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The Society of Secret Handshakes: Celebrating 100 years in Bend with the local Masons 

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It's not everyday that you get an invitation into the inner sanctum of a bona fide secret society that's been linked to countless conspiracies, but then again, calling the Freemasons a "secret" society is a little misleading.

As several of the Masons, who were happy to share their identities with me as well as a baked lasagna (with vegetarian option) dinner, told me, it's more of an organization with secrets than it is a "secret society." Still, there's something intimidating about walking into a largely windowless granite building with an upper-level sanctuary for rites and rituals, wherein all of the members have titles like Master Mason, Grand Tiler and Grand Sword Bearer, and all of the proceedings are as regimented as an all-boys' reformatory school.

In other words, it's not for everyone - including women, who are barred from the society but have their own auxiliary clubs, not unlike the VFW. It's a place where men can be men, but not in the college dormitory sort of way. Members take the rituals and the ceremony of the "Lodge" as serious as a Gulf hurricane.

I arrived in an April rain shower for what I thought was a personal invitation - turned out it was a media event and the fact that I have a friend on the inside made me an easy target. It's a birthday party of sorts, the local Masons Lodge is turning 100 years old and they want to get the word out about their centennial.

I scurried across the parking lot hunched against the chilling spring rain. My photographer, who was on his first assignment for the paper, was standing under an awning outside the door looking like he needed assurance that we were in the right place.

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The first thing that strikes you about the Lodge, as members call it, even though it doesn't feel like the kind of cozy retreat that I might repair to after a day of carving fresh powder or casting dry flys to rising trout, is the age of the building. The interior feels hopelessly dated, and it's obvious that no woman has set foot in this place for a century. Mirroring the surroundings are the members themselves, many of who are at, or in some cases well beyond, retirement age.

The Freemasons count 14 American Presidents among its past members. But the most recent is Gerald Ford (deceased) and that's the problem. The Masons, like other fraternal organizations are losing out to other activities, work, family, sports and church. A study from the University of Indiana found that nearly half of all fraternal organizations experienced a membership decline during a three-year study period in the mid-1990s.

Jim McNamara, a member of the Redmond lodge and a Green Beret with two Vietnam tours under his belt, said that he's noticed the decline in his lifetime.

"I don't care if you're talking about the NRA, church, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, people don't join like they used to," said McNamara.

There are some who are swimming against the tide.

I met several members who were under 35 years old - the magic number for Old Guard organizations like golf and country clubs and the Masons - these members are the insurance policy against extinction.

One of those members was Jay, who asked that I not use his full name for reasons I didn't fully understand but respected. A maintenance worker at a ski area, Jay is the exception. He didn't have an uncle or grandfather in the Masons. He was just curious.

"I'm a seeker of truth. I've always had an interest in that respect," he told me.

And he certainly doesn't fit the insurance-salesman-by-day vibe associated with fraternal clubs; his forearms are covered in tattoos. He's not the only one going tribal, there's a tattoo artist in the club and together they look more like a punk rock band than the poster children for a fraternal organization with its roots 16th Century England. The younger guys aren't just hangers-on, the Lodge's head honcho, Bryan Martin is a 30-something contractor, currently waiting out the recession working on his in-law's farm. A no-nonsense guy with a powerful build and bearded chin, Martin is clearly not comfortable around the "media," but he's got a leadership quality that befits his title.

Martin tells me that he was looking for something "more meaningful than bowling," when he got interested in the Masons. Like other members, he enjoys the camaraderie and fellowship that comes with membership in semi-exclusive organization that screens its memberships for moral fitness. But unlike a country club, the glue isn't socioeconomic status, its shared ideals. And there's a deliberate democracy that appeals to all its members.

"When you step into the Lodge, everyone is on equal footing," Martin tells me.

Over a lasagna dinner and lemonade, I chat with a couple of the members, including Vietnam vet McNamara who tells me about raising two kids as a single father and wonders whether we're paying enough attention to the threat of a nuclear Iran, but that's about as close as he and I or anyone else comes to religion or politics-topics that are off limits in the lodge because of their divisiveness. I can't figure out during my brief visit what it is that binds these men together. The only underlying philosophy that I can discern is a mantra of self-improvement. Clearly this isn't the kind of club for everyone. There's no flat screen TV, open bar or other clearly discernible fringe benefit. Instead, it's a sense of shared values and the belief that average men together can make a difference in their community, which the Mason's practice through regular charity both individually and as a group. And in a world where concepts like community and social responsibility seem to be more elusive, maybe there's a place for the Masons.

After dinner the members break for their meeting, a ceremony that isn't open to non-members. It's time for secret handshakes. And I'm out the door-back into the evening rain, searching for a better conspiracy.

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