Earlier this week I attended the 221st Annual Communication of the Grand Lodge of Georgia in Macon, Georgia. I had business in Macon, so my primary purpose there wasn't to attend Grand Lodge, but I did schedule my business appointment so I could be in town during the annual Masonic meeting.
The Grand Lodge met on Tuesday and Wednesday. I "dropped by" a bit late on Tuesday morning, arriving around 10:45 a.m. or so. I registered, got my name tag and a book of proceedings, picked up a paper-like Masonic apron at the front door, and made my way to the balcony of the Macon City Auditorium, a beautiful old domed marble and stone structure built in 1925. [Click here for a 360-degree panorama of the inside of the building.]
I grew up in Macon, and fondly remember attending many concerts and college basketball games in the building. I even met a then-famous female TV-star there when I was a child. I was about eight or nine, and we were going through a meet-and-greet line of celebrities. I must have been starstruck by her blonde hair and big boobs, or something, because I remember her saying to me, "Don't be shy, little boy," and then I shook her hand.
Last time I was there, in 2003, it was to attend the opening night of The Gregg Allman Band Tour, having been given backstage passes by one of the band members I had recently met.
So, with all these happy memories of being in the Auditorium, I was jazzed, and ready to forget my "troubles" with Georgia Masonry and feel a part of it again.
The meeting was underway as I took a seat in the back row of the balcony. I peeked over the shoulder of a brother in front of me to see what page he was looking at in his book, and then settled in to listen to what was going on. I'd walked in as they were going through, one by one, a list of brothers who had been tried and "convicted" of various (but unspecified) charges of unmasonic conduct. They were voting to approve the Trial Commissioners' suspensions and expulsions from the fraternity. There were probably 15 or 20 names listed. I was curious about these trials that had been held, and what these men had done to incur the ire of their lodge brothers. No explanations were given in the book or from the podium; the speaker just read the names and the meaningless words in the book, and asked for a vote for approval. Each vote was cast by current and past masters raising red cards. All the votes appeared to be unanimous, and there was no discussion of anything from the floor.
After about 20 minutes, my cell phone rang. I had just purchased a new phone the day before, and had forgotten to turn it off, and didn't know how to silence it, so I scooted out the back door.
I took the call and headed outside. As I was finishing up the call, brothers began pouring out the doors for the lunch break. A brother and friend from a lodge near my own, of which I'm an honorary member, walked by, and we greeted each other warmly. That was pretty much the brotherly highlight of my two days around hundreds of Masons. Earlier, as I'd registered and mingled in the hall before going in, I'd been upbeat and greeted several men with "Hi, brother," but most wouldn't make eye contact or acknowledge me; I might as well have been meandering a hotel lobby in a foreign country.
I don't know why I keep expecting Masons to be different. Perhaps I still think that as Masons we have some cosmic enlightenment the rest of the world doesn't have, that we're all friendly and outgoing and full of brotherly love. I'm no longer that shy little kid; I'm usually pretty outgoing and congenial in person. Maybe it's just that many people become withdrawn and shy when they're in a crowd; I don't know. I just know that being there, seeing the long faces, could have made me withdraw into myself, too, had I stayed too long.
Since I had business to attend to that afternoon, I didn't go back for the afternoon session.
But I did make a point to attend the Masonic Family Night dinner that evening, held at the Farmers' Market.
It was there I realized just how much I don't fit in with the majority of Georgia Masons. It's not that there is anything wrong, per se, with Georgia Masons, I've come to realize. They are what they are. But to me, generally speaking, they are Masons in name only. At least, they're not what I thought Masons were when I joined. I expected enlightenment, tolerance, a brotherly spirit, a zeal for learning and maybe some cosmic understanding.
Hundreds of vehicles were arriving at the market as I pulled up. I parked, and as I was getting out of my car (a low-end C-class, used when I bought it, eight-year old Mercedes), I caught the eye of a brother getting out of his vehicle with his wife.
"Hi, brother. How ya doing?" I said.
His reply: "I'm fine, Mercedes-Benz man...."
I didn't have a comeback for that, but it was just as well, because he wasn't finished.
"...but I'm still driving a Tahoe."
He wasn't done yet. He continued, "...but it is the Cadillac of Chevrolets."
What could I say to that? I just thought to myself, "What the...?" and headed over to the line forming at the entrance to the the huge shed where the dinner was being held.
There I was, among "brothers," and the first one I speak to is judging me by the kind of car I drive and defending his own choice of automobile.
As I walked to the pavilion, I found myself thinking, "Hmm... isn't Cadillac actually the Cadillac of Chevrolets?"
With cars on my mind, I noticed as I walked that at least 75% of the vehicles in the parking lot were pickup trucks. And while some of the trucks had Masonic emblems on them, far more common were American and Confederate flag stickers, "Proud to be an American" stickers, and quite a few "Proud to be a member of the National Rifle Association" stickers. I even saw one "America: Love It or Leave It" sticker.
"Mercedes-Benz Man" walked into a redneck hoedown. I don't think I've ever seen such a sea of white faces topped by ball caps in my life (no, I've never been to a NASCAR race). There must have been 1,200 or more people, Masons and their families, lined up under that huge roof, waiting to eat brunswick stew, grits, fried catfish, grilled hot dogs and sausages and corn bread. Though it was at a farmers' market, the only vegetables I saw were french fries and cole slaw. Unless you count grits.
I had paid my five dollars, so I put cholesterol out of my mind and lined up to get something to eat. Talking to anyone else in line was difficult; a nine-piece Masonic band's renditions of Hank Williams (Senior and Junior) songs were blasting out from the center of the shed, reverberating and distorting off the huge metal roof. Later I heard the band's version of the classic Buck Owens tune I've Got a Tiger by the Tail, and noticed a few older women shimmying to the music of their childhood.
After I ate, sitting on a curb (there were no tables, just folding chairs, and not nearly enough), I struck up a hard-to-hear conversation with an elderly brother from Columbus, Ga., who entertained me with a long story about how unclean his motel room was, it being owned by a "sand n*****."
From time to time I noticed, outside the pavilion, black people, probably employees of the market, gawking at the crowd of white people inside, then stepping back to look up at the sign to see who the heck we were. Occasionally, a black man could be seen, emptying the trash barrels, full of greasy paper plates and Coke cans, that lined the curbs. In a town 63% black, the employees had probably never seen that many white people together, either, doing southern white people things.
When the band struck up the Elvis Presley version of American Trilogy, I decided it was time to leave.
I headed over to a sports bar and sipped on a scotch for the next hour, immediately striking up conversations with some of the patrons, mostly college kids, offering sometimes wrong answers to the questions in the trivia contest that was going on. Odd, I felt more "at home" there than at the Masonic functions, though I haven't hung out with college kids since I was a college kid, and I can't remember the last time I was in a bar, and had never been in that one.
The next morning found me back at the Grand Lodge session. I noticed that only about half as many men were there as the day before. Wednesday's session was primarily to install the new 2008 grand lodge officers. I arrived before the session got underway. A man at a piano was playing a medley of upbeat Christian hymns, including Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know.
The meeting opened with a prayer, and then the Grand Master led the crowd in singing the first and last verse of Amazing Grace.
The installation of officers was as predictably un-inspiring as any other installation of officers you've ever seen. There was the pretend-solemnity of the obligations followed by joking banter. Every man had to stop to hug and kiss his wife as he was paraded to his new station. Speeches were given by the incoming and outgoing Grand Masters, with both of them gushing about how wonderful the subordinate officers, their Masonic "sons" and "grandsons," were. Each new officer spoke, pledging their obedience and fidelity to the new Grand Master and his programs. (Heads up to Georgia Masons: You're about to be bombarded with the new GM's program, the Masonic CHIP program for children's fingerprinting and identification cards, already supported by 22 or so grand lodges across the U.S., as well as increased appeals for money for the Masonic Children's Home Endowment Fund and a push for greater participation in "perpetual membership.") Tired old jokes about how a grand lodge officer has to buy his wife a new dress if he forgets to introduce her abounded, and then, of course, the wife had to stand to be introduced.
The piano player played little ditties as each new officer was led around the basketball-floor makeshift lodge. Hail to the Chief was played when the new Grand Master was escorted to the East. For the Senior Grand Warden, he played Onward Christian Soldiers. I cracked up when he played the tune for the two Grand Deacons: Bicycle Built for Two. That bit of mental mirth led me to wonder what he'd play for the three Grand Stewards. I was hoping for Three Blind Mice; instead, he played We Three Kings of Orient Are.
After the installations and speeches, a break was taken to allow the women and non-Masons to leave the arena so we could "get back to business." The women, of course, all stood and chatted with each other and their men for at least 15 minutes, during which time someone took the microphone to tell us in the balcony that the Grand Master wanted everyone to come to the main floor, "to make it easier to count votes." Though I wasn't allowed a vote, never having served as Worshipful Master of my lodge, I obliged and went downstairs. I noted with a certain interest that several brethren ignored the "request" and remained seated in the balcony. Ah, youthful rebellion. My kind of people.
When the session began, they read off a few bills that had been presented as potential changes to the Masonic Code. Most of them were ruled "out of order," and thrown out by the outgoing Grand Master, for not being submitted in "proper form." After a while, I got bored, and left.
And now, like Jerry Springer would do at the end of one of his ridiculous redneck free-for-all television shows, I'm going to get all serious and tell you what I learned.
I learned that what I thought Freemasonry was and what it actually is in Georgia are two different things. I learned that I don't like the same kind of music as most of my Georgia brethren. I learned that I don't especially like the same kinds of foods. And I learned that I don't drive the right kind of car to be "one of them." Despite having grown up in Macon, and having lived in Georgia all my life, I find that I don't fit the mold of a stereotypical Georgia Freemason. I learned that I can find more camaraderie in a sports bar full of 20-somethings than I can in a lodge meeting.
And that's fine. They are what they are. I don't seek to change them; I couldn't if I tried (and once I tried). I think it's sad that Georgia (and elsewhere) Freemasonry has been "taken over" by a certain type of individual — the good ol' boy — but it is what it is.
It's time for me to focus my energies elsewhere.
Image: Macon City Auditorium in Macon, Georgia
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