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Service, Fraternal Club Popularity Flags

A new book by University of Florida English professor James Twitchell, who writes about popular American culture, has a delicious title. It's called Where Men Hide. Hide, as in finding refuge for camaraderie and relaxation.

One of our traditional lairs has been the private, men-only clubhouse of fraternal groups like the secretive Masonic order, the Fraternal Order of Elks, and the Brotherhood of Moose. They, and civic clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions and the Knights of Columbus, were once integral to small-town life in particular.

The fellas would get together, shake hands or slip the secret grip all around, recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, share a meal, and listen patiently to reports about the club's finances and civic-minded projects. A local businessman or coach would give a short speech, and everybody would shake hands again and go back to their floor-tiling businesses and feed-grain stores. Or, in the case of the more mystical orders that assembled at night at the lodge, the fraternal brothers would repair to the bar for a few drinks.

But membership in many of these organizations is slipping. The ranks at Moose Lodges, for instance, stand at just over 1 million today, down 400,000 from 10 years ago. Kiwanis affiliation in North America is down 15 percent in that time. At some clubs, 15 or 20 men, not the 100 or more of old, show up for meetings. Most of the old-timers are retired or dead.

When it comes to recruiting newcomers, the service and fraternal clubs have fresh and alluring competition from such things as 24-hour sports on TV. In the wake of feminist assaults on bastions of male comradeship, many service clubs now admit women. So they don't work as male "hideouts" any more.

Service and fraternal clubs are soldiering on and doing good and generous work in the community and the world. But their profile is growing steadily grayer and balder!