Wednesday, May 10, 2017

His Luck Ran Out


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Noblesville, Indiana, population about 60,000 and growing, is the Seat of Hamilton County, located about 25 miles north of Indianapolis.  It’s sort of a special place to me since I was born there.  My father, Robert, was a member of the town’s Masonic Lodge, Noblesville 57.  But this isn’t about my father or me; it’s about another member of Noblesville 57, a man named Earl Teter.

Better known as “Lucky”,  Earl Teter was born in Noblesville in 1901.  He was president of his high school class for 3 years, captain of the basketball team, a football player and a champion boxer.  Influenced by the world-famous race held just a few miles south of his home, the Indianapolis 500, Teter was always attracted to thrills and action.  So in 1934, he recruited a group of drivers and put an automobile show of “thrills and spills” on the road. 

He called this group of daredevils “Lucky Teter’s Hell Drivers,” the first use of the phrase many have used since.  For the next several years, Lucky and his band of stunt drivers toured the country, playing to massive crowds with their ever-increasingly dangerous show.

Teter’s fame and success mounted until everything changed on December 7, 1941.  With the United States entering World War II, Teter decided to close his show to help with the war effort.  He planned one final performance, fittingly, on July 4, 1942. 

Wanting a “grand finale,” Lucky vowed to break the world record by jumping his car over a panel truck at a distance of 135 feet.  In front of an excited sellout crowd at the Indianapolis Fairgrounds, he got in his car, jammed his foot on the accelerator, hit the launch ramp at full speed and made the jump, setting the world record.  Knowing this was a special day and his final performance before the war, Teter had the ramps moved back to 140 feet, made another attempt and set another world record.  Ever the showman, he repeated the stunt at 145 feet.

Having set three world records he stepped to a microphone and told the crowd he would set one final record to honor the servicemen who now had the very future of the country in their hands. “I want,” he said, “to thank the officers and soldiers… I’m dedicating this last stunt not only to the soldiers here, but to all those in Uncle Sam’s armed forces throughout the world.”

With that, he had the distance set at 150 feet.  Attempting his 4th world record of the day, he got into his car, fired the engine and headed full-tilt toward the launch ramp.  Spectators reported they heard Teter’s birght yellow 1938 Plymouth misfire as he sped toward the jump.  He didn’t have nearly enough speed.  Earl Teter’s luck ran out as his jump fell short and he lost his life.

Today, Lucky Teter remains one of Noblesville’s favorite sons.  Each year in August, the town hosts the “Lucky Teter Rebel Run.  Proceeds go to, what else, the Noblesville Masonic Angel Fund in memory of a courageous Brother whose final act was dedicated to the soldiers of World War II.

For the Whence Came You podcast, this is Steve Harrison with the Masonic Minute.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Wisdom, Power and Goodness

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"Geometry, the first and noblest of sciences is the basis on which the superstructure of Freemasonry is erected. By Geometry, we may curiously trace nature through her various windings to her most concealed recesses. By it, we discover the wisdom, power and goodness of the Grand Architect of the Universe and view with delight the proportions which connect this vast machine. By it we discover how the planets move in their respective orbits and demonstrate their various revolutions."

I recall sitting in a science class in high school. Our teacher, Mr. Mohr, dropped a chunk of sodium into a beaker of water. The sodium instantly fizzed up and zooped around the beaker like an out of control power boat. Then it burst into flames and finally exploded as the students oohed and aahed. When the rumbling subsided, the diabolical Mr. Mohr called on an unfortunate student, "Henry, what made it do that?"

Henry beamed, "God."

The class thought it was funny. Mr. Mohr, who had the sense of humor of a wounded gorilla, didn't. In his own gruff and unsympathetic way he explained that just because we don't understand something doesn't mean it's a direct result of God's action.

True, but in fact the Masonic ritual teaches there is a relationship between God and the physical universe. From that relationship, as we learn in the Second Degree lecture, we can not only observe the magnificence of the Creator, but also draw moral symbolism from metaphors we see in His physical creation.

God and science are not at war. They can't be. Think about that… they can't be. It is we humans, who don't have all the answers when it comes to understanding either God or science, who somehow perceive there is a war. As Henry discovered, it's a slippery slope to take something we don't understand, stop research, and conclude it's God's work; in that event, what happens when we discover the scientific principle behind it? Historically, many have taken the stance that the research is wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is, in fact, right.

In the 17th century, for example, humans did not understand the solar system. It was taken as scientific and religious fact that the sun circled the earth (Psalm 104 tells us: "He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved." ~Psalm 104:5, NIV)." When scientists proved the earth, in fact, did orbit the sun, rather than being inconsistent with God's design, it revealed it. The church, however, still didn't warm up to the concept right away. Today, scientists and virtually all religious establishments know it to be an incontrovertible fact.

Today's hot buttons include evolution, the "Big Bang Theory" and a few more points of contention. Regardless of your point of view on these issues, the facts for each are overwhelming; and with some religious groups challenging scientific evidence we are, on some level, back in the 17th century. Scientific discoveries are not political, not vindictive and not anti-God. They are based on fact. (Not, by the way, just on observation — any idiot can observe daily that the sun circles the earth). These discoveries don't offer proof of God one way or the other. They prove we have learned more about God's universe and, as we are admonished, should "view with delight" all such revelations.

What these scientific discoveries do prove is that God is bigger and more complex than we can ever comprehend. So complex, in fact, that when asked to prove God exists, famed theologian and Freemason Peter Marshall responded, "How could my tiny mind prove God?"

The Reverend Marshall went further. He turned the tables and asked his questioners to prove they existed. Fact is, he was onto something. Any legitimate, credible scientist today will tell you, your body is nothing but energy. Your house, everything inside it, the trees outside, the very ground you walk on is nothing but energy. This is not some kind of New Age folderol; it's scientific fact. Sounds kind of spiritual, doesn't it? Or, as Dr. Wayne Dyer put it, "You are not a body with a soul. You are a soul with a body"

If what you personally believe about God seems inconsistent with scientific facts, consider this: scientists have already observed the world of relativity and the quantum world appear completely incompatible. Yet, they coexist! Can't God coexist along with them even with perceived inconsistencies? And don't we know on some level all those inconsistencies have to iron themselves out, even if that process is beyond our human capability to figure out?

So many concepts still baffle our best scientists: dark matter and dark energy; the nature of time and matter inside black holes — the "singularity"; a unified theory; the possibility of parallel universes; backwards time travel; dimensions beyond the three (four, if you count time) we live in; quantum entanglement, a phenomenon so strange and baffling that Einstein called it "spooky." To each of these, the best scientific minds around would say, "We just don't completely understand." Or, perhaps more accurately, "We just don't have all the facts."

Many, even some scientists, think there may be spiritual elements to these mysteries. The scientists, however, will not draw conclusions without proven facts — pesky hindrances that some outside the scientific community have the luxury of ignoring. In our lifetimes, we will most likely solve some of these mysteries. To many, those discoveries will not just reveal scientific facts. They will also give us greater insight into the wisdom, power and goodness of the Grand Architect of the Universe.

And I, for one, finding far more spirituality in science than science in spirituality, anticipate each new discovery with delight.

For the Whence Came You podcast, this is Steve Harrison with the Masonic Minute.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Christmas Flower

Brother Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851) had a successful diplomatic career as US Secretary of War, US Congressman and Minister to Mexico.  Additionally, he was instrumental in the formation of the Grand Lodge of Mexico, served as Deputy General Grand High Priest of the General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, Master of two of his Lodges, Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina and Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of South Carolina.  Even with impressive credentials like that, however, he is best remembered for a plant he brought back from Mexico, the Mexican Fire Plant.  After cultivating it and introducing it in the US, the plant was named in his honor.  Today, the Poinsettia is the traditional Christmas flower. (Originally posted April 2, 2011)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Grounded


Brother John Glenn, Concord Lodge 688 Concord, Ohio, became the first American to orbit the earth on February 20, 1962. Immediately recognized as one of the greatest American heroes of the time, the ticker-tape parade in New York held in his honor equaled in size only that of Brother Charles Lindbergh. Afterward, the city reported it had picked up a record 3,474 tons of confetti! Brother Glenn never flew again during the early space program. Reports say officials grounded him because they felt in the event of a mishap, the loss of such a great American hero would irreparably damage the space program as well as the morale of the American public.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

In Whom Do You Put Your Trust

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The candidate, as instructed, knelt at the altar. In front of him in the east, the Worshipful Master stood at his podium and asked a question we have all been asked, "In whom do you put your trust?"

Silence followed.

Having encountered similar hesitation before, the composed WM rephrased the question and asked, "In whom do you put your spiritual trust?"

After another long pause the candidate finally answered, "I guess I put my trust in myself. If you are trying to get me to say I put my trust in God, I can't. I don't believe in God."

Another period of silence followed. Still composed and carefully assessing the situation, the Master asked, "Would you please repeat what you just said?" The candidate repeated his answer. Standing before a hushed and stunned Lodge, the veteran Master knew exactly what he had to say next, "Brother Senior Deacon, you will escort the candidate to the preparation room."

Freemasons believe in God; and we take it seriously. It's not just lip-service. We tolerate all religions, but hold a belief in Deity as the single non-negotiable requirement to becoming a member. No exceptions. And no exception was made that night, either.

Epilogue: This incident took place early a couple years ago, at Brotherhood Lodge #269 in St. Joseph, Missouri, with a friend of mine, Dennis Vogel, presiding. The Missouri petition is very clear in stating that the candidate holds a strict belief in God, but this candidate signed the petition anyway. The investigating committee covered the issue of belief in God with the candidate; and the candidate very skillfully crafted a satisfactory answer. The question in Lodge, however, "In whom do you put your trust," doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room... as the candidate discovered.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Alfalfa Switzer — A Little Rascal's Tragedy

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One of the episodes in the Our Gang series tells the tale of the young cowlick-bedecked Alfalfa attempting to shed his reputation as a common crooner and become a great opera star. He visits an opera company where the impresario is so inspired he immediately signs Alfalfa to a contract effective 20 years hence. At the appointed time two decades later, the intrepid divo makes his operatic debut and the audience, predictably, boos him off the stage. It's all downhill from there for our hero, whose adult life just doesn't turn out the way he expected. The episode ends happily as Alfalfa wakes from his dream, sees the error of his ways and returns to his calling as a popular, albeit off-key, crooner.

In many ways the episode is a foreshadowing of the real life of the actor, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, whose meteoric rise to fame as a child preceded a tragic adulthood.

Hal Roach created the Our Gang comedies in 1921 after watching a group of kids do what kids do best. They were playing in his yard. Originally made as silent films the series grew in popularity as Roach added sound in the 1930s. MGM re-released the episodes in the mid 1950s as The Little Rascals.

In 1935, Carl's parents took him and his older brother Harold to visit the Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles. The purpose of the trip was nothing less than to turn Carl and Harold into child stars; and it worked. Carl and Harold parked themselves in front of the crowd at the studio's café and began performing. Roach saw them and signed them on the spot.

Carl... Alfalfa, as he was known in the series... quickly overshadowed Harold and became one of the top stars along with regulars Darla Hood and George "Spanky" McFarland. He was enormously popular with viewers but was just as unpopular with the child actors and filming crew.

Alfalfa was a prankster and the biggest bully of the gang. During filming he would intentionally step on other kids feet or stick them with a nail he carried in his pocket. On one occasion a cameraman became frustrated with Carl as he muffed his lines and told him to, "get it right so we can go to lunch." After the cameraman left, Alfalfa gave each of the kids a stick of gum and collected it back from them after they were done chewing it. Then he took the enormous wad and stuck it into the gears of the camera. That afternoon, the kids went home while the cameraman tried to save his machine.

One day director George Sidney became so frustrated with Alfalfa's antics he pulled him aside and told him, "Come and see me when you grow up so I can beat the crap out of you."

In 1940, Roach booted 13-year old Alfalfa from the series for being too old. He had been earning about $750 a week — a fortune in the depression era — and supporting his family. Suddenly it all ended and, like most child stars, he did not make a successful transition into acting as an adult.

While continuing to struggle in his acting career, he became an outdoorsman and hunting guide. In 1958, he borrowed a hunting dog from a man named Bud Stiltz. He lost the dog when it ran after a bear on a hunting trip, and he offered a reward for the dog's return. When a man brought the dog back to him, Alfalfa was so grateful he paid the reward and bought the man several drinks. Later, he decided Stiltz should be responsible for the money he spent on the dog's return. On January 21, 1959, Carl went to him and demanded $50. Stiltz refused to pay. They argued and fought. Finally, Alfalfa drew a knife and went after him. Stiltz ran, got a gun and killed the 31-year old former child star. A jury subsequently acquitted Stiltz of any wrongdoing.

Along the way, there was a bright spot in Carl's short and tragic life. In his work as a hunting guide, he crossed paths with cowboy superstar Roy Rogers, a 33° Mason and member of Hollywood Lodge 355. Roy tried to help Carl's faltering career by giving him parts in several of his shows. He also encouraged Carl to join the Freemasons, which he did.

Brother Carl was buried in Hollywood Forever cemetery, a resting place for many of Hollywood's greatest. His tombstone bears symbols of the better parts of his otherwise tough life: It reads "Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer" and is adorned by a carving of a hunting dog (not "Pete" from the Our Gang series, as some think), and two square and compasses flank the top. Interestingly, the cemetery sits on the grounds of what once was Southland Lodge 617, and the original Lodge building is still standing.

Alfalfa and other child actors from the series proved being a child star wasn't as glamorous as it might have seemed. About half of them, Carl included, did not live to see 40. Even Carl's brother Harold committed suicide at age 42. Today, the Little Rascals are all gone; every one of them. Many, Carl chief among them, never had that second chance Alfalfa got when he woke from his operatic nightmare.

Lyndon Johnson and Herbert Hoover

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In 1994, over 30 years after Lyndon Johnson assumed the Presidency and over 20 years after his death, the United States government began releasing tapes of his Presidential phone conversations. Among the first tapes released were those conversations he had just after the death of President John Kennedy.

On April 15 of that year, Ted Koppel featured the tapes on his Nightline program. On it, he conducted a roundtable discussion with Johnson biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin and other Presidential historians and journalists.

One of the most interesting tapes they listened to was a 20-minute conversation Johnson had with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on November 29, 1963, one week after Johnson became President.

On the recording, Johnson and Hoover discuss their thoughts on the formation of a group to investigate the assassination — a committee that almost certainly became the Warren Commission. Then they turn their attention to the facts of the assassination itself, with Hoover updating Johnson with the latest information known by the FBI.

Those facts, after only one week of investigation are very close to those we know about today, conspiracy theorists notwithstanding. They discuss Lee Harvey Oswald's activities the day of the assassination, including his capture in the theater. "There is no question Oswald is the man," says Hoover, "given the evidence we have." Johnson asks about any relationship between Oswald and Jack Ruby (Rubinstein). Hoover says they have discovered none. He explains Ruby was a "police character" who was well known by the authorities and speculates that is how he got into the prisoner transfer area. Hoover confides, "Dallas police didn't operate with the highest degree of efficiency."

At the end of the conversation, Hoover recommends Johnson consider a bullet-proof car. Johnson replies, "I want to take every precaution I can... you're more than the head of the Federal Bureau as far as I'm concerned. You're my Brother and personal friend and you have been for 25 to 30 years."

Upon hearing that last sentence, Koppel asked the panel, "What did President Johnson mean when he told Hoover, 'You're my Brother?'" Not a single panelist had any idea what Johnson was talking about.

But we know, don't we?

Lyndon B. Johnson is rarely included in lists of US Presidents who were Freemasons; however, he was, in fact, initiated an Entered Apprentice on October 30, 1937, in Johnson City Lodge #561, at Johnson City, Texas. He never went beyond the First Degree.

J. Edgar Hoover, on the other hand, was a 33° Scottish Rite Mason, a York Rite Mason, a member of Federal Lodge #1, Washington, DC and a charter member of Justice Lodge #46 in Maryland.

Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover were, in fact, Masonic Brothers; and President Johnson acknowledged it in that historic conversation.