Sunday, April 5, 2020

A Tipping Point




Several months ago I wrote a piece for the Midnight Freemasons blog entitled, "The Meeting." In that article I speculated what it would be like in the future to visit my Lodge and attend a meeting in a virtual reality setting. There I saw old friends who were doing the same thing from afar, and for our Masonic education that night we got nothing less than a walking tour of the Loge des Neuf SÅ“urs as it appeared when Benjamin Franklin was in attendance. While some of the technology needed to do that is available today, it's not at the level I discussed in the article. We'll have to wait awhile before we can do things like that… or will we?

Unless you just landed on earth from a trip to the planet Neptune or some other far off place in the galaxy, you know that we are living in a strange, historic and even scary time as this Covid-19 menace, the Coronavirus, circulates among us. Many of us live trapped in our residences as we practice "social distancing" to ward off the disease.

We've become a nation of hermits. Every in-person Masonic meeting has been postponed or canceled. The week before this all came to a head I personally had five – count 'em five – Masonic meetings and that, in the following days abruptly became zero. You may have had the same experience and now we're all going through our own series of withdrawal pangs. What to do?

Well, we're a fraternity of intelligent guys who are well-aware of ways to keep up with events, check on our Brothers, friends and their families. This is, after all the age of social media. We also know ways to keep up with our Masonic education with a number of online facilities like the podcast you're listening to, the Masonic Roundtable, and a host of others.

Of course many of these tools put us in a position of practicing our Masonic craft in isolation. Sometimes this is a good thing, but other times, a little goes a long way. In our quest for Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth, the Brotherly Love aspect can fall behind if we can't get together.

So what about that little foray into science fiction I wrote about a couple years ago? Brothers, we're just about there. Oh, we didn't take a group tour of the loge des Noeuf Soeurs but just the other night I sat down in my office in my own home and attended a meeting hosted by the Scottish Rite in St. Louis.

Twenty-nine of us got together and heard a presentation and had a discussion about the Seventh Degree. It wasn't just one Brother presenting and the rest listening. It was all of us participating. We may be trapped at home but there are creative ways for us to get out and share that brotherhood we crave. My hat's off to my St. Louis Brothers for doing this. I understand they plan to make it a regular thing and I think this kind of thing will catch on.

Not only that, this may be a tipping point. I'm guessing these online discussions facilitated by technologies like Zoom and others, will be here to stay as yet another tool in our quest for Masonic education. The technology is there, it's fairly simple to use. Check it out. Set up your own meetings. It's a good alternative as we weather the storm. Stay safe, Brothers, and let's use everything technology offers to keep the social aspects of our fraternity alive for the duration.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

St. Patrick's Day





Every school kid learns March 17 is the day we celebrate the life and deeds of Maewyn Succat, the second Bishop of Ireland, who is better known as Ireland's Patron Saint, St. Patrick. Those same school kids also learn Patrick's great triumph was chasing the snakes out of Ireland. It's true, there are no snakes in Ireland; however, that's more likely because there have never been any snakes on the isolated island.

Captured and taken into slavery as a youth, Maewyn, a.k.a. Patrick, escaped to the European mainland. While a slave he had converted from paganism to Christianity, and once on the continent, he sought refuge at Marmoutier Abbey, a French monastery. There, he accepted his calling, which was to convert other pagans to Christianity. With that, he returned to Ireland and became very successful at making those conversions. In a manner of speaking, the "serpents" he figuratively chased from Ireland were the pagan Druids, not actual reptiles.

After a successful ministry, Patrick retired to County Down, where he died on March 17, 461 A.D. Although never officially canonized by the Catholic Church he is, in fact, recognized as a saint; and today we celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick, or St. Patrick's Day, on the anniversary of his death.

However, even in Ireland prior to the late 18th century, St. Patrick's Day was not that big of a deal. The same was true in North America, where the churches in Boston, with its large Irish population, didn't recognize the day until 1737.

"So, what," you may ask, "does this have to do with the Freemasons?"

About twenty years later, during the French-Indian War, a young Masonic Colonel recognized the morale among his troops was low and decided they needed what today we would call some "down time." It was March, at the end of a long, brutal winter and many of the troops were Irish. It didn't take the Colonel long to figure out the best day to declare a general holiday would be St. Patrick's day.

Several years later, that same Freemason, now a general in the American Revolution, faced a very similar problem. Billeted at Morristown, New Jersey, his troops were discouraged after a long winter of devastating fighting and losses. On top of that, the preceding winter of 1779-80 was brutally cold. That General, George Washington, again had many Irish troops under his command and once again he saw the opportunity of celebrating St. Patrick's Day to boost morale. With that, Washington issued the order giving his troops their first day off in over two years, “The General directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for to-morrow the SEVENTEENTH instant, a day held in particular regard by the people of [Ireland].”

The respite from the ravages of war and winter went over well with the troops, some of whom were said to celebrate with a "hogshead of rum." Washington is credited with establishing the first instances of a secular celebration of St. Patrick's day, a tradition which caught on and has grown to become a major event today, with the hogshead of rum long replaced by freely flowing green beer.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

POW/MIA Bracelets

Contrary to public opinion, especially today's unenlightened public opinion, many Vietnam war protests were at their foundation about and in support of the soldiers over there fighting that war. As the war was winding down people began to realize that, while we were about to get our precious young men and women out of there, some might be left behind. We knew there would remain many prisoners of war and also those unaccounted-for and missing.

The North Vietnam government, on the brink of taking over the entire country, had never been communicative about the status of those soldiers; and we had no reason to believe that would change. The prospect of the unified Democratic Republic of Vietnam (actually not democratic and not a republic) controlling the entire country and keeping POWs and MIAs seemed possible, even likely.

That terrifying thought morphed into a movement designed to ensure the POWs and MIAs be remembered and eventually brought home. As a symbolic gesture many of us wore a metal bracelet containing the name of a missing or captive soldier and vowed not to take it off until that soldier or, sadly, his body returned home. My bracelet was in honor and support of Colonel Kenneth Fleenor; Carolyn's bore the name of Major Terry Uyeyama.

Colonel Kenneth Robert Fleenor's F-4 Phantom fighter jet was shot down December 17, 1967 near Hanoi. During his captivity he endured torture, isolation and starvation. After a grueling five years and three months of imprisonment, Colonel Fleenor was released in March 1973. He completed a successful military and business career, retiring from the US Air Force as a Brigadier General. He also served as Mayor of Selma, Texas 1987-1994. He died December 10, 2010 at 81 years of age.

Air Force Major Terry Uyeyama was forced to eject from his plane May 18, 1968, and was captured and taken prisoner of war. He endured the same punishment and torture as other prisoners for nearly five years. A Silver Star recipient, he returned to the US March 14, 1973, and retired from the Air Force in 1980 with the rank of Colonel. Born July 16, 1935 Colonel Uyeyama is now nearly 85 years of age, living in Texas.

Today the Department of Defense still lists 1,587 Americans as missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, in March 1973, Carolyn and I both were able to remove our bracelets. They have sat on the desk in my office at home ever since.


Sunday, March 1, 2020

Clash of the Titans

I've written a few articles here about an incredible Brother who, in my opinion, was the 20th century's "Mason of the century." Most Worshipful Brother Ray V. Denslow was General Grand High Priest of the General Grand Chapter during the WWII years. He was the founder of the Royal Arch Mason magazine and served as its editor and publisher from 1942 until his death in 1960, at which time his son William, author of 10,000 Famous Freemasons, took over. Ray Denslow was also the world's foremost authority on international Freemasonry, and published the only complete account of the near-destruction of the Craft in Europe in the years leading up to WWII and its reconstruction following the war.

Those accomplishments are only the tip of the iceberg in Brother Denslow's Masonic resume. He was almost certainly the most famous Freemason in the world at the time, with the single exception of his good friend Harry Truman.

The shortcomings of each of us are borne out in the fact that our rough ashlars will remain so. We as Freemasons work daily toward the goal of the perfect ashlar, which seems always to lie just outside our grasp. The same was true even of a Mason of the stature of Ray Denslow. Immersed in human frailties, he had his share of doubts, conflicts, and battles… and one of those battles went supernova when the two most powerful Freemasons in the country went head-to-head. Their feud lasted for years, in an ugly fight in which Denslow was ultimately stripped of the 33°.

Denslow documents this brutal hostility in his memoirs, albeit from his own point of view; but he lays out the facts objectively enough that we can see both sides of the story. This account is spread over many pages as he tells of issues that cropped up over time. As a result, reading the books, it is difficult to see the intense impact of the story.

So I decided to take each of those incidents and compile them into an article. I intended it for the Freemason magazine here in Missouri and instead of just submitting it, I met personally with the editor and told him, "This is hot stuff. If you review it and decide it shouldn't go into the magazine, I will understand." So the editor reviewed and accepted the story. It was destined to be published for all the world to see.

A couple weeks later, I got a friendly phone call from the Grand Master. He said he liked the article. Then he said, "Steve… Steve… you know we can't publish this." I knew. And just as I had told the editor, I understood.

So I went to work on a revision. I toned some things down and threw in the standard disclaimer saying the article did not necessarily reflect the views of the Grand Lodge, the Missouri Lodge of Research, the Grand Line officers, the magazine, God or any individuals living or dead. By this time there was a new Grand Master. I met with him. He reviewed the article and gave it his blessing to be published. So the on-again-off-again publication of this hot potato was on again.

Then, I met with the Denslows themselves – Ray's granddaughter and grandson, and we talked about the issue. Not surprisingly, they saw things from Ray's point of view. I realized the publication of the article might embarrass or even alienate them after they had been so good in working with me as I edited his memoirs… and I didn't want that. In addition, let's face it, the whole episode was not Freemasonry's finest hour. So I called the new Grand Master and we once again decided not to publish the article. It's not like the story has never been told. I've just never heard it told correctly or completely.

So what to do with this thing? Well, here's what we're going to do. This September at Chicago Masonicon, I'll lay out the whole grisly story. What Denslow did that so offended the Scottish Rite that it yanked his 33°. Who his great and powerful nemesis was, and how this clash of the titans came to its imperfect resolution. I won't publish it, but at that meeting we'll sit down and talk about it… just you and me.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What Come You Here To Do?



"I would not denounce or renounce Freemasonry even in order to become President of the United States." ~Brother Henry Clay

Many Freemasons have heard that iconic statement from Henry Clay, who served as Grand Master of Kentucky in 1820.  Most, however, do not know the circumstances behind it, and what else Clay said along with it.  Clay said it because, at the time, he was being courted to run for US President as the candidate of the Anti-Masonic Party!

Clay, who conducted the only Masonic meeting ever held in the United States Senate chambers, had become disgruntled with the fraternity.  He was fed up with the bickering, politics and hypocrisy he saw in some members.  Anti-Masonic Party members knew about his views and went after him to join them.  When he told them he would not renounce Freemasonry for the Presidency, he also said, "[Freemasonry] does more good than harm, although it does not practically effect all that it theoretically promises."

I've never really liked that view.  More good than harm?  It almost seems he's putting the good and harm on equal footing, with the balance barely tipping in favor of the good.  In my book, the ratio has always been something more like a million to one.

But, face it. It's the rare Mason who hasn't had at least a couple of negative experiences with his Brothers.

I've had them and it's at times like that when  Brother Clay has made me a believer.  We all have human frailties and, predominately for that reason, Freemasonry does not deliver all it claims.  That Perfect Ashlar is a goal, never a reality.

Searching for solutions to problems like these is frustrating.  An individual trying to change the direction of the juggernaut of Freemasonry is like swimming alongside the Titanic in an attempt to push it away from the iceberg.

These, however, are problems that will take years, perhaps decades, to fix; and no single person will make those changes — it will take a concerted effort. 

As individuals, meanwhile, we're left swimming alongside the Titanic wondering if there is anything at all we can do.  There is.

On one rather discouraging day things were seemingly coming down on me all at once.  As I sat brooding, staring at my PC, a message popped up: "Coffee klatch, today, 9:30AM."  A coffee klatch?  It sounds like something my wife, Carolyn, would go to at one of her DAR meetings; but this was something the Scottish Rite had set up — just a simple get-together for no reason in particular.

I went.  It was even less formal than I expected.  We didn't even gather as a group.  We just milled around shooting the breeze — sometimes two or three of us, sometimes a larger group.  That was it.  We just shared bad coffee and good brotherhood — none of the bickering, politics or hypocrisy that bothered Henry Clay.

Many of the problems we all sometimes face come from a few bad apples. But the majority of our members are friends and Brothers who can offer support.  I walked away feeling a thousand times better.  That's when it hit me.

The big issues will always be there and we should never stop working on them.  As for dealing with the frustrations on a personal level, the answer has been there since the beginning of our Masonic journey; and every Freemason knows what it is when he answers the question:

"What come you here to do?"

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Masonic Jig

I stand in the back of the Lodge room, acting as Marshal in this Entered Apprentice initiation.  The Worshipful Master turns and walks back into the arch formed by the Stewards' staffs. He stops and stands still. I wait for my signal. After about two seconds – TWO SECONDS – the signal doesn't come. And about five guys start doing the Masonic Jig.


The Masonic Jig goes something like this: the performer raises his hands in the air and then brings them down, almost violently, while flexing his knees downward. At the same time he whisper-shouts "Lights down! Lights down." The dancer performs the motion over and over until the room becomes dark. The astute reader will actually recognize this as a form of K-Pop. Who says Freemasons aren't hip?

The Master, as it turns out, was waiting for his signal to turn which he thought was the room going dark. I was waiting for my signal to darken the room which I knew to be the Master turning. A two second deadlock developed, which was other Brothers' signal to flail like monkeys on a hot griddle, at least momentarily damaging the dignity of the occasion.

I promise, in a couple more seconds I'd have figured it out and turned down the lights. Failing that, instead of the simian boogaloo I would much have preferred a single proctor saying, "lights down, please." Properly delivered the candidate might have thought that was part of the ceremony.

Ahhh… the Peanut Gallery. That ever-present bevy of Brothers ready to spring into action with corrections the instant a speaker says "your" instead of "thy" or "blessings and mercies" instead of "mercies and blessings." This affliction is a corollary to the Masonic Jig known as Masonic Tourette Syndrome.

These disorders are so prevalent in Missouri we must read a statement before each Master Mason degree prompting the Brothers to cool it. Paraphrasing here, the document reminds Brothers the Third Degree is a solemn and meaningful experience, not an opportunity to audition to become a Shrine clown.

When I was Master (Translation: "Back in my day, sonny"), I sometimes appointed a proctor and requested the other Brothers let him prompt for corrections in a more controlled and orderly fashion. This was somewhat effective although I have to admit I always appointed the most offending and disruptive Brother to that position knowing he wouldn't play second fiddle to anyone else, and would jump in anyway. It was cheating but the end justifies the means, right?

So, let's say it's a First Degree and the Chaplain offers this prayer, "Vouchsafe thine aid, Great Architect of the Universe, to this our present convention…" OMG! If that doesn't call for a nuclear Tourette blast I don't know what does. But here's the thing… neither the candidate receiving the degree nor any non-Mason reading this has a clue as to why. Let it ride, people! The words may have been changed but the meaning wasn't. The candidate will walk away thinking, "that was a beautiful prayer," instead of, "I wonder if God was able to hear the prayer over all that shouting from the sidelines."

Y'know, a letter-perfect ritual is great, but if I go to a meeting in Kansas, just 20 miles west of my house, I don't even recognize half the ritual. Again, the meaning is far more important than getting the exact words, in order, letter perfect. Heck, nobody can do that anyway.

I guess each one of us just needs to make sure we're not disruptive and maybe gently remind the Peanut Gallery to dial it down in the ceremonies. A little decorum does not go a long way. These ceremonies require large doses of it, especially when candidates are involved. I think the next time I'm Master (as if that would ever happen) I'll just hang a banner in the east that says, "Masonic ceremonies are not study clubs."

Monday, February 10, 2020

Mister Sparky

Summary

Mister Sparky, which bills itself as a national franchise of electricians, is, in my opinion, a scam. If you are pressed for time, you need read no farther. Just don't hire Mister Sparky (https://www.mistersparky.com/). This assessment is, of course, only my opinion based on the following experience.

* * * * *

Carolyn and I purchased a range hood for our new stove and began looking for someone to install it. She went to HomeAdvisor (homeadvisor.com) and entered our request with the specifics of the project. Within five minutes she got a hit from Mister Sparky. Impressed with the quick hit, we hired Mister Sparky to do the job. So far, so good.

Brian from Mister Sparky showed up at the appointed time and we briefly discussed the project. Then, Brian said he needed to see our circuit breaker box. This seemed reasonable since I figured he wanted to shut off the power to the range. We went downstairs and, without asking, Brian immediately removed the circuit breaker box housing. He looked at all the exposed wiring and began running off a litany of everything he claimed was wrong. He said it was an urgent situation and cautioned me the house could burn down if we didn't do something. That's when the red flag popped up in my mind – not about the circuit breaker situation, but about Brian himself.

To digress a bit, it's not uncommon to have an old circuit breaker panel that is out of code. We recently sold another house where that was the case. During the transaction of that sale, all we had to do was to agree to have the system brought up to code at our expense.

I pointed out to Brian we had been in the house for 30 years using that same electrical panel and the house hadn't burned down yet. I also told him we had been using an excellent electrician in town for that time period and if there really was a problem, I'd have him look at it as a second opinion. In addition, I mentioned, we would be using that electrician for this project except he doesn't  install appliances.

After that discussion, we went back upstairs to proceed, I thought, with the installation of the range hood. Not so fast. Brian whipped out his handy-dandy iPad and proceeded to give us a sales presentation on the Mister Sparky program designed, in his words, to monitor the electrical system in our house. He gave us several options ranging from $99 a year up to the-sky-is-the-limit, depending on the length of the contract and services we signed up for. Notice at this point the whole transaction has been about Mister Sparky trying to get us to sign a service contract and not about the installation of a range hood.

Just to get things moving I told Brian to email me the contract information and said I would look at it (knowing I would immediately delete it). So Brian, after about a 45 minute delay, finally got to the original job of installing the range hood. He then showed me the outrageous price for the actual job. I noted his service fee was more than the range hood had cost – by a long shot. Brian, of course, felt the need to inform me the real cost of appliances is the labor to install them. Exasperated, I told him just to install the thing and went off to do some work of my own.

Later, I came downstairs to find the range hood out of the box but no other work done. Brian was pacing around the kitchen in a tizzy talking to his office.

I had exactly two words for Brian, "NOW WHAT?" Inquiring minds want to know.

Brian said he had discovered the wiring for the range hood we had purchased was on the right side of the unit, but the contractor had installed the lead-in wiring to the left and it was not long enough to reach over to the right hand side. I asked why he didn't just extend that wire so it would reach (a question which, I later found out Carolyn had also asked).

Brian informed me that wire could not be extended and said he was on the phone trying to locate a new range hood for me that had its electrical wiring setup on the left.

Let's go over that one again. Brian, Mister Sparky's master electrician told me that a house's interior electrical wiring cannot be extended and he was conducting an emergency search for a new range hood for which he would no doubt charge me a fortune.

At that point I had two more words for Brian, "You're fired." I offered to pay for a service call and scrap the rest.

Brian blew up at me. He told me to forget the service charge and slammed the front door as he left.

Bottom line: Mister Sparky is more interested in selling you a contract than anything else and, in this particular case, Mister Sparky's representative was incompetent. In my opinion, never do business with Mister Sparky. As a corollary, be very wary of recommendations from HomeAdvisor.

Finally, shown at the right is the original range hood, which Mister Sparky said couldn't be installed, properly installed and working. The house hasn't burned down yet.