Saturday, January 1, 2011

‘Ephemera in a cigar box’


As smoking customs changed so radically in the past 30 years, the venerable cigar box lost its status as the safest place for small personal items that otherwise would be jeopardized by the recidivist menace of occasional tidying. A cigar enthusiast since 1985 myself, I don’t even use cigar boxes to store stuff, but generations of smokers and non-smokers alike had their peculiar treasure chests to secret away the memories that the mind thus unaided inevitably blends into busy pastiches of reminiscence. And at some point more than 30 years ago, as shown by the ages of these items, my grandfather deposited various pieces of Masonic ephemera into this Bances box. (These cigars were “clear Havanas,” meaning they were made of Cuban tobacco, but rolled in the United States. That, and all commercial trade with Cuba, ceased in 1962.) Worshipful Brother Sidney would preside over Mt. Nebo Lodge No. 248 in 1976. The lodge and the Elizabeth Masonic Temple where it met are long gone, having been amalgamated into what now is Azure-Masada Lodge No. 22 in nearby Cranford. There were 11 lodges comprising what was the 13th Masonic District between 1967 and 1976, the period recalled by the items inside this cigar box, and all 11 are gone, absorbed into other lodges many years ago. Anyway, this cedar time capsule was excavated from my aunt’s basement last month. Being the Freemason in the family, it was given to me. Some of these items (e.g., the 32° diploma issued by the Consistory of the Valley of Newark in 1968) I knew had to be stashed away somewhere, but a few others took me entirely by surprise.

An assortment of lodge trestleboards  dominates this box. Dated from January 1968 to March 1976, there are 31 in all. Unlike the typical trestleboard seen in New Jersey today, which is a tri-fold sheet of letter-size paper, these are small (6 x 3 ½ inch) two-color, six-page booklets, seemingly tailored to fit in the shirt pocket.

Their contents are unremarkable. I had hoped for Lux ex Oriente, or even Lux ex Cathedra, but it seems Mt. Nebo was a lodge that emphasized sociability over exploring the great mysteries and philosophies of life. Makes me wonder if maybe that is partially why the lodge and its 10 neighbors are all gone. Mt. Nebo Lodge was chartered on April 24, 1924 – the same day that my original lodge was chartered as No. 249, something serendipitous that I didn’t realize at the time of my initiation 30 years after my grandfather was made a Mason.

On Wednesday, March 20, 1968, the brethren in the Level Club met at Townleys’ restaurant at 6:15 for dinner, and left an hour later to catch the Knick game at the Garden. (The visiting team was the Cincinnati Royals, yet another defunct entity.) The ’68 Knicks of course was the team of Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed… the Hall of Famers who had their numbers retired. But get this: The brethren left Elizabeth, New Jersey at 7:15 p.m. for a game at Madison Square Garden. If you tried that today, you’d miss the game.

Total assets on Dec. 31, 1967: $25,631 (that’s $168,596 in today’s money). 1968 dues: $17.50, including the $1 Grand Lodge assessment. Junior Past Master Albert M. Pines was feted February 18 at Short Hills Caterers ($11.50 per person). 44th Anniversary Dinner-Dance at Richfield Regency Caterers on May 22. Met game on June 19. Picnic September 15 in Warinanco Park. The lodge’s major accomplishment of 1968 was its establishment of a blood bank. Sid served as Chaplain that year, his first full year in Masonry.

A booklet even smaller than the trestleboard was the lodge membership roster, like this one from 1962. Junior Warden Stan Glasser is still around; I chatted with him at a recent meeting of our Consistory. (New Jersey Consistory is the oldest Scottish Rite Consistory in New Jersey, chartered in 1867. It met in Newark when Stan and my grandfather joined, then was moved to Livingston in 1972, then to Lincoln Park in 1977, and this month it relocates yet again, this time to Union.)

And speaking of New Jersey Consistory, here is that aforementioned diploma issued May 18, 1968. Just as my grandfather’s first entrance into the lodge was 30 years before my own, so too was his initiation into the AASR. Thirty years almost to the day. Actually this copy of the diploma is what used to be the traveling paper, folded and protected in a wallet, used for identification when visiting other Scottish Rite bodies. The actual diploma (heavy paper, embossed seal, suitable for framing, etc.) remains unfound.

There were a few non-Masonic papers and objects inside the Bances box that stand out. The sterling silver kiddish cup is out of place. The Morgan silver dollar (1884, New Orleans) is an entirely typical, predictable item to find among personal effects in my family...

... but the handgun permit and sales receipt for a Colt .38 Special are not. The late ’60s was a violent time. Acres of Newark remain vacant today, 43 years after the riots of the summer of 1967. That was my family’s hometown, and while they had moved out before Newark began its rapid decay, they still resided and worked not too far away. The sales receipt for this revolver is dated April 4, 1968, coincidentally the day Martin Luther King was murdered, which precipitated more rioting.

But the Masonic journey of the late W. Sid begins with this letter from W. Joseph Bernstein, Secretary of Mt. Nebo Lodge No. 248. Dated January 24, 1967, it informs its happy recipient that his EA° would be Monday, February 13, and that the $200 balance of his initiation fee will be accepted that night. That $200 is in addition to whatever deposit accompanied the petition for membership. If the complete initiaton fee totaled $250, that would equal $1,644 in today’s money. Has your lodge kept up with inflation?

Perhaps more mementos will be found in the house. My grandfather smoked a brand of Havanas called Gold Label. I remain hopeful that a Past Master’s jewel has yet to be discovered in one of those boxes.

1 comment:

Anon_e_mouse said...

Interesting finds, Jay. Unfortunately, I've been told that my grandfather's Masonic mementos were destroyed (by my disapproving mother) after he passed away, but it was my great-uncle Chris Conklin who signed my petition back in 1980 and who had the greatest influence on my life (both Masonic and otherwise), and I am pleased to say that I have his mementos, including his Masonic bible, his Chapter "penny" - in his case a half-shekel of silver, as was the tradition of Poughkeepsie Chapter at the time - and his certificate as a "Meritorious Companion". Treasures indeed.