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Last Rites

Are secret societies like these really part of some greater conspiracy???

American suspicions (and conspiracy theories) about freemasonic secret societies are as old as the country itself.

    Sure, some would argue that in 1996 this type of bastion has run its course. With their secret handshakes, mysterious rituals, funny hats, and pancake breakfasts, not to mention all the accusations of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, secretivism, and alcoholism that have been leveled against them over the years, isn't it time to just bury the dinosaur?

    But according to those who live this fraternal life, who pay their dues, who participate in the secret rituals, and who work to keep their lodges meaningful to society, this dinosaur still has a pulse. What it needs now, they say, is an infusion of new blood.

    As a jaunty little piano tune rings through the hall, and a small but attentive audience watches, the Odd Fellows are marching back and forth across the floor.

    In a double row, black-suited men on one side, women on the other, parade about in a baffling, complicated, incredibly precise series of drills that make little sense to the uninitiated but keep those in the know spellbound. A collection of officers from around the district, these marchers are here at the Windsor Odd Fellows Hall to participate in the annual installation of officers, officiating over the men's and women's lodges. This is a small lodge (there appear, in fact, to be more visiting members than residents), with not a soul under age 50 among them.

    The few young faces in the room belong to members of the installation team, and though they truly seem to be having the most fun of anyone here, exuberantly delivering their scripted pronouncements ("Noble Grands! We are instructed by the District Deputy Grand Master and the District Deputy President of the Grand Lodge Rebecca Assembly of California to ascertain whether you are ready to proceed with the joint public installation ceremony!"), treating the proceedings as if it were one major kick in the butt, they are still, agewise, very much in the minority.

    "I was talking with one old guy the other day," muses Odd Fellow District Deputy Patrick McCloskey, who presided over this evening's ceremony. "I said, 'What's the problem with the lodges these days? Why don't they have any new guys?' And this guy said it was the war. World War II. I looked it up in the books and sure enough in 1947 we started losing members. They say that the war took all the young guys, and though they didn't kill them all, things changed after that. Our society changed."

    McCloskey (in his mid-to-late 40s, he is considered one of the young ones) is himself the son of an Odd Fellow, and even he had no interest in joining until after his father's death. "I never thought I would," he explains. "'cause it was a bunch of old men, and their stuff was all based on the Bible. That put me off. But when someone asked me to join six months after Dad died, I thought, 'Oh, what the hell. It's a good organization. It's based on helping people. It's old-fashioned in a lot of ways, but maybe I can help bump it into the '90s.'"

    The Odd Fellows' name, which often produces snickers when mentioned in public, is actually derived from the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, a daring young man who was willing to be odd in that he went out of his way to help a wounded man while the rest of the townsfolk walked on by. In short, the Odd Fellows were formed, well over a hundred years ago, to help those in need. Fraternities in general, despite their reputation (once well deserved) as "old men's drinking clubs," have always devoted enormous energies to community service, sponsoring everything from food drives for the poor and scholarships for students to drug prevention programs and major, state-of-the art medical clinics. "I get to give something back to my community," McCloskey explains. "Which basically means that I get to go to the lodge meetings and make motions to give money away."

    The secret passwords and ancient rituals, according to McCloskey, though undeniably corny and probably not necessary, are kept on for tradition's sake, and there is even talk that it might be time to let some of these trappings fade away. "I hope the fraternities don't die off," he says. "And my gut feeling is that if they've lasted this long, then they'll adapt."

    "Our members are dying off faster than we can get new ones in," says Willard Burris of the Free and Accepted Masons Yount Lodge 12, in Napa. The fifth oldest existing Masonic lodge in the country, the Napa Masons are as hungry for new members as all the others, to the point where any growth at all is greeted with hyperbolic enthusiasm.

    "We're beginning to see a resurgence in new people, though," Burris boasts. "In '95 alone we took in two of them that are 30 years old. That's a real nice age. We'd like to get them after 21 if we can, but when a guy's 21 he's too busy chasing girls and building cars. He's got other things on his mind." Still, compared to others, Burris' lodge is a rather busy one. "We've got candidates. We're taking in new ones, and that's good. But the whole thing does need rejuvenation. We're all having problems."

    John Cooper, secretary of the Masonic Grand Lodge, based in San Francisco, has been observing the decline for some time. "I can't speak for the other organizations, but the Masons have been losing 6,000 members a year statewide," he says. "That's a serious dip, but from our standpoint it's only a result of our past successes. In the late '40s and early '50s, many men came into this fraternity. Unless you can sustain that same rate of growth, the Grim Reaper is eventually going to catch up with you."

    New Masonic memberships across the state have been steady for most of the last decade, with an average of 2,000 new members a year. "Now, that's not enough to balance out the death rate, but it's not a bad number at all."

    Still, before the 1960s rolled around, 2,000 new members would have been considered surprisingly small. So what happened? "In 1965," Cooper theorizes, "we were on the verge of the Vietnam War and we were on the verge of an antiestablishment movement which a lot of men of that generation had a hard time understanding. We had all the riots on our campuses, and all the things that moved through society, and a lot of the young men growing up at that time simply were not attracted to an organization that their fathers were involved in."

    Cooper concedes changes in the lodge might have curbed the decline, but changes do not come easily to an organization that some claim dates back thousands of years. "Every fraternal organization has to change for a new day," he says. "But the essential principles won't change. Those of our lodges that are very successful right now are those that have made themselves deeply involved in their communities."

    The lodge, fighting off claims of racial exclusivity, has seen a growth in minority membership, and has recently joined forces with the Black Freemasons, a self-formed group that dates back to the days of American slavery. The women's arm of Freemasonry has become increasingly active (as have the women's auxiliaries of all the major fraternities).

    Additionally, they have cut back on some of the stringent memorization of rituals and history. And that's not all. The Masons have joined the information age, with a brand new Web page, featuring sharp graphics, browsable archival materials, and lively on-line exchanges between thoroughly modern Masons. "I do believe we'll be around in another thousand years," Cooper offers. "I think there are universals in human nature that don't go away. People have a need for community, for fellowship. And that's what we offer."

    And some fraternal organization members think the age issue is a bit overblown. "To me the fraternity is an older persons' organization to begin with," says Ben Garcia of the Santa Rosa Grove of Druids. "Most of those who join us are settled down, in their 40s.

    "We're a low-key group. We have a pool table, a shuffleboard, a nice little bar. It's a nice place to take your wife and not worry about getting beat over the head. Our rituals are nice. Brotherly love stuff. We have a real nice funeral service," he smiles.

    One of several Druidic organizations in Sonoma County, Garcia's lodge has also seen a decline in new Druids, though nothing compared to some of the other groves in the county. Occidental's Frederick Seig Grove has lost so many members over the last several years, with no replacements, that their Druid-owned cemetery on Occidental Road fell into sad disrepair (no dues means no maintenance money). A community uproar brought the matter to the attention of the overseeing California Order of Druids, and the cemetery is now recovering nicely.

    The Santa Rosa Grove contributes to the community in much the way the other lodges do. They have a scholarship program, school outreaches, and food drives. In the last year they brought in about 30 new members, mostly the 40-year-olds Garcia referred to, but he adds that they need at least 50 new men to stay steady. When asked about the future of the lodge, he simply shrugs.

    The Druids, of course, have their secrets, like the Odd Fellows and the Masons. When asked about the nature of their rituals, Garcia shows me a little pamphlet: "The Story of Druidism--History, Legend and Lore." There is mention of Merlin, of bards and mistletoe, and frequent calls for "virtuous living." Nothing overtly frightening. "People hear the word Druid, and they kind of expect something else," Garcia laughs. "Something wilder. But we're mostly Republicans."

    Then there are the Moose, with several lodges around the county, who are also experiencing the antipathy of young men. Their response has been to shift from being seen as an old-boys club, dropping the use of the term fraternity in favor of the more inclusive family organization. There is frequent mention of the Women of the Moose as being "a separate and equal body that works in harmony with the Men of the Moose."

    The result, predictably, is that more men with families are joining, though slowly. The Elks, which reportedly lost their charter in Santa Rosa owing to sharp declines in membership, are rumored to have recently voted to accept women into the lodge as full members.

    But are these changes too little too late? Can the lodges wait for boomers and Gen X-ers to settle down and mellow out before joining? Perhaps it isn't the notion of fraternities themselves that is keeping people away. There are also fewer Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Business & Professional Women, church members, Rotarians, Lions, and Bowling League members than there used to be. In the age of television, "cocooning," and diminished economic expectations we seem to be shifting away from "joinerism" in general.

    So for now the dinosaur waits, still breathing, still alive. But if dinosaurs had hands, you could be sure that this one would have its fingers crossed.

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From the Jan. 25-31, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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