"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Saturday, February 25, 2006

Southern California Research Lodge

I've been speaking with Ralph Herbold at the Southern California Research Lodge, and he tells me they've sold over a thousand copies of the book. That is incredible.

A recent letter from Ralph said,

(I) think this book is the best thing that has happened to Freemasonry in many a moon, causing many a brother to read a Masonic book for the first time...

Thank you, thank you for writing this book.

I can't thank Ralph, Norm Leeper and the Grand Master of California enough for their continued support.

If you don;'t know about the SCRL, vist their website and join. It's the greatest bargain in Masonic education.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Masonic Darwinism

I reject the notion that Freemasonry is dying, and here is why. If you look at each major turning point in Freemasonry's development, you see very clearly that it has changed and adapted to suit the requirements of each moment in history. Bear with me as I hit some of the major turning points that the fraternity has endured, because it is vital that we understand our history before we can make judgments on our present and plans for our future.

The 1717 origins were on the heels of the English Civil War, the Enlightenment, the growth of urbanization and the beginnings of a middle class. Nobility was waning as an entitlement, and a merchant class was bringing the rubes in from the hinterlands, eager to make their fortunes. Religious tolerance was a requirement after three centuries of burning each other at the stake. Social class tolerance was a requirement because this new group of businessmen was changing the face of cities and towns. And drinking and dinner clubs were the hot place to go after a long day at the shop.

The mid 1700s saw a desire to attract more nobility to the Masons, in an effort to make the fraternity more prestigious than the other run of the mill drinking clubs. In the colonies, the Masons weren't as egalitarian as we'd like to tell ourselves, and the Moderns in the Americas became identified with the Tories and the Royalists when the Revolution broke out.

Meanwhile in France, Masonry became a place for the middle class to drape themselves in the trappings of the nobility. Freemasonry became "fashionable", women were initiated into the Order, and Freemasons plumped themselves with a bewildering number of new degrees that made them sound like the rich bastards in the castle down the street: Most Sovereign this, Chevalier de that, Grande haute something or other. The Scottish Rite degrees grew out of this desire to heap high sounding honors on a middle class that would otherwise never receive them. Recall that Napoleon learned early on that the best way to garner loyalty and love among his troops was to invest them with bling bling and pass out cheap medals like free cigarettes at a rock concert. He learned that making the new middle class more impressive was the best way to make his new government a success. They had all of the real money.

After the Revolution in the US, lodges began to move out of the taverns into their own quarters, and in many cases, the Masonic lodge began to compete with the local church for attendance. The appendant bodies spread to the US, and the same dynamic began to happen here as in France - don't let anyone kid you into thinking that our early American ancestors didn't want to be knights, pontiffs and princes.

Again, we changed after the War of 1812. Freemasonry became THE group to join if you wanted to be identified with the fraternity of the Founding Fathers. That's where the exaggerated claims of Freemasonry's role in the founding of the United States began to take off. Politicians absolutely wanted to be Freemasons, and it did help them get elected. Hence, the huge backlash after the Morgan Affair and the soaring growth in the Anti-Masonic Party, the first third-party in America.

So we changed again after Morgan vanished in upstate New York, whether the Masons killed him or not. Everyone figured we did. Lodges closed. Grand Lodges went dormant. The Masons went into hiding. We reemerged in the 1840s and made huge changes to the fraternity to keep the profanes from calling us bad names, and to keep out infiltrators. That's why we open on the MM degree and have no booze in lodges. Both were innovations of the 1840-1870 period. And which is why the Shrine and the Grotto and the Tall Cedars began in the 1870s and 80s. The Blue Lodge became a stoic place of introspection, and largely devoid of anything but the ritual, so the fun groups filled the void.

The OES and the Amaranth began before the Civil War because of a growing criticism that Masonry was keeping men out of church and away from their wives. The York Rite didn't begin its peculiar obsession with marching until the post-Civil War days, to capitalize on the desire of veterans to march and drill and relive camaraderie they had experienced in the military (and the Masons weren't the only ones who did this). Again, Masonry changing to meet the desires of its members.

Our preoccupation with charity took off before and after World War I because of a national polio epidemic, and then the vast numbers of widows and orphans after the War. There was no AARP, no Social Security, and virtually no pension plans. The rest of the fraternal world was out creating fraternities solely for the purpose of selling cheap insurance to their members. Shriners built hospitals, and the Masons built retirement homes and orphanages. Meanwhile, the period between 1890 and the Depression saw a bewildering - and unsustainable - building boom in Freemasonry and society as a whole. The theatrical presentations of the Scottish Rite became enormously popular, using state-of-the-art special effects, sets and lighting, and performed in magnificent theaters. It was as close to Broadway as you could get in Omaha or Oklahoma. The Masons built lavish Temples. So did the Pythians, Odd Fellows, churches, and governments. Every city today is littered with the bricks and limestone erected during this incredible period of economic growth. Which is partially what led to the bust.

The 1929 Depression that lasted well into the 1930s - and arguably until the beginning of World War II - saw our numbers decline. It would take the War to kick start membership to its greatest levels in history. By 1946, new membership was at its greatest peak, and by the 1950s there would be more than twice as many Freemasons in the US than we have today. The World War II generation wanted to party - after all, they had earned it. Freemasonry became a social hall. Dances, card parties, fish frys, pancake breakfasts, rummage sales - all were the events that brought the Masons of the 50s and 60s into lodge. The conferring of degrees in the lodge had sped up during the war so soldiers could be initiated, passed and raised as quickly as possible. And the lodge became little more than a stepping stone to the Shrine and the Grotto.

Our wheels fell off with the Vietnam generation. The changes I have talked about came along at roughly 20 and 30 year intervals, and in most cases they were massive changes, when you look at where we started. Every succeeding generation has left its stamp on Freemasonry. Until the 1970s. When the Baby Boomers failed to knock on the lodge door, the WWII generation had little choice but to put their shoulders into it and keep going. Up until that moment in time, a new generation of men came into the lodge and took the reins and adapted it to suit their needs. But not this time. What has happened is that those men who joined fifty years ago have tried to keep their lodges running according to the model of management and programming they created in the 1950s - that's what they knew, that's what worked, that's what satisfied them during the period of Masonry's biggest membership days.

So why shouldn't they think theirs was the correct model to hang onto? It had worked before, surely it would keep working.

That is why so many lodges today are dying and are suffering from hardening of the arteries. Changing the habits of twenty years is hard enough, as anyone who tried to lose thirty pounds or stop smoking will tell you. Changing the habits of fifty or sixty years is well nigh impossible. Fear of change can turn into downright terror. Throw in a nervous distrust of the young, along with a major case of the heebie jeebies over the advance of technology, and it's a wonder that our more seasoned members don't barricade the doors and call the cops on us.

So what to do? I've seen firsthand a lodge vote to kill itself rather than change anything it was doing. The sad truth is that lodges are going to continue to close. What our younger members must understand is that habit and fear are difficult obstacles to overcome, and some lodges won't survive. What our older members must understand is that it's okay to let go. Young men need to be given the same right to adapt Freemasonry to their needs as the previous generations did. That might mean Trestle Boards delivered by email and funeral service requests via text messaging. It might mean a lodge humidor and a cigar smoking room - just like many of our lodges had a hundred years ago. It might mean the repeal of our liquor prohibition. It might mean opening on the EA degree again, as we did for 150 years. It might mean a smaller emphasis on the progressive officer's line as a rigid rule of advancement. It could even mean that the OES will die and that we recognize women's Masonry as more women discover the precepts of the Craft.

It will certainly mean that the fraternity will be smaller and leaner, with a stronger interest in the philosophical principles of Freemasonry than we have today. The men who are coming into our lodges today are learning about us in books and the internet long before they petition us, and in many cases they know more about the origins and philosophy of Freemasonry than most of our members. It might surprise you that they are seeking something spiritual that is a connection with the traditions of our ancient past. Brethren, these new men are starving for it. In many cases, they have had little religious background, and their families are more often than not fractured in some way. Few of them have known what is to live with a strong, extended family and to rely on them for support. There's no such thing as long-term job security. They are more mobile than any generation in history. And they live in a world that is very informal and impersonal. There is a void in their lives that Freemasonry can fill. They are seeking our teachings and our history and the brotherhood that we offer. Euchre nights and fish frys don’t appeal to them nearly as much as the more philosophical lessons of the Craft and the strong bonds of friendship we provide. That will have a profound effect on us.

The lodges that will survive will find a balance between serving the needs of its older members, while satisfying the thirst for knowledge and fraternalism of its newer Master Masons. The strongest lodges will provide bus trips to Branson and Medicare Part D presentations, along with esoteric study circles. WiFi hotspots, and Lord of the Rings movie nights. History shows us that Freemasonry will survive. It is patient, even when we are not. But harmony is something that has to be worked at by all of us. It is the strength and support of all societies, but only when we all practice it together. And sometimes the best way to practice it is to let Freemasonry evolve as it always has.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Pottsville, Freemasonry and Wistful Memories

I was asked a few weeks ago about coming to speak about Freemasons For Dummies in a little Pennsylvania mining town called Pottsville. If you've ever read any of author John O'Hara's short stories about the fictional town of "Gibbsville" and its high-society neighborhood along "Lantenango Street," he was really writing about Pottsville. O'Hara was born in a house just two blocks from where I once lived on the very real Mahantongo Street, decades after that snooty class of pretentious, fancy-pantsed snobs he wrote about moved away in search of richer pastures where the coal dust would never again stain their tennis outfits and white golf sweaters.

Meh, you take your brushes with the famous wherever you can find them.

Way back in the dark ages of 1968-1970, I spent three wonderful summers with my father and step-mother who lived for a while in Pottsville, at 803 Mahantongo Street, in a long-decayed mansion that had been a deserted hulk when they bought it. The original front part of our house had been built in the 1830s by Burd Patterson, a little-known man today, but the first American to pioneer inexpensive iron smelting techniques, as well as a new, more economical way to mine anthracite coal. Patterson was instrumental in the early industrial days of the U.S., helping to wrest control of the world's iron business away from Europe. In keeping with the 18th and 19th century convention of attaching a special name to a big farm, ranch or stately home, Burd christened his new Georgian-style manse Foxhead, and over the next 40 years the house was expanded in the back, creeping farther and farther up the steep hillside behind it, until the 1870s. 

Actually, everything in Pottsville is built on a steep hillside, and it was a longstanding belief that its first citizens had actually been a sturdy strain of Norwegian mountain goats.

The Yuengling Brewery was just two blocks down the vertiginous street from us, and is the oldest operating brewery in America – the same underground spring that ran through our basement's cave-like fruit cellar still provides the water that goes into Yuengling Lager to this day. (I was ten at the time, so I couldn't sample their alcoholic wares yet, but the Yuengling family also ran a local dairy that made delicious ice cream, with which I was content to intoxicate myself). 

Elizabeth Yuengling lived in the house for a while in the late 1800s. Then, two wacky, reclusive widows who always dressed alike moved in, and the house began to crumble. After they died, Foxhead sat empty for almost 30 years. When Dad took possession, the thick, heavy, velvet curtains the ladies had installed so long ago to keep the inside in eternal darkness quite literally disintegrated when they were touched.

The mid-1960s were the days before people rehabbed old homes with anything like loving care, but Dad somehow did it on a middle-class white-collar salary, and turned the town eyesore into the greatest house I would ever live in. 

Those were heady days for a ten-year-old kid who imagined ghosts in the attic, skeletons in the basement, and a mysterious labyrinth in the tunnels that no doubt lurked beyond the eerie passage in the foundation that an underground spring passed through. We had twenty rooms and a dozen fireplaces. One attic room was piled to the ceiling with steamer trunks. A 48-star American flag.  A 194-bottle wine cellar behind two massive wooden gates. Massive brass chandeliers from the 1880s with intricate Steuben glass shades that had never been wired for electricity. What electric lights were still in the house had heavy, oblong Edison bulbs, with a little pointed nib on the end and great, thick orange filaments that gave off more heat than light. There was a massive boiler in the cavernous basement that heated up just four cast-iron steam-heat radiators for the entire house – that's why we had all those fireplaces, too.

Next door on one side, at 801, there was a dark, filthy, spooky, dopey, sleepy, sneezy old mansion that closely resembled Herman Munster's house, with its tower, oval attic windows, and steep mansard roofline. It appeared to have never received a lick of paint since its original construction, and bricks would fall off of it regularly. In three summers, I never once saw anyone coming or going, or even puttering outside, but the lights would come on at night in a single room. 

On the other side, at 825, was a great rambling building, the Saint Patrick Convent. None of these places had air conditioning, so everyone's tall, Victorian-era windows all along our block were often thrown open to catch a breeze in summer, and occasionally we'd hear the nuns laughing hysterically inside – we were reliably told that one of them would climb to the top floor, lay out a long dust rag, and then slide all the way down the bannister to the ground floor to dust it, to the cheers of the other sisters – kind of like The Flying Nun in reverse. No vows of silence at Saint Pat's.

For three days and nights during the Great Pottsville Blackout in July of 1968, we cooked every meal on a tiny hibachi out in the side yard, finding new, creative methods for cooking all our rapidly thawing frozen food over hot coals. 

Two massive transformers had been destroyed by the worst electrical storm in the town's history, but somehow Pottsville's citizens managed to survive a couple of days of no electricity without rioting, looting, demanding federal aid, opening crisis centers, or burning anything down. 

Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon right in our front parlor room one hot, muggy July night in 1969. I remember my grandmother sitting with us and watching in stunned silence as the static-filled images flickered on our Zenith TV set from 240,000 miles away — she had been born in 1884 in the hills of Kentucky, just 19 years after the end of the Civil War, and seven years after Mr. Bell invented the telephone.  My father and I walked out onto the front porch that night, and stared up at the Moon overhead — we both privately hoped that if we looked up there long and hard enough, we'd actually see Neil and Buzz wandering around the Lunar Module. We both understood just how cataclysmic this particular night was for the entire world.

When I turned twelve, I fell hard for my devastatingly cute neighbor Vici Zimmerman. We hung out in the balcony of the theatre downtown and saw "2001", "Yellow Submarine", and prophetically, an otherwise forgettable Doris Day comedy called "Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?" ("Right here in Pottsville," answered the headline in the paper when it was reviewed.)

One memorable afternoon, I even tried to impress Vici by treating her to lunch in the very dark and romantic downstairs 'Coal Mine Tap Room' of the Necho Allen Hotel, with its swanky, secluded booths made to look like individual caves, with black rock walls and ceilings of anthracite coal, lit only by electrified reproductions of miner's 'Davey lamps.' It was just the place for cozy afternoon trysts and rendezvouses (we were surrounded by bosses and their secretaries lolling over their three-martini lunches), but it was tough for me to pull off the Dean Martin act when 'Yummy-Yummy-Yummy-I-Got-Love-In-My-Tummy' was playing on the Muzak, neither one of us smoked, and we couldn't order up anything more seductive than a couple of ginger ale and maraschino cherry juice 'kiddie cocktails.' 

Just drilling a hole through a wall inside our house was an all-day project, since all the interior walls were a foot thick, made of brick, insulated with horse hair and shredded newspapers from the 1830s, covered in wood lath, and plastered over. But despite the many challenges and soaring costs, Dad and Joyce restored Foxcroft in record time. They even joined the local Schuylkill Haven Country Club, where the fancy-pantsed snobs used to hang out before fleeing town for tonier Philly. Meanwhile, I learned about plumbing and wallpaper and wiring and oil furnaces, about coal mines and railroads and preserving the past before it slips away. 

And about faltering economies. My father worked for Aetna Metal Products, and when it abruptly closed just three years after he had been hired, Foxcroft had to be sold at a huge loss, and it took three long years before they'd even had an offer. They moved eventually to Charlottesville, Virginia, losing almost every dime they'd put so lovingly into the magnificent house on Mahantongo Street. 

In one final act of bitterness and despair, they even removed the great, heavy brass fox head door knocker from the front door, in hopes that it might once again grace the entry to another dream home, somewhere else, sometime in the not too distant future.

It took me almost thirty years before I could return to 'Gibbsville.' I was in Philadelphia with my wife at a mystery writer's convention in 1998, and we rented a car and drove up to Pottsville just to see the house again. Despite Alice's embarrassed pleading not to, I insisted on climbing the steps and knocking on the front door. By sheer luck, a family had just bought it from the doctor who had purchased it from my father all those years before. But the old doctor and his wife had told them almost nothing about the house and its history, and I had seen it at its worst. They were ecstatic to let me drag them from one end of the place to the other telling them all I could remember, and we spent two hours there. 

Curiously, the new owner, Paul Kulp, was a Freemason and his wife Jan was a member of the Eastern Star, and the topic of Masonry came up. I told him I was strongly considering joining the fraternity after an experience we had just had in Texas. Alice's father had died, and I had been especially moved by a service performed by a group of Texas Masons we had called on very short notice the night before his funeral. Paul and Jan enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue Masonic membership, and on my return to Indianapolis, I did just that. I was initiated two months later, in November of 1998.

I wouldn't be the same person I am today without spending those three special years in Pottsville during that high-wire passage between childhood and adolescence.  And I might not have ever become a Mason if I hadn't returned for those few short hours.

* Here's another coincidental link in the great chain of life where Freemasonry tapped me on the shoulder: I recently found out that three big, hand-painted coal mine scene murals that used to grace the walls of the Coal Mine Tap Room until it closed were removed and placed into storage for years. But in 2000 they were installed in the banquet hall of Schuylkill Lodge 138, in nearby Orwigsburg.