it comes not from penury but from pure parsimony, and heaven help the master who suggests raising dues.

These are all symptoms of  doing Masonry on the cheap, and its effects are insidious.  It means not paying proper attention to good form because it’s easier not to, and it means that the way things were in the past is not only good enough now, but for the foreseeable future.  This is why members think that flowers still cost ten dollars, that instant coffee is an elixir, and that red Bee Gees jackets present the image of the fraternity that will attract members in the critical 25 – 40 age group.  Because it’s always been good enough; no further analysis required.  If the goal of the fraternity was to rival the AARP in members over 65, we’d be in fine shape.

If not, it’s time to unplug the percolator. Go digital instead of analog.

I don’t pretend knowing how to pry the dead hand of the past off the steering wheel, but a good place to start is your officer line, you incoming masters.  Pack that sucker as full of young brethren as possible, giving yourself a coterie of men who share your priorities and who can withstand the insistence that the old way is the only way. With a young line, you still might have an antediluvian secretary (or treasurer), but with no voting bloc of his own, that’s a majority of one. Too often, the young men are sidelined because they don’t know the work, or because the master wants “seasoned” brethren in line to help him out.  This can be helpful in the short term, but it will defer our younger members assuming the mantle of leadership for as long as it continues.

And if you hate Sanka as much as I do – the sooner you start, the better.

This was originally published under audevidetace

Masonic Research and the Pig-Stealing Deserter

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last five years researching both Masonry and the American Civil War, as well as the intersection of those two subjects, and that is why my blog posts have been less frequent of late. Currently, I am in the middle of the final edit for my book on that subject which will be published in early 2010 by the University of Alabama Press and it’s time-consuming work. I had been thinking about Civil War Masonry since I was raised, but it wasn’t until I began looking for Civil War ancestors here at home that the work really started to take shape. In fact, it was over dinner one night some years back that my wife shared an interesting tidbit that got the whole thing rolling. Her great great grandfather, she announced, died in 1863 in “Chimichanga, Georgia,” which made me pause with my fork in mid-air.


“That could have been it,” she said blandly, eating her peas.

halleran-cummingsMy wife has no interest what-so-ever in history, but historically minded folks will recognize the homophone as a reference to the Battle of Chickamauga that occurred in north Georgia on September 19-20, 1863. To suggest to a Civil War geek like me, that someone died within 20 miles of that place in 1863 is the same as saying – yeah, my grandfather worked in a schoolbook warehouse in Dallas in 1963.  So I told her that there were a lot of people who died in Chickamauga, Georgia in 1863 and most of them died from lead poisoning.

I hurriedly finished my peas, and got out the family papers. Sure enough, we found the reference to Chickamauga, and that led to a record’s request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and some correspondence with the Indiana Historical Society, among others. I think my frau would have been content to just let her great great grandfather rest in peace with his burrito, but by that point I was committed.

Men and women seem to go about genealogy differently. From what I can tell there are two main areas of interest for chick-genealogy. The first going something like this; “What diseases did my grandmothers die of and do I carry the gene for female baldness?” Every genealogy I’ve ever looked at that was compiled by a female described the diseases, maladies, and medical complaints of the ancestor more thoroughly than a coroner’s report. And hers was no exception; that thing was filled with more tumors, lesions, goiters and leprosy than a field dressing station along the Burma Railway in 1942– it’s enough to make you retch.The only thing missing was a tissue sample.

The other interest females invariably have is kind of a scrapbook thingy where they can read old newspaper clippings about what kind of dress the bride wore and paste it all pretty-like in a photo album. So when you’re poring over these things, you’ll come across pressed flowers and scraps of material and old social notices from the Mudburgh, Iowa News Advertiser about the soiree over at Lorraine Hudson née Klingenhoffer’s where the band played until the wee hours of the morning.

This is, of course, vastly different from what guys are interested in – namely, “Did my great-grandfather save the Union by shooting Braxton Bragg in the left nut?” And of course that inquiry carries with it some risk, because although you are unlikely to discover that your Grandfather was awarded three Medals of Honor (you’d already know that), you could find some cool stuff like maybe he was in Pickett’s Charge or something, but you might also just find the eerie line in the official record “Shot for Cowardice” written by some clerk in a spidery hand at regimental headquarters, or “Stole a pig: deserted.”

Probably the best possible outcome is to find out that he was wounded in battle somewhere – accidental shootings don’t count and just leave the impression that the whole family is a collection of idiots. Killed in action is morbidly acceptable, because at least that means he was in the thick of things and aiming at Braxton Bragg’s family jewels, before a crafty sharpshooter cut short the life of a hero. If they survived the war and didn’t come away with a cool eye patch or a wooden leg or something, it’s still OK, but it’s better if they wrote a lot of letters and described desperate bayonet fights among the harried rear guard, or catching a spy or something. Outlawry is acceptable too, but only during wartime and only against the enemy.

You can also check and see if they were Masons. The Grand Lodges maintain detailed records of membership, and they are always a great place to start. You’ll need their full name and the approximate year of birth to determine when they would have been eligible to join. Back then, barring something odd, a man had to be twenty-one to be initiated. Dates of death are also very useful and many families noted those down, so even if you don’t know where the grave-site is, you can often determine the year, if not the exact date of death.

Obituaries, which often survive among the scraps of material and pressed flowers are a big help in this, and also in determining Masonic affiliation because they will generally note if Masonic funeral rites were performed. The better ones will list the lodge name and number. Even if you confirm your ancestor’s Masonic pedigree, you might not find a lot from Grand Lodge unless the Mason was active in lodge. But in genealogy, something is always better than nothing.

If this spurs you on to finding the paladin, or the pig-stealing deserter, in your own family, a few things might help.

For starters, I’d look for letters or death certificates that place them in a particular location on a concrete date. If you can determine that the guy was in, for example, Georgia in 1863 and if he was military age, you’ve got a damn good chance of having either a potential Hero of the Union (or Confederacy, as they case may be) or the bane of swineherds everywhere. Birth and death records are hard to find if the family copies are lost, but they are the baseline – if you find them, you have your ancestor right where you want him — pinned down to time and place and then you can expand your search to government, Masonic and church records. When you finally nail down that the guy was a soldier, NARA will search their enormous collection and find the enlistment records for you for free. You’ll even get a physical description, wooden leg and all.

If you find his apron – let me know.

Originally published under audevidetace

A typical masonic lodge dinner

Euna Stubbs’ Meatloaf

Someone check the Old charges and see if they require us to use paper plates. I’m just back from looking at them and I don’t find any reference, so I thought perhaps I would draft my own.

III. Of LODGES (Amended 2009).

A typical masonic lodge dinnerA LODGE is a place where Masons assemble and work: Hence that Assembly, or duly organiz’d Society of Masons, is call’d a LODGE, and every Brother ought to belong to one. The LODGE shall be caparisoned in SHAG CARPET and there shall be many avocado-coloured appliances – which provided they still operate shall not suffer themselves to be upgraded. INTERNET IS RIGHT OUT, as is such decoration or appurtenances that may not be made by hand or purchased for less than two SHILLINGS.

In ancient Times, the LODGE was gloriously decorated in crimson, purple, bronze and gold, but these artifices being deemed too difficult to execute by modern Masons are to be hereunto cast aside in favor of vinyl tablecloths, paper plates and paper napkins which are easier. The persons admitted Members of a LODGE must be good and true Men, free-born, and of mature and discreet Age, who may abide forever the serving of meatloaf, green bean casserole and roast beef the texture of boot leather.

There. Much better. Now, they’ll be no more harping among the young upstarts about how we need to “spruce things up a bit” or “take pride in ourselves.” We’re Masons, damn their eyes, and if we stand for anything, we stand for immovable change with an unshakable, mulish, bull-headed conviction that any and all change is not only untoward, but simply wrong.

Recently this issue came to a head when the Grand Lodge decided to hold its Warden’s School here. No problem, we’ve held the statewide Warden’s School off and on at my lodge since the 1950s – which is actually rather convenient because we still had some of the original leftovers and the menus were already printed. We’d just scratch out the names of the old Grand Masters and pencil in the names of the new ones – neatly mind you – and it took about 30 seconds worth of work, which if you ask me is time well spent for Masonry.

But then, a young Turk decided that we should change the menu and actually serve a meal that the guests would like to eat: smoked prime rib, new potatoes, that kind of stuff. Catered. Yes, you heard me, CATERED.

Now over and above the fact that this was a slap in the face to Euna Stubbs who had been cooking meals for us since Pontius Pilate, the cost was simply astronomical: $14.00 per plate. Euna and the Star Chapter only charge us $5.50 a plate and that’s always been good enough for us in the past. The young Turks told us that since Grand Lodge was going to foot the entire bill, we might as well take them up on their offer, and serve a really nice meal (another slap in the face to Euna). Well, I voted for it in lodge of course, but don’t you worry, I spent the next month bitching about it to everyone who would listen about how extravagant it was, all this folderol and for what? Dinner with the Grand Master? In my view, if you start feeding them like that, you might as well set out food for all the stray cats in the neighborhood, too, as you’ll never be shed of any of them.

Now on the night of the dinner things really came to a head. This young Turk and his wife bought linen tablecloths – I hope it was with their own money – and (get this): FRESH FLOWERS to put on all the tables. Now over and above the fact that this was a slap in the face to Beulah Longbottom who made the centerpieces we always use for banquets during the Truman administration (now THERE was a Mason – no smoked prime rib for that man), God rest her soul, she’s dead now, of course – hard to believe it’s been over thirty years ago – but I digress… she made these centerpieces, all eight of them, by hand, from plastic forget-me-nots and yellow…I dunno… spikey-looking flower thingies, and Vernon Mantooth, who was master in ’71, stapled some aluminum square and compasses onto them (he ran the plumbing supply store back then and he had one of the kids who worked for him cut them out of scrap flashing), and they’ve always been good enough in the past, but oh no! Not now.  We have to have fresh flowers. And you know what? Those fresh flowers won’t even keep a week. Beulah’s flowers have been going strong for almost sixty-five years. Progress. Yeah, right.

I was all set to start unrolling the vinyl table-cloth covering thing from the roll we keep in the boiler room. It’s like a roll of trash bags, but instead of being black, it’s white.  What?  It looks good.  Anyway, we cut it to length on each table and then tape it down at each of the four corners so that the table is covered nice and neatly. I was just getting started when all of a sudden the Jr. Warden says they want to use cloth tablecloths. I guess that saves on tape, which can be kind of expensive…you know, I’ve lobbied for years to just glue the vinyl down on each table and then after dinner is over, we can just take the tables out to the parking lot and spray them off, but it’s never gone anywhere. Anyway, so, you save on scotch tape with these newfangled cloth tablecloths, but then you have to wash them! I told the Jr. Warden this and he said he didn’t mind, he would wash them at home – which if you ask me is absolutely insane, but whatever: it doesn’t cost the lodge anything and if this guy is crazy enough to waste two hours of his time with the washer and dryer, I guess it’s OK with me.

So we have dinner, which was fine, although for $14.00 a plate, you’d think they’d give you Baked Alaska and Lobster Thermidor served by real French waiters flown over from France.  I haven’t been to a restaurant in a while – I don’t get out all that much — but last time I ate at the Diner, I could have bought half the restaurant for fourteen dollars.   Anyway, afterwards, the Grand Master and his group were very complimentary of the effort the lodge put forth, and they were specifically pleased with the meal – like they are too good for Euna’s meatloaf (another slap in the face, if you ask me), or something. But all the ladies could talk about were the fresh flowers. I tried telling one of them that it was a shame they wouldn’t last the week, but she said she didn’t mind and that she thought they were beautiful. Go figure. Now, normally we’d have been done right after this. We’d rip off the vinyl table covers, brush the crumbs off, stack the tables and chairs and then we could go upstairs and drink coffee for another two hours by ourselves, but not this time. You know why? Because some genius decided we should use real plates and silverware instead of paper plates and plastic forks. Luckily we had had about ten brothers there helping, but it still took us almost FORTY minutes to wash, dry and put all the stuff away.

The younger guys were all having fun with it, but I thought it was ridiculous. And you want to know what the worst part of it was? Grand Lodge was so “impressed” that they want us to do the same thing next year.

No good deed goes unpunished — isn’t that the truth.

But I still think gluing the vinyl table covering to the table would look a lot classier than taping it. And it would be much easier.

And that’s why we’re here, right?

Originally published under audevidetace.

Upon Attaining Middle Age: Wilmhurst, Masonry and the Man-Boat

lincoln town car

Originally published under AudVideTace

The actuarial tables and my aching joints proclaim insistently that I have reached middle age, a notification that few receive gratefully and I am no exception.

Apart from the aches and pains of life which suddenly and mysteriously appear like a thief in the night, middle age is that betwixt and between part of life where one is thought to begin accruing the benefits of life while still being young enough to enjoy them for a few years before the AARP, senility and Prostatitis hurry one along into old age proper, and the accompanying bills not covered by Medicare. Still, it’s better than the alternative, I suppose.

Two recent events put paid to any notion I had about being a young man.

The first was the unshakable conviction of my optometrist that I could no longer dodge a pair of bifocals without going blind, and the second was my refusal to drive another mile in my old but faithful pickup truck. I’ve never been a sports car guy , I didn’t even lust for one in high school, although I did own a fairly muscular 1968 Chevy Malibu, stock, with 307 cubic-inches of V8 that would run like a scalded dog and lay a scratch shifting into third. After nearly killing myself by knocking a chunk out of the federal interstate system infrastructure, however, I decided that a slower and less tempting pickup truck would provide more sensible transportation and I’ve driven one ever since.Trouble was, none of them were very comfortable – at least none of the ones I owned.So, like a typical maladjusted mid-life American male, I decided that my troubles could be easily solved by getting a hot car, and that’s just what I did, not a new Charger, no Corvette, not even a Mustang.No. I bought a Lincoln, a 2002 Continental (the last year for that model), with heated leather everything – even the dual speed fuel pump is made out of leather, and yes, it’s heated too.This baby is, as my wife would say, a Man Boat without apology. The Man Boat does not solve all of middle-age’s problems, but while you’re fiddling with all the buttons and switches inside, and rubbing Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Cleaner on the interior, you tend to forget about them for a while, which again, is better than the alternative.

I didn’t think that owning a Man Boat would have anything to do with Masonry, but, boy, was I was wrong.

It turns out, it has everything to do with Masonry. In fact, if Masonry was the official sponsor of a car, it would be the Lincoln Town Car, the big brother and successor in interest of my Continental. The Cadillac De Ville is maybe a close second, but still way back there. Masons drive Lincolns. If you doubt me on this, cruise the parking lot at Grand Lodge next time and count the Lincolns – more Town Cars than you can shake a stick at. In fact Masons love Lincolns – and none of this Navigator crap, either – I’m talking Lincoln Town Cars, and they love them for a number of very definite reasons. First of all, they’re comfy, which is good because old guys hate squeezing into an Astin Martin DB5 which has zero head room, less leg room and you can’t fit your apron case and Shrine hat box in and still have room for the Trouble in Strife. They’re powerful too, but not like a hot rod: classier. But perhaps more importantly, Lincolns are motor-ologically speaking both elemental and changeless, just like Masonry.

Henry Ford (Palestine Lodge No. 357, Detroit, Michigan) owned the first Continental (a one-off model), and they have been in continuous production since 1939. Not fuel efficient you say? Yes, you’re right. Neither is Masonry. At least not yet. So, let’s recap: big, roomy, comfy, racy in an old guy sort of way, horsepower aplenty, and with the exception of some exterior trim and the odd opera window and rag top, they haven’t changed one jot since 1939. That sounds like Masonry to me. And if it was good enough for Henry Ford, it’s good enough for us, right? Change, you understand, is not only overrated, but damned dangerous.

Which brings me to Wilmshurst.

Eighty-seven years ago, which oddly enough seems like when I graduated from high school, the great Masonic commentator Walter Leslie Wilmshurst wrote that the “Meaning of Masonry… is a subject usually left entirely unexpounded and that accordingly remains largely unrealized by its members save such few as make it their private study; the authorities of what in all other respects is an elaborately organized and admirably controlled community have hitherto made no provision for explaining and teaching the ” noble science ” which Masonry proclaims itself to be and was certainly designed to impart.” [1]

In The Meaning of Masonry, Wilmshurst goes on to say that Masonry, which eclipses every other fraternal organization, does so only to the degree that its spirituality demands serious commitment from its members. Stripped of that esotericism, Wilmshurst argues, Masonry is no more than the Salvation Army with aprons. And, I hasten to add, Lincoln Town Cars.

And while I’m no alchemist, I acknowledge that Masonry encompasses more, so very much more than that. If I understood Albert Pike, or if I gave credence to Manly P. Hall, or any of our other soothsayers, perhaps I could readily agree with many of my fellows who seem to know just what exactly Masonry does encompass in the less-than-tangible realm, but despite my uncertainty, I am sure that there is something, and I am still searching. Judging from the comments I hear each year at Grand Lodge, I am one of the few Lincoln drivers who have reached that point, but now that I have infiltrated their camp, I intend on finding out how many other fellow travelers there are. I’m not optimistic, though.

Soon, perhaps by next week the way things are going, I will be forced to give up my Lincoln and ordered to buy a Ford Focus which is a crappy car for me but better for everyone else (which is all that matters, apparently), but in the meantime, if you spot a waterfall grille in your rear-view, it might just be me.

The bifocals, by the way, should be in by next week, damn them.

[1] The Meaning of Masonry, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 1993, p. 5.