Fraternal Orders are doomed to extinction. That’s what the pundits say. They’re stuffy, dull, secretive, laced with arcane ceremonies and mandatory meetings. Meanwhile, television has privatized our leisure time. We’d rather sit home alone watching the boob tube than go down to the club and fraternize.
Critics and observers see much deterioration in our social fabric with the loss of fraternal organizations like the Elks, Moose, Eagles, Odd Fellows, American Legion, and the VFW; but they are dying out, and there seems to be no easy way to bring them back. We have become more singular as a society, and currently clubs’ efforts to recruit young non-veterans has been wispy thin to non-existent.
The male-dominant culture of the old clubs assisted in their demise. Visit any traditional Elks Lodge, and you won’t see modern art, oil portraits, or dramatic landscapes adorning their walls. You’ll see old black-and-white war photos and pictures of white men in uniform standing at attention. It’s not a stimulating nightclub environment. A long history of no woman, no minorities, has been hard to shake. In poor communities, however, social clubs helped the sick, the elderly, and the children, and their loss will be felt.
Well, I’m a Johnny-come-lately proud member of most of these organizations, and they have served me well. If they try to shutter the doors of my favorite clubs, they’ll have to pry my discounted beer and cheap lunches from my cold dead fingers. I’ll be last man standing.
With guests visiting, Gino and his girlfriend Patricia, we took the touristy Bart stroll around San Francisco last weekend. I’m guessing many have done this similar loop: Pleasant Hill BART to Powell Station, up Powell to Union Square through Chinatown to North Beach and back down Columbus through the Embarcadero Plaza to BART once again.
We’ve all most likely stopped into the same businesses in our familiar loop -- Sephora, Macy's, Lefty’s, the Golden Dragon, the Stinking Rose, Buena Vista, Allioto’s and Harringtons. Maybe we’ve shared the same cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf.
However, there is one pleasant stop we made that most folks don’t make anymore. At the intersection of Powell and Post across from Union Square, we made a left, walked a half block, and turned into the Kensington Hotel lobby. We walked past the concierge to the massive elevators, punched the brass button, entered the cabin and sat on the leather couch while it lifted us to the third floor, home of Lodge No. 3 of the BPOE, the oldest continuously open Elks Lodge in the USA.
It looked like most Elks Lodges -- massive, opulent, high-ceilings, chandeliers, sweeping bar, top-shelf whiskeys and bourbons, and about eight customers. The bar room was big enough to host a Smith family reunion.
“Sit wherever you like,” the bartender said after I showed him my Membership ID and signed my friends in. One door lead to an outside balcony overlooking Post Street and Union Square. We sat at a huge round table in the middle of the room. A waitress brought us a menu. They place was magnificent. Craft beer was $4. Wines were $6. We ordered lunch, chicken tacos, for $9. They came mounded high and hot.
The five of us had a wonderful afternoon. We relaxed, laughed, imbibed in the center city San Francisco Elks Lodge for a fistful of dollars. Then we went on our merry way.
A few hours later, we stopped at a pub in North Beach. Nice place. Craft beer was $10, cocktails were $11, and the veggie platter was $23. And it was hard to find a seat, everyone was so eager to stay and pay.
In South Lake Tahoe there is a Moose Lodge within walking distance from our cabin. It’s not the palatial digs of the Elks, but it’s holding on. Except for Friday night dinners, when members take turns preparing the meal – women cook one week, men the next -- we never know when the Moose will be open, or for how long it will stay open, but when the lights are on, we stop in. I take all my friends there. It’s such a relief to have a friendly place with true, honest-to-goodness discounts. I’m constantly amazed why it’s not more popular. The dues are low.
The Moose is one organization that is making a comeback in some areas. They are a family-oriented club, so there’s no stigma of men-only membership, and they cater to children. Many Moose Lodges have enclosed backyards that are kid safe, and kids are always welcome. In some communities, the Moose has wifi-lounges and coffee shops, trying to lure the youthful in.
I don’t think Fraternal Orders are going to make a comeback. I fear their time has come and gone. However, in rural America they still thrive, and members and determined to keep the light on until the last member expires.
Gino suggested we take a drive across America in 2017 visiting fraternal organizations all along the way. We’re already planning our route.
Steve Gibbs is a retired Benicia High School teacher who has written a column for The Herald since 1985.