Monday, January 30, 2017

‘I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition!’

There is nothing unusual about a Masonic ring sparking a conversation, or even a ring resulting in someone being brought into the Masonic fraternity, but I’ll share my story today.

In the summer of 1996, I was very busily employed as editor of a bunch of newspapers, working a minimum of 50 hours per week. Newspaper journalism, being in many ways a highly satisfying, but particularly poorly paying line of work, left me in need of supplemental income. At around that same time, Lew Rothman moved his flagship cigar store to a new location. I can no longer remember what this new site previously had been, but it was a giant building with thousands of square feet for retail space, thousands more for office space, and yet thousands more for warehouse space, and thus this became the corporate headquarters of Rothman’s tobacco wholesale and retail empire. I took a part-time job in cigar sales there at the height of what fondly is remembered as the Cigar Boom of the 1990s, working 28 hours between Friday and Sunday nights. I loved both jobs, so I really didn’t mind working the approximately 80 hours per week, a pace I would maintain for several years, even after my newspaper work left me in charge of a dozen papers.

It was a great time to be a tobacconist. The public was rediscovering the sublime joys of setting “gentle flame to fragrant leaf,” and everyone who possessed even a mild curiosity about any of it flocked to this wonderland of a cigar store with its inventory of thousands of cigars from all over Latin America and the Caribbean—including Cuba (pre-embargo Flor de Farachs). We salesmen in this store at this time comprised a faculty of cigar experts. We had our different approaches to learning about it. I myself had been an occasional smoker since the day of my high school commencement about a decade prior, doing most of my shopping at a Perkins shop in a nearby mall, and, of course, at Mr. Rothman’s previous shop a few towns over from me. But by the mid ’90s I was devouring everything I could read: Cigar Aficionado, Cigar Insider (both published by Marvin Shanken, who I would meet at the store one day), and Smoke magazine, and Pipes & Tobaccos. I was fascinated by it all and learned all I could, from the agriculture of the various cultivations of tobacco plants and the post-harvest processes inside the tobacco barns—talk about alchemy!—to the rolling, aging, packaging, and inspecting at the cigar factories. Humidors, cutters, lighters, and the skillful ways to use them all correctly. The histories of the brands, with those poor Cuban farmers who fled for their lives, bearing scarcely more than a jar of seeds, to destinations in Florida, the DR, Nicaragua, Honduras (the source of my favorite smokes), and elsewhere.

Anyone who brings forth cherished fruits from the soil of our world works miracles that merit our admiration. Their foods sustain us, timber houses us, flowers adorn, and luxuries, such as Nicotiana, can enhance innocent social pleasures. Smoking cigars can be highly enjoyable while alone, but the magic really works when cigars are taken communally. Strangers can acquaint, and friends can bond.

The crew in the gigantic humidor we worked in was a great bunch of personalities. We had our day jobs, but loved getting together to “work” at the store. Smoking Partagas 150s like they were free. I was becoming friendly with Darren, who looked about my age (actually we vaguely resembled each other), was employed as an engineer in a smart person’s profession, and preferred a lot of the same cigars and pipes as I. We had a similar work ethic in that our hands were always busy and never idle. While he was typing away on the computerized cash register, ringing up a customer, I spied his Masonic ring. At some later point, I asked about it and about his role in the fraternity. I wasn’t completely ignorant of Freemasonry; my grandfather was Master of his lodge in the 1970s, and I knew a little about the fraternity simply from being editor of many newspapers and receiving the amateur press releases and photographs from area lodges. And I had been curious about joining. In an unusual circumstance, the town where I grew up also was home to two Masonic lodges. The unusual part was how the lodges did not share a common building, but actually were located a few miles apart, which is just odd for a small suburban town. The Shriners also were around in yet a third building. Major roads were marked with those signs that lodges erect to alert Travelling Men to the locations and meeting times of the lodges. Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., I noted every time I passed one, so on a Wednesday night I visited the lodge that stood on the state highway that bisected the town. I was delighted to find that the lodge could not be reached by car from the highway. Instead one had to finagle around some side streets to access the lodge property. Having lived in town, I knew all about historic and obscure Old Road. I parked and knocked on the door.

It was July. Nobody was home.

But chatting with Darren about Freemasonry at the store repeatedly over time, my interest in the Craft kindled. I had told him about my grandfather, and Darren one night brought an old book of grand lodge proceedings to try to find something about him or his lodge. Nothing was in the record. Neither of us knew that only current members of the grand lodge were listed, whereas my grandfather had died several years earlier. More time passed with more conversation. Months. I learned that although Darren resided in central New Jersey, he was part of a lodge located 50 miles from home. That must be a special lodge, I figured.

I was waiting for him to ask me if I wanted to join; he was waiting for me to “ASK1 2B1,” or whatever that dumb bumper-sticker says. Darren clarified the matter at some point, and I said I’d love to apply. In fairly short order, I was taken to the city where his lodge was located to meet several lodge officers who looked me over, and I was given a petition to complete and return to the secretary. Several more months passed before I received a letter informing me of my election to membership, and instructing me to report to the lodge for initiation on June 18, 1997.

Lapel pin from Menorah Lodges
diamond anniversary in 1999.
To be honest, Menorah Lodge 249 was on its last legs. New Master Masons who exhibited potential and promise silently were assigned a number—being the year they would be installed in the Solomonic Chair. Darren, I think, was 2002. I was 2003. The lodge wouldn’t endure that long, but it provided a solid grounding in what Freemasonry is supposed to be about. I believe that if I had successfully stumbled into either of those two lodges in my old hometown, I would have been denied that fundamental experience and education. As you might guess, Menorah Lodge was a lodge of Jewish Masons. Some know what that entails, but to explain very briefly, it was not a place for what Stephen Dafoe would term “Freemasonarianism”—a cultural and intellectual dead zone in the guise of a Masonic lodge. Anyway, being new, I watched what Darren did, sometimes to great surprise. One night the lodge welcomed a doctor who spoke on the medical use of magnets. Something to do with the iron in our blood, if I recall. I was interested, but when the speaker mentioned he was selling magnet kits or whatever, Darren shot out of his seat and headed for the door. The speaker merely committed a faux pas; serious lodges are not supposed to host salesmen. I wasn’t offended, but Darren’s strong reaction was a learning moment, and the memory stays with me. And along the way, he and I joined the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite together in May of 1998. We had little idea of what it was, but we heard it was the “College of Freemasonry,” and college sounded good to us.

It was a long all-day event on a Saturday with, of course the initiates seated as audience members. Lodge of Perfection degrees, followed by Council Princes of Jerusalem degrees, followed by the Rose Croix Degree, and culminating with the 32º. I’ve lost track of what this degree is today, but 20 years ago it was Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret and conveyed a lesson told in the fictional life of a soldier named Constans. He faced various trials of temptations in tests to become a knight, including the lure of salvation from a beckoning Catholic eminence attired in the scarlet robe and broad-rimmed hat familiar also to devotees of a certain venerable television comedy.

© Python (Monty) Pictures

Despite the gravity of the action on the stage, I leaned over to Darren and whispered—and I hereby sincerely promise and swear I did this as softly as possible—“I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition!” He and about eight guys encircling us in the theater seating cracked up laughing. I defy anyone who knows the Monty Python “Spanish Inquisition” sketch to not remember Michael Palin when they see that red get-up on someone else, no matter how solemn the occasion!

© Universal Pictures
(Speaking of great comedic actors, Darren went by nicknames involving John Belushi, thanks to a facial resemblance. Like he would use “belushi” in his e-mail address. It took me years to see it finally, but one day he posted a photo on Facebook, and at last I had to concede he had that look, at least from the Bluto Blutarsky era. It was in the eyes, brows, and nose.)

But my time in lodge with Darren would be short. Before the end of 1998, my first full year in the fraternity, he and Tabitha would leave New Jersey for a new start in Indianapolis upon his accepting a job with Rolls Royce. The days were running out. He wanted to get together during the last weekend of October for a final round of drinks with cigars, but by then I had left the newspaper business and became a press secretary to an inspiring local official who was said to be a favorite for a U.S. Senate seat in just two years. Tuesday, November 3 was Election Day for his re-election. It simply wasn’t possible for me to do anything unrelated to campaigning until the votes were counted late that night. Even worse, others from the lodge were unable to meet with him for a proper send-off. He was pretty sore about that for a time.

Part of getting settled in Indianapolis meant affiliating with a new Masonic lodge. He found Broad Ripple Lodge 643 and, in 2006, would become Worshipful Master, and then its secretary. (It’s a wonderful dose of serendipity, but in the early years of this century I became friendly with a new Mason who had just joined the Masonic Light group. He was from Broad Ripple Lodge too, and naturally he knew Darren. His name is Chris Hodapp and, before long, he and a band of merry rebels would welcome me into the Knights of the North before inviting me along for the ride with The Masonic Society.)

I do a shitty job of keeping in touch. I’ll never learn. It’s probably a psychological thing in that I prefer to be out of mind when out of sight, and I’m reluctant to bother people, even if just to say hello. Darren and I remained in contact via social media, but that is no substitute for shared whiskey and cigars, but he would keep me up to date on the good, the bad, and the ugly of life. I love getting his family holiday postcards, seeing the offspring grow and grow up.

Darren died just about 24 hours ago. He brawled with esophageal cancer (from unchecked reflux, but caught early) for the last four years of his life—trimodal therapy: chemo, radiation, surgery—alternating from blessed successes to cruel reversals. I asked him to come to New York City to see real experts but, as it turned out, one of his neighbors is one of the top surgeons for this particular treatment, and he cared for Darren at Simon Cancer Center.

Please remember Darren, Tabitha, Daniela, and Toni in your devotions. I don’t know what more to say. My friend had everything to live for. Hodapp’s eulogy is here.

1 comment:

Christopher Hodapp said...

Thanks for those memories from Darren's life before he came into ours. He touched a lot of lives over the years, and I have to say his Masonic funeral service was one of the largest gatherings I have seen in quite a while.

How odd that you bring up the subject of religion in your post. You know Darren later converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He was quietly a deeply introspective man. I never heard him publicly talk much about his personal journey of faith, only to say he had done it at some point. Darren didn't parade anything in his life around on his sleeve, be it his job, his fraternity, his religion, or his illness. He had a line between what was public and what was private, and rarely saw a reason to cross it. That quiet dignity, backed with a firm sense of conviction in all he did, yet always wrapped with a ready laugh and a jovial manner, made him a uniquely admired gentleman.

The world needs more Darrens in it, and we are sadly lacking in them, I'm afraid. I only know I'm a better man for knowing him.