Photograph by Elizabeth Seward
FRIENDSHIP, LOVE, TRUTH: Josh Howard and Neils Espenship represent the new era of brotherhood.
The New Fraternals
Another generation embraces funny hats, secret handshakes and the Golden Rule
By Gabe Meline
Out on the front porch, there's a low, demonic rumbling of black metal music emanating from inside the house. Neil Espenship, who has worked for 14 years as a body piercer, jamming jewelry through every imaginable loin and groin in Santa Rosa, answers the door covered in tattoos, the smell of cigarettes and the screams of a band called Goblin Cock filling the air. He offers his hand, open and outgoing, yet there's one thing about him many of his friends don't know and almost no stranger would guess.
He's a Mason.
Espenship is among a rare few who, under the age of 40, have become drawn to the secret handshakes and shrouded languages of fraternal orders, these clubs that seem to teeter on the gray-haired brink of extinction. We've all seen their buildings around town, their emblems on city-limits signs, their floats in hometown parades and names outside hotel conference rooms. Actually joining? That's a different story.
In fact, there's been concern since the late 1960s for the future of such organizations as the Odd Fellows, Masons, Druids, Elks and Moose. With scant few new initiates, only a handful have successfully answered the glaring question of survival. Just what is the benefit to the younger generation of sitting around in a conference room eating steamed beef, drinking stale coffee and cracking jokes about Eleanor Roosevelt every Tuesday night?
Espenship joined the Masons at age 36. He was raised in Harrisonburg, Va., the grandson of a man who asked of him only two things: that he bear a son to carry on the family name, and that he become a Mason. Even as early as junior high, Espenship knew that he might have trouble fulfilling the requests. "The people I hung out with more than anything else were all the Deadheads. I mean, they were still shitkickers. But they smoked pot," he explains.
Espenship moved to Orange County and immersed himself in the punk scene. He got liberty spikes, a job at a punk-rock store and cleaned up after "scum dudes" at a tattoo shop before moving on. "The music scene down in Southern California was falling apart," he explains, lighting up a Marlboro. "I was over that scene. From the whole punk-rock thing, I started getting into the Goth type of thing, and then from the Goth type of thing I started falling into this weird, new '60s psychedelia thing. Started doing a lot of acid. So the natural movement for me was to start listening to the Grateful Dead again." Espenship and his wife decided to get back to the land. They moved to Forestville.
An eventual divorce brought Espenship to Santa Rosa, where he started the growing-up process of blending all of his past phases into one. Joining the Masons, Espenship says, served to tether his wandering spirit to history. "I'm always looking for something to ground myself in," he says, "and this is gonna sound weird, but if I can surround myself with all of the stuff from a certain era, when people were concrete and knew what they were doing—if I could somehow or other put myself into that kind of situation, there might be a possibility to ground myself and not feel so in 300 different directions."
Around his old Victorian home, Espenship's surrounded himself in furniture and décor almost solely from the '50s and '60s. Collections of old cameras and clocks line the walls next to pinup calendars and lounge accoutrements, and the entryway hosts a bright red mat with a sword, a crescent and a star—the symbol of the Shriners. This is where Espenship received his three random interviews. (Once an interested party applies to Freemasonry, officers come at unannounced times and ask questions about a potential applicant's finances, sexuality, criminal record, drug use and other things that Espenship says he can't talk about.) To his amazement, they called him back.
"When they actually let me in, I was like, 'Oh, my God! Wait a minute! This really wasn't supposed to happen!'" With this, he curls back on the couch and howls with laughter. "I thought it was gonna be a bunch of scary, black-cloaked, Republican banker dudes. Surprisingly enough, the Santa Rosa lodge has got some pretty hip guys in it. There are definitely a few ball-breakers, but for the most part they're all amazing, incredible people."
Philanthropy and brotherhood are important to Espenship, and he's glad to point out that the lodge lets Metropolitan Community Church, which serves people of all sexual orientations, use its building. He's also quick to rebuke conspiracy theorists. Though Masonic themes used by some of his favorite artists, like Robert Williams, Mitch O'Connell and Matthew Barney, may have edged him toward the compass and square, he soon realized that much of the outside world blindly subscribes to a myth that Masons rule the world. "As far as I can tell," he muses, "we're not placing people in positions of power in order to make a bazillion dollars and run the world and keep everybody under our thumb."
When Espenship joined Santa Rosa Luther Burbank Lodge No. 57, he was the youngest member to do so in 10 years. He does caution those thinking about joining, however. "A lot of people go into it now thinking that they're going to be handed the keys to the universe, and get to do all these clandestine, weird rituals," he says. "It's not that at all. It is gonna be you hanging out with a bunch of old men."
The Moose Lodge in Petaluma was just a bunch of old men when John Crowley stumbled across it in 2005. They'd been doing the same thing for years, making the same Sunday brunch every week for the same members—the ones who were still alive. It was just like most other clubs across the country: riding a long, slow slide into irrelevance.
Crowley, the son of a Dublin pub owner, missed the sociality of the Irish pub. He started getting interested in ideas about social capital and community, and wondered how he could reverse the trend of society's isolation in front of flickering screens. He saw the potential at the Moose Lodge, joined and immediately implemented new ideas like a weekly conversation cafe, a live music night, a classic-movie night and open mic. "It used to be known as an old man's drinking club," he says. "I had to rebirth it."
Word got out. Within two years, the lodge's membership more than tripled, from 200 to 700 members, making it the fastest-growing Moose Lodge in the entire country. Crowley was invited to deliver the keynote speech at that year's convention, in which he advised staunch Moose traditionalists to adapt.
"The younger generation is a generation of nonjoiners and individualists," he told them. "I believe that it is far, far better to be interdependent—interdependent on each other. I help you and you help me. Much of the younger generation has forgotten the value of this."
The Moose Lodge now reflects its glory days of including people from all walks of life. Maria do Céu, owner of Petaluma's Out West Garage, describes her preexisting bias against the Moose Lodge as "an old farts, old boys network, and nothing I'd want any part of." But when she saw what was happening at the lodge, she couldn't resist joining the fun. She even did something she hadn't done in over 15 years—she wore a dress, a stipulation of her initiation.
Crowley has since opened his own place, the Aqus Cafe, but he continues developing new ideas at the Moose Lodge, such as a drum-circle night and vegan potluck night. Much of Crowley's advice to fraternal old-timers is to discard ritual, which turns young people off, and to embrace an online presence. "The internet is wonderful, and I think it's going to be our saving grace to pull us back out of our homes back into the common space," he says.
Up in Santa Rosa, the Druids report that membership is on a slight rise as well. "In this past year, we have been getting some younger people," says Al Fernandez, 68, who's been a Druid for 25 years. The Druids had watched their numbers dwindle from about 600 members to 200 members in the last 10 years, and have recently had a couple people in their 30s joining, Fernandez says, in part because like many organizations they've emphasized friendship and toned down wacky rituals.
"Yeah, you have passwords and signs within the lodges that prove you're a member," agrees Ray Link, grand secretary of the Grand Lodge of California for the Odd Fellows. "But a lot of people have gotten to the point where they feel that sort of stuff is outdated. It's nice to have the history and the basis for what we are, but sometimes you gotta close one eye and look at it and say, 'Maybe we could make some changes here without losing what we're here for or what our history is.'"
Link says that although certain lodges in California, such as those in San Francisco and Davis, have a healthy young membership, most enrollment figures remain down. "Down here at the main office, we've tossed that thing up against the wall a number of times to see what we could do to entice the younger members," he says. "It's a hard question to answer."
How about giving them a beautiful place to live?
One step into Odd Fellows Park is a step back in time. Tall redwoods surround the bingo hall, the soda fountain, the rental cabins and the outdoor theater. An old-time phone booth near the shuffleboard games leads down to the swimming hole, past the roadhouse restaurant and weekly activity board. It's like being in the summer resort in Dirty Dancing, and it hasn't changed since the Forestville compound was built in 1928.
Cottages are sewn into the hill like a string of rustic sequins, some of them perched on 20-foot stilts, others bolted onto natural rock slabs. Overwhelmed by the surreal time warp of this gated idyll, driving in through redwood darkness and rain, I'm flagged down by Josh Howard on the main road. We've never met, but he knows it must be me. No one else ever comes out here in the wintertime.
Howard, a 35-year-old construction worker, leads me up some two dozen concrete steps to his cabin, and points to an old outhouse. "That's where the shower used to be," he says, "and this fence here"—overlooking a 40-foot drop—"was just an 18-inch railing when we moved in." Subsequent improvements included uncovering the cabin's hardwood floor, installing a clawfoot tub and shower, putting in a wood stove, adding drywall and improving a second bedroom for the baby he and his wife are expecting. But life has not always been so cozy for Howard. Born in remote forest of Klamath, Calif., Howard moved with his dad to San Francisco after logging fell into decline. The Lower Haight was his stomping ground, and it stomped back.
"I definitely had my bouts," he admits, settling on the couch, dog at his feet. "I got into so much trouble. The only thing that really saved me was getting arrested and realizing that I had to move out of the city." He came to Graton, where his folks live, and straightened out. "It was the best thing I ever did," he testifies somberly. "It was a life-saver."
Howard got work from a neighbor doing carpentry and entered a new era of building, both physically and metaphorically, rather than leaving wreckage. Looking to plant roots in Sonoma County, he heard about a house for sale, for cheap, in Odd Fellows Park, but the bill of sale came with a unique requirement. In order to live in Odd Fellows Park, one must be a member in good standing of either the Masons or the Odd Fellows, and must further be invited by two residents of the park.
"I was building the Sebastopol Charter School," Howard recalls, "and there were two guys on another roof across the street doing construction, too. So we got to talking, and I met one of 'em after work at Jasper O'Farrell's. He was an Odd Fellow, and the owner of Jasper O'Farrell's was an Odd Fellow, so they sponsored me. That's how I became an Odd Fellow."
Howard survived the interview process with officers at the park, and in the midst of the housing boom of 2003 bought this cabin for just $100,000. But he got far more than just a great real estate deal, uncovering what he stresses is priceless value in the tight-knit community of Odd Fellows. He's now a Chaplain at his local lodge, and speaks highly of the morals, ideals and service works of the organization.
Howard might not seem like the likeliest person to be messing around with Noble Grands, Vice Grands, Past Grands and District Deputy Grand Masters, going through the Royal Purple degree of Encampment to attain Patriarchs Militant. But to him, the basic principles of the Odd Fellows are as simple as its three-ring symbol.
"Friendship, Love and Truth," he says, rattling off the Odd Fellows motto, "that's pretty much the basis of how most of us should live our lives. It's not a bad deal. I mean, that's what you do, you take care of your neighbors, right? It's basic common decency."
Free and Accepted Masons
When: Founded in the late 1500s–1600s.
Who: Notable members include Winston Churchill, Louis Armstrong, Harry Truman, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, John Wayne, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Lindbergh, Jesse Jackson, James Garfield, John Glenn, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin, Duke Ellington, Jack Dempsey, Nat King Cole and Aleister Crowley among many, many others.
What: Freemasonry is a highly complex series of symbols, degrees, oaths metaphysical ideals and ritual based loosely on the ancient stonemasons and the building of King Solomon's Temple. One must first be a Mason before becoming a Shriner, a Knights Templar or a member of the Scottish Rite.
How: To join the Masons, one must be a man who believes in a Supreme Being and who has good moral character. A series of interviews leads to the initiation ceremony, after which one memorizes a book of secret symbols to attain the third degree. There's a bunch of other top-secret stuff that no one can talk about but which has been the subject of controversy, conspiracy and speculation for centuries.
Why: Members cite everything from the Mormon church to The Da Vinci Code as reasons for becoming interested in Masonry. Master Mason Ralph Hoyal, of the Santa Rosa Lodge, describes Freemasonry simply as "a blueprint for personal integrity."
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks
When: Founded in 1868.
Who: Notable Elks include John F. Kennedy, Clint Eastwood, Mickey Mantle, Vince Lombardi, Tip O'Neill, Casey Stengel and Gerald Ford.
What: The Elks were founded by New York actors and singers who wanted to keep drinking after the bars closed. Even now, the Elks are associated with booze; Hunter S. Thompson claimed he once joined so he could get a drink on Sundays.
How: Though ancient initiation rites included being blindfolded, squirted with water, shot with blanks and forced to ride a live goat around the Lodge, the Elks today have far less vigorous enrollments for any man or woman over the age of 21 who believes in God.
Why: The Elks have three college scholarship programs, veterans services and youth services. They also raise a toast at 11am each day to remember the dead and wear freaky elk teeth around their necks.
When: Founded in 1888.
Who: Notable members include Jimmy Stewart, Larry Bird, Warren Harding, Arnold Palmer, Rocky Marciano, Ernest Borgnine, Manute Bol, Earl Warren and others.
What: The Moose were formed by a physician in Louisville, Ky., basically as a way for men to hang out and drink. Membership dwindled down to 247 members until 1906, when James J. Davis joined and implemented a health-insurance-type system for members. Enrollment skyrocketed.
How: Joining seems to be fairly easy, as Moose International is a nonpolitical, nonreligious organization. The enrollment ceremony consists essentially of talking about how cool the Moose are and pledging to accept the obligation of Moosehood. Women can join.
Why: The Moose have extensive charity service programs, including Mooseheart, a school and village for troubled children, and Moosehaven, a retirement community.
United Ancient Order of Druids
When: Founded in 1700s; spread to the United States in 1830.
Who: There's a rumor that Winston Churchill might have joined.
What: The Druids claim to keep alive a mystic order dating back before recorded history. They were especially prominent in California, adhering to the Seven Precepts of Merlin and fancying themselves profound intellectuals. There are many offshoots and splinter groups, but their motto is "United to Assist."
How: Candidates should have a belief in God and the immortal soul. To be a Druid, one must be blindfolded, swear to not reveal any ancient Druidic secrets and learn the passwords and handshakes associated with Druidism.
Why: Do you like hanging out at Stonehenge?
Independent Order of Odd Fellows
When: Founded in the 1700s.
Who: Notable Odd Fellows include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Ulysses S. Grant, Al Franken, Charles Lindbergh and others. Recently, the Odd Fellows began allowing women.
What: Originally formed to provide service and care to its members before health insurance, welfare, Social Security and the like, the Odd Fellows now provide housing programs, education funding and tree-planting. Promises to "educate the orphan" play out in programs for student grants and loans, and a tradition of burying the dead means that many cemeteries are owned and operated by Odd Fellows.
How: To join the Odd Fellows, one must be loyal to country and believe in a Supreme Being.
Why: Odd Fellows tend to be more working-class than Masons; they also use crazy stuff like skulls and skeletons in their ceremonies. Renting the Odd Fellows Hall for cheap is a bonus—the hall in Sebastopol has a dollar-beer vending machine—provided one can endure a lifetime of lame jokes about being an "odd fellow."
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