My father was a big believer in community. He helped form the local volunteer fire department, was very active in his church and belonged to a civic organization called Woodmen of the World. While not as famous as the Lion’s Club or the Rotarians, the Woodmen were a fast growing fraternal network in the 1960s and 70s. Based in Omaha, Woodmen clubs - or camps as they were called - were located mainly in rural areas and catered to the lifestyles and concerns of honest men who performed manual labor in the great outdoors. No stock brokers, choreographers or pool sharks need apply.
Their logo, a golden maul dynamically protruding from a newly sawn oak stump, reeked of constructive manliness and lent the outfit an Arthurian ethos. Members received a number of perks, including a modest life insurance policy which could come in quite handy to folks who spent their days mucking about in nature with dangerous equipment. We also received a monthly magazine filled with interesting articles on such topics as home maintenance, fishing lures and proper methods of riding a horse. Each issue also included an extensive selection of photographs of various Woodmen from across America clad in their Sunday best and receiving plagues of recognition for good deeds well done. My father appeared in one of these pictures circa 1970 when he was selected to represent his camp at the big annual meeting in Virginia Beach. I have yet to locate it, but there are several more boxes of papers to investigate. I’m sure it will turn up.
While women weren’t specifically barred from the local lodge, it was informally understood that “Woodmen” should be taken literally in terms of gender. My father’s camp met one Saturday night a month and it was always a strange evening in our house as my Mom and Dad rarely went anywhere separately. My mother never lobbied to come along - in fact she was probably grateful for a night to herself - but that didn’t stop her from giving my dad a good humored razzing about the agendas of these mysterious meetings.
“How many dancing girls y’all gonna have tonight?” she’d sneer while my Dad buttoned a freshly ironed shirt.
“I don’t know exactly. 5 or 6 I reckon. I just hope they’re pretty as you.” he’d shovel it right back.
“If you’re not back by Tuesday, I might run off to Florida.”
“Well I’ll miss you. Could you pick some butter beans before you go? They should be ripe by then.”
And with that, Dad would don his best Dekalb Seed cap - the one reserved for formal occasions - and head out for his monthly dose of male bonding.
Adult sarcasm is often lost on children, especially not particularly bright children like me. I became quite curious about these Woodmen meetings and the shroud of mystery that surrounded them. Did they engage in ancient rituals that revealed the secrets of the universe? Perhaps wild animals were ceremoniously sacrificed while the men pounded on rough hewn drums. And if there were dancing girls, where did they come from? We lived in a small town and I knew just about everybody. There were no hoochie-coochie candidates that I could recall, save for a few spinster school teachers and inverting fractions was probably the limit of their exotic capabilities.
Shortly before my 12th birthday, my grandfather was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. My mother’s family took turns staying with him - families did that in those days - and one of her nights happened to fall on Woodmen Saturday. Having no other options, my father grudgingly took me along to the meeting. Finally the dark, impenetrable secrets of the brotherhood would be revealed to me. I was giddy with anticipation; my father’s instructions only throwing gas onto the fire...
“Now when we get there, just be quiet and behave. And whatever you do, don’t tell ANYBODY about what you see and hear.....you got that?? If you do, I’ll have to give you a whippin’. I MEAN IT!”
I vigorously nodded in total agreement, and assured him I would never, ever divulge a word of the proceedings. It wasn’t that I feared the punishment. In truth my father had only spanked me once, and afterwards he seemed to feel much worse about it than I did. No, I was being granted a rare and sacred trust; a trust that would be unthinkable to betray. It was like knowing Batman’s secret identity.
As we entered the sacred halls of the lodge - a former one room schoolhouse retrofitted to the simple needs of the Woodmen - I began to hyperventilate from excitement. Most of the membership had already arrived -- about 10 men all told -- and were sociably milling about. My entrance raised a few eyebrows, and I worried that my attendance would spark uproar and anger. But the Woodmen rank and file, all of whom turned out to be men I knew, just smiled and said “Hey there Crockett.” Fess Parker’s performance in the Disney biopic had struck such a chord in the popular culture that “Crockett” was the official nickname of anyone named David in the 1960s.
My father explained that my mother was staying at the hospital and he hoped it would be OK with everybody to bring me along. The other men offered their understanding, saying that it would be a pleasure to have me as a guest. Then they became solemn; expressing their condolences on my grandfather’s illness and wishing him a speedy recovery.
Mr. Williamson, by day the owner/operator of a bulldozer, then called the meeting to order. As we took our seats on metal folding chairs, I scoured the room for any sign of dancing girls or any sort of odd equipment possibly associated with mystical, arcane rituals. There wasn’t anything of that nature on view, but there was a suspicious looking door in the back, no doubt the portal to the Woodmen’s cryptic land of unspeakable wonders.
Mr. Williamson began the meeting with a prayer, asking God’s blessing on this assembly and especially for my grandfather and others in the community with illness. Then the minutes of the last meeting were read in a high quivering voice by Mr. Everett, who was badly wounded in Italy during WWII and had never fully recovered. I gathered the previous meeting had dealt mainly with the annual presentation of a large American flag to the graduating class at the local high school.
Then Mr. Kern, a retired farmer, excused himself from the meeting and made his way to the secret door in the back. Ahhh I thought, now we’re getting somewhere. He’s probably going to fetch the dancing girls, inspect their sequined feathers and issue instructions on the finer points of their performance. I was crestfallen a few minutes later when the unmistakable sound of a toilet flush informed me that the true purpose of this mysterious chamber was not storage but removal.
Meanwhile, the Woodmen had moved on to new business, specifically the yearly July 4th Brunswick Stew sale, which Mr. Williamson gravely reminded everyone “would be here before you know it.” All eyes then turned to Mr. Gormley, who worked at the big meat packing plant in Lynchburg and his renowned employee discount.
“Chickens have really gone up since last year," he said nervously. "I don’t know if I can get much of a break on them...beef is reasonable though. Can we make stew with hamburger?”
Mr. Parker, for decades the camp’s official stew chef and a temperamental sort, rolled his eyes and said, “That’ll be fine Tommy, if you want a stew so greasy nobody will touch it.”
Immediately tensions around the table began to rise. Apparently, discord among the Woodmen was a rare and troubling occurrence. My father, ever the conciliator, suggested that perhaps chicken and hamburger could be combined for a saving of cost and fat. But Mr. Parker was not open to compromise.
“Y’all know that I can fix a good stew. People come from all over for it and we always sell out. Some folks say it ain’t Fourth of July without Woodmen stew. Now I ain’t never made stew with hamburger, and I don’t think it’s smart to experiment at a time like this. We make most of our money for the year on this sale. Boys, we need two dozen chickens and that’s how it is.”
Mr. Parker’s wise, if prickly, evocation of the long term view had a chastening effect on the Woodmen, who became quiet and reflective. The majority slowly realized Mr. Parker was correct. A second rate, unsatisfactory product would be disastrous, perhaps crippling the camp financially for a generation. Mr. Everett then proposed that since he had a chiropractor appointment in Lynchburg on Wednesday, perhaps he and Mr. Gormley could meet with the plant’s management that afternoon and see if a reduction in price could be arranged. The members immediately agreed that this was a fine idea, with a good chance of success. No corporation, no matter how profit-driven or heartless, could refuse a request from a Disabled Veteran Woodman. It was the trifecta.
The Woodmen, greatly relieved that conflict had been averted, returned to their usual light hearted bonhomie. Spirits continued to lift when Mr. Williamson announced it was a good time for the refreshments and withdrew to the lodge’s makeshift kitchen. Finally, I thought, this is it! Bring on the braised wild boar! Bring on the homemade mead from ancient Scot-Irish recipes! Bring on the lutists and scantily-clad nymphs! Let the festivities begin!!
But my hopes were dashed once again when Mr. Williamson soon returned with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a stack of paper cups. Oddly, there seemed to be no disappointment among the Woodmen, who eagerly rose from the table to partake of the carbonated nectar while the air filled with conversation and laughter. The men broke off into smaller groups. And since the members were all current or former farmers, there were intense discussions of recent rainfall amounts.
A few of the men stepped out to admire the sunset of this fine June evening. Newly lighted cigarettes in hand, they debated the merits of Chevrolet versus Ford, with some admitting a preference for the late, lamented DeSoto. Mr. Blankenship was buffeted with questions about his recent trip to Nashville, in particular the performances he witnessed at The Grand Ol’ Opry. He assured everyone that it had been a wonderful experience and that his wife should have the pictures back in a few weeks. Several men expressed a desire to see them and suggested Mr. Blankenship present the photos at the next meeting.
After a half hour or so of chitchat, Mr. Duffy announced that he really needed to get home and check on a hinky cow before it got too dark. Mr. Williamson then moved that if there was no further business the meeting should be adjourned; an idea greeted with a hosanna of ayes.
On the ride home, I sat quietly trying to organize my stunned impressions. Where were the foul temptresses? Where was the groaning board of exotic delicacies? Where was the endless bacchanal? No secret rituals, no sacrifices to Pagan deities, no debauched midnight ceremonies illuminated by fiery torches. Nothing. Just a bunch of middle-age guys standing around sipping Pepsi, shooting the breeze and trying to get a good deal on chickens.
“Remember now,” my father said to break the ice, “You promised not to breathe a word of this to anybody. And that goes double for your mother.”
He then broke into a big grin and asked, “Well, what did you think?”
“Well, to tell you the truth Daddy, it was kind of boring.” I admitted.
“Yeah, I guess it was tonight. But you should see us when there are no kids around...”