Looking Under The Fez

ONCE THEY ROAMED THE EARTH, PROUD AND FREE. Mighty herds of Moose and Elk, great flocks of Eagles, pride after pride of Lions. But finest of all were the Shriners. Romping & gamboling & driving miniature cars in precision formation, the gold-and-rhinestone trim on their bright red fezzes sparkling in the sun; truly, they were the most playful of all fraternal organizations!

While they're not yet extinct, these days the Shriners could be called an endangered species. At the turn of the century, millions of men - possibly one out of every five adult males in the United States - belonged to one or more fraternal lodges. But as times and attitudes change, these all-male social organizations are literally dying out. "The Black Camel is advancing on us" say the Shriners, who have lost over one-third of their membership since 1980. And it's hard to see where they'll find young replacements for the members who leave in a hearse. It never occurs to most of us nowadays to belong to a lodge. When was the last time one of your buddies turned to you and said, "Dude, next week I'm joining the Kiwanis"?

Apparently, fraternal organizations offer things that nobody wants any more: buddy-buddy fellowship, mumbo-jumbo rituals, and frequent mandatory meetings. But even though we may not want to join them, it's still possible to admire them from a certain (ironic) distance. It's a bit like watching the last of the dinosaurs thunder off into the sunset, doomed but glorious. We know the world may never see their like again. The Shriners, the boldest and most in-your-face of all the fraternal organizations, hold a special fascination for me and many others.

Most of us couldn't tell an Elk from a Rotarian from an Odd Fellow, but we all know at least something about the Shriners: that they wear those funny hats, that they support a network of charity hospitals for children, that they've organized themselves around a hokey Arabian Nights theme. And most of all, we know them from their public appearances in parades and such, dressed as clowns, or teetering on tiny mini-bikes, or tooling around in go-karts decked out as miniature cars or trucks (or even, in the case of a Kansas crew called the Wheatwackers, mini-threshing machines.) To a person with a post-modern sensibility, red-fezzed Shriners present an irresistible retro image. They're like walking, talking clip-art!

Though most of us have some idea what they look like, not many know what the Shriners actually are. Officially, they're the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.), founded in 1872 as a fun-loving recreational super-fraternity. A colorful Near East theme runs through everything they do. Their 191 chapters or "Temples" bear names like Sahara, Tangier, Damascus, Mecca, and Nile. They surround themselves with Ali Baba trappings of pyramids, camels, palm trees, and scimitars. Dressed in Bedouin robes, new Nobles are initiated in a symbolic journey across a desert's burning sands to an oasis, where thirsts are quenched with free-flowing wine. While real Moslems shun alcohol, the play-Arabs of the Shrine have a reputation as party-hearty drinkers. The Shrine's annual conventions are famous for bringing together thousands of jolly, tipsy, boys-will-be-boys carousers for a week of good-natured minor mayhem.

But rearrange the letters A.A.O.N.M.S. and they spell "A MASON," a not-so-subtle clue that one must first be "a Mason" in order to become a Shriner. If you're seeking a dark side to the Shriners' frisky tomfoolery, here's where to look, because the Masons (or Freemasons) are an older, larger, and much more mysterious group. For centuries, outsiders have speculated about the Masons' secret oaths, rituals, and handshakes, all based on legendary stonemasons who supposedly built medieval cathedrals and Old Testament temples. (For this reason, Masonic symbols include builders' tools like the compass, the square, and the trowel.)

With members as illustrious as George Washington, Winston Churchill, Mozart, Ty Cobb and Roy Rogers, you'd think the Masons would be above reproach. But their secrecy and claims of ancient wisdom make them a magnet for every paranoid theorist. Masons are lumped in with the Trilateralists, the Bavarian Illuminati, the New World Order and all those other bogeymen who are supposedly pulling our strings from behind the curtain. A recent episode of "The Simpsons" perfectly captured these fears, as the secret society of "Stonecutters" gathered to gloat over their octopus-like reach into every aspect of life:

Gladhanding Shriner

Who controls the British crown?

Who keeps the metric system down?

Who robs cave fish of their sight?

Who rigs every Oscar night?

We do! We doooooooo.

When you become a Shriner-watcher, you inevitably have to confront the question of whether the Freemasons are a shadowy cabal of masterminds or a sociable bunch of fuddy-duddy insurance salesmen. It's fun to indulge in paranoia, and I'm as fond as the next guy of Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson and Smoking Man episodes of "The X-Files." But I also try to look at the Shriners the way I do professional wrestlers: drawing a line between Entertainment and Reality. And I just can't believe these fraternal organizations are anything but a bunch of harmless old coots who like to dress up and chant some ritual claptrap. A little voice in the back of my mind pipes up "Sure, that's what they WANT you to believe." But common sense suggests that if these groups really had any powerful secrets, they'd have waiting lists of people eager to join, instead of plummeting membership rosters.

The one power that Masons and Shriners do control is the ability to keep women outside their Temple's doors. And this seems to be at the heart of both their former appeal and their current decline. It's as if men once deeply craved opportunities to withdraw from the fearful presence of women. Nowadays, despite the occasional noise about men-from-mars-women-from-venus, we just don't have that anxious need to escape from each other. Men and women don't inhabit separate spheres in the modern world. We bump up against each other all day long, at work and at play, and we don't seem to have a big problem with that. Whenever possible, men and women choose to be together, whether it's in co-ed dormitories or on co-ed softball teams. Sure, we sneak out for the occasional boy's night out or all-girl-evening to bitch and blow off a little steam. But we don't require formal clubs with frequent meetings and robes and regalia to do so. *

Another conflict that keeps modern men out of the fraternal life is society's demands on our time. We've all heard that life was harder back in Great-Grandpa's day, but he did seem to have plenty of leisure time to spend down at the lodge. Today we're busy with our careers, busy with our families, and when we want entertainment, we've got TV and videos and the internet right in our homes. After days full of packed schedules and time conflicts, the last thing we want is the Lions' Club or the Shriners making more irritating demands on our time.

Still, there are a few ways in which hip post-modern people can relate to the Shriners. One of these is the appeal of Exotica. The Shriners adore wrapping everything into a fancy package of Orientalia, a fantasy world of camels and oases, turbans and fezzes, Poo-bahs and Rajahs, and Most High Imperial Potentates. We are suckers (in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek way) for Exotica from the really, really Far East: bamboo-trimmed tiki bars, pineapple-garnished cocktails, and the birdcall-laced sounds of Martin Denny.

The rituals of every fraternal organization are laced with grandiose speechifying about returning to lost, mysterious, ancient truths. We've read that kind of stuff before: on the backs of our collectible 50s record albums, the ones with names like Taboo and Primitiva.

And we can certainly sympathize with the Shriners' urge to escape every once in a while into an evening of costumed role-playing. The Shriners play at being Sheiks and Nobles of a loyal, royal Desert Brotherhood. We want to pretend to be what the Shriners themselves were. We put on their cast-off fezzes (picked up at a yard sale or thrift store) and dress in sharkskin suits or cocktail dresses, put some Mancini or Dean Martin on the stereo, and sample a cigar or a martini. And just for one night, we transform ourselves into ... confident, prosperous, Cadillac-driving aluminum-siding salesmen, without a serious thought in our heads except having a serious good time. And to our surprise, it feels pretty darn good.

It's a crazy, mixed-up, one-step-removed way of being a Shriner, but it's probably as near as most members of our generation are ever going to get.

Candi Strecker occasionally publishes her pop-culture journal Sidney Suppy's Quarterly and Confused Pet Monthly (PO Box 515 Brisbane CA 94005-0515). She lives with her husband and daughter Nicola (yes, after Tesla) in a house full of antique transistor radios.

* Or do we? One historian draws an interesting parallel between traditional fraternal organizations and the recent "men's movement," in which guys go off in the woods where women can't watch them, and get in touch with their "primitive selves" by wearing paint and feathers and beating on ritual drums. See Mark Carnes' "Iron John in the Gilded Age," American Heritage, September 1993.

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