For those brothers who have thoroughly enjoyed Bro. James J. Knights’ contributions from his Benjamin’s Field trilogy, you are in for a treat. If you have not yet read his historical fiction work and would like a preview, check out his two previous contributions: Pt. I and Pt. II. Below is an excerpt form the second book of the trilogy, Benjamin’s Field: Ascent. For those who would like to read more, the book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon. Reviews of the story are available there or at Goodreads.
Brother James J. Knights was raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason in Harmony Lodge No 429, Zelienople, PA, in 1999, currently handling public relations matters for the 26th Masonic District of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. In his previous life, he was an FBI Special Agent, whose assignments included violent crimes and fugitives, property crimes, civil rights investigations, and foreign counterintelligence. As such, he was a surveillance pilot, SWAT sniper, media representative, and worked in the FBI’s technical investigations program. Additionally, he has volunteered as a Civil Air Patrol pilot, squadron commander and public information officer. He is an emeritus member (fourteen years) of the Imperial Public Relations Committee of Shriners International and Shriners Hospitals for Children. A native of New England, he resides in southwestern Pennsylvania with his wife and honeybees.
During his career, Bro. Knights authored several published articles on law enforcement recruiting. Now in his retirement, he has authored an historical fiction trilogy called Benjamin’s Field (published April 2015), under the name J. J. Knights. The Benjamin’s Field trilogy follows a family over the course of sixty years through war, peace, triumph, tragedy, heartbreak, and final happiness from the viewpoint of its youngest member, Jeremy Kyner.
More a philosophical treatment of the human condition than a mere fictional story, the Benjamin’s Field trilogy is an interwoven tapestry of parables that explore various aspects of human existence, such as the role of family loyalty versus individual need, personal liberty and how it relates to society’s demands, religious prejudice, racism, intolerance, the role of charity, and the overwhelming need for humans to forgive one another. Part of the story seeks to explain the realities of Freemasonry to those who unwittingly view the fraternity through the lens of sensationalist authors.
The Red Fez
The members of Athena Lodge No. 927 seated themselves after reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.” The lodge was now open for the month’s stated meeting. Benjamin sat with the others and listened as the secretary read the minutes of the previous month’s meeting. The members voted to approve the minutes as well as charitable requests from various civic groups and bills due for payment. Committees reported on their activities. The master of the lodge assigned the visitation committee to visit an ill member. The secretary read the petitions of three candidates for membership and the master of the lodge assigned investigating committees to ensure each of the petitioners were men of good character. The secretary read the reports of the committees that had investigated two other candidates, both veterans of the World War.
It was then time to vote. When the master of the lodge announced the name of a candidate, each member approached a small wooden box in the center of the lodge room. They could drop in either a white or black glass ball. The design of the box was such that no one else could see which color ball the voter selected. A single black ball would disqualify the candidate in question. When the voting was finished, all the balls for each candidate were white. At the next meeting, to be held in 30 days, the two approved candidates would receive the first degree in Freemasonry.
With old and new business now complete, it was time for the evening’s program.
A man Benjamin didn’t know, a visitor, was recognized by the master of the lodge and invited to “approach the East” whence the business of the lodge was directed.
The visitor had with him a round black case, similar to a hatbox, which indeed it was. He opened it and removed a cylindrically shaped crimson hat with a long black tassel. On the front of the hat was the head of the Sphinx beneath an Arabian scimitar. He placed it on his head with care.
“Brethren, my name is Jason Angelus and, as you can probably deduce from this fez I’m wearing, I’m a member of the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The world knows us as Shriners.”
Benjamin had never run across a Shriner this far from the city. Their so-called “mosque” was located near the University of Pittsburgh. He wondered why a Shriner had come all this way to address his lodge. He listened.
“Brethren,” the visitor continued, “you may think I’m here to try to convince you to join the Shrine, but that’s not the case. If, after my talk, you decide to join us it would be a wonderful thing. However, the reason I’m addressing you this evening is to try to dispel some myths and misunderstandings about our organization and our cause. I’m here to tell you who we are, what we do, and how we do it.”
Angelus paused and looked around the lodge room. Then he continued.
“First, a brief bit of history. Most people outside of these walls aren’t aware that there is any connection between the Shrine and Freemasonry. To them, we’re a bunch of guys who wear funny red hats with tassels and march in parades. They don’t know that not just anyone can be a Shriner. Although the Shrine is not a part of Freemasonry, one must first be a Master Mason before he can enter our fraternity.”
“Why do we exist? About 55 years ago, a small group of Masons in New York City dined together regularly. They enjoyed their fellowship and decided to find a way to permanently expand it beyond their Masonic lodges and, frankly, simply have fun. After a good deal of consideration, those brothers resolved to form a new group of Masons that would co-exist with, but apart from, the Masonic fraternity. To emphasize the nature of their new organization and to attract members, they decided to adopt the exciting color and pageantry of Arabia. This is why we wear these fezzes,” he said as he pointed to his tasseled crimson headgear, “and why we call our meeting places mosques. They’re not really mosques, of course, no more than the building in which a Masonic lodge meets is really a temple. It’s just an expression. Shriners have no more in common with Arabia or the Middle East than a Greek fraternity on a college campus has with ancient Greece.”
“As time went on and the Shrine grew and became more popular beyond expectations, it became obvious to us that fellowship and fun, while important, weren’t enough. We needed a greater reason to exist. We needed something beyond ourselves; something greater than ourselves. Philanthropy, of course, was the answer. To be sure, we would maintain our dedication to fellowship, but we would also, as a fraternal organization, work to better humanity. The next question was, how? As you’ll recall, a decade ago polio epidemics were sweeping the country. The disease ravaged thousands of children leaving them as cripples. Our course of action was clear: to create a hospital for children. It would be a charitable institution where any child, regardless of his or her family’s financial situation or their relationship to a Shriner or Mason, would be able to obtain the very best medical care. So, in September 1922, the first Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children opened in Shreveport, Louisiana.”
“Brethren, that was ten years ago. Today, in 1932, there are 14 Shriners Hospitals. Someday there’ll be more. Some believe that one day we’ll have hospitals in Canada and Mexico. The focus of each of our hospitals is pediatric orthopaedics, that is, the treatment and care of bone and skeletal problems in children. What do I mean by that? Children with twisted and bent spines, children paralyzed by polio or other diseases, children with shortened or missing limbs due to disease, accident, or birth defect. The very first child admitted to our Greenville, South Carolina, hospital had clubfeet. Those are only a few of the problems treated by Shriners Hospitals.”
At the mention of clubfeet, Benjamin refocused on every word Angelus spoke.
“Brethren, the wonder of our hospitals is that any child, from anywhere in the world, can receive the best medical care possible. Is that care free? No, it’s not. It’s paid for by those guys in the funny red hats you see marching in parades.”
Angelus paused to let what he said sink in.
“Here’s my pitch, and it’s not about recruiting new members: If any of you know a child with a bone-related problem, please contact our mosque in Pittsburgh. We’ll make sure the child’s case is reviewed by the medical staff at our Philadelphia hospital, which is the nearest one to you here in Western Pennsylvania. If the hospital’s chief of staff feels treatment at a Shriners Hospital will improve the child’s life, then he or she will be admitted and treated without question. If a child requires surgery, Shriners do it. Many cases require multiple operations over several years. That’s not a problem. Shriners also provide post-operative care, medications, and, if necessary, prosthetics, that is, artificial arms and legs. Brethren, rest assured that Shriners does it all. Lastly, I want to say that over a decade ago we Shriners set for ourselves a lofty goal and succeeded. I spent 26 years in law enforcement before I retired a few years ago, so let me put it to you in law enforcement terms: in the ten years since the first Shriners Hospital opened, hundreds of stolen childhoods have been recovered and returned to their rightful owners. Masons like you, humane and generous men, provided the means to make that happen. That’s all I have to say. Thank you for your time, brethren. Now, I’ll take any questions you may have.”
While a few lodge members asked questions, Benjamin thought about what Angelus had said. It was almost too good to be true. Benjamin refused to allow himself to become too excited at the thought of Jeremy no longer needing a crutch. The thought of the boy walking and running like a normal kid was too alluring. Yet, he was angry with himself for not realizing this opportunity had existed for the last ten years. And there was also the question of charity. He and Eleanor had agreed never to take charity. Benjamin had to think about this. He had to ask Angelus, and himself, some questions. Regardless of the answers he got, he had to talk with Eleanor.
Soon, the gavel came down a final time, concluding the meeting.
In the social room where the lodge brothers were gathering for coffee, Silas Burgh, the current master of the lodge, stood talking with Jason Angelus. When he caught sight of Benjamin, he waved him over and introduced him to Angelus.
“Jason, this is the brother I spoke with you about, Ben Kyner.” The two men shook hands. “Ben, when Brother Jason contacted me and asked if he could address the lodge, I thought immediately of your grandson, Jeremy.”
“Brother Ben, Brother Silas tells me your grandson was born with a clubfoot.”
“That’s right. He’s almost 14.”
“Fourteen?” said Angelus, the incredulity apparent in his voice. “Brother Ben, Shriners Hospitals could have helped him years ago.”
“Yes, I heard what you said in there. I didn’t know.”
“Regardless,” said Angelus, “we can help him now.”
“I don’t know. His mother and I decided long ago not to accept charity.”
“Pride, Ben?” asked Burgh.
“No. At least I don’t think so. We’ve always earned our way. We don’t want the boy’s self-respect damaged by taking charity. We also don’t want him to get the notion that he can rely on the generosity of others to solve his problems.”
“Ben,” said Angelus, “in your case, the case of a brother, I wouldn’t exactly call this charity.”
“How so? We wouldn’t be paying for it.”
“No? Well, you’ve paid some. You’ve been a dues-paying Mason for years. Silas here told me your lodge has made donations to our hospitals several times over the past ten years. Part of your dues has already gone to helping other people’s children.”
“Not nearly enough to pay for an operation,” said Benjamin.
“No, but what about this: one of the reasons Freemasonry exists is to help brothers in need. That includes their families. You’re a brother with a grandson in need. We’re here to help. Our hospitals are open to any child whether or not they’re related to a Mason, but if we can help one of our own, Ben, so much the better.”
“I hear what you’re saying, but I’m still not comfortable with the idea of taking something for nothing.”
“Brother Ben,” said Burgh. “If I were in your situation, if I had a child with a problem like Jeremy’s and couldn’t afford an operation, would you think less of me if I accepted help from the Shriners?”
Benjamin looked at Burgh for a moment before answering. “No, Silas, of course I wouldn’t.”
“Of course not,” repeated Burgh. “The health of my child would be the most important consideration, right?”
“I know what you’re saying, Silas.”
“Brother Ben, if I may,” interjected Angelus. “This country survived a world war not long ago. God knows what the future will bring. Europe is beginning to boil again. The United States is very quickly becoming a major world leader, but we’re still in the midst of this damned depression. We have to climb out of it. We need healthy citizens. I’m certainly not suggesting that your grandson, Jeremy, won’t be able to contribute fully as an adult even with a handicap, but it would be a damn sight easier for him without it.”
“He’d have many more options available to him, Ben,” said Burgh. “What we’re saying is that there’s more to consider than just the feelings of you and Jeremy’s mother. If Jeremy were cured, everyone would benefit. We don’t know what Jeremy will be capable of as an adult. We owe it to him, and kids like him, to give them every opportunity we can.”
“And,” said Angelus, “any help we can provide to Jeremy wouldn’t be paid for on the backs of the taxpayers. Shriners Hospitals absolutely refuse to accept government money. That is sacrosanct. What we do for children, we do ourselves. In this case, we’re providing for one of our own on our own. It’s important you and the boy’s mother remember that.”
Benjamin nodded. “All right. I’ll talk to her.” Looking at Angelus, he said, “How can I reach you?”
After his conversation with Burgh and Angelus, Benjamin spent some time conversing with a few of the other members. His mind, however, was on Jeremy.
As he was putting on his coat before leaving a man Benjamin had known for years passed by and said, “Hey, Ben. I saw you talkin’ to that Shriner. Are you planning on wearing a red hat and marching in parades? Hah! That doesn’t sound like the Ben I know.”
Benjamin answered as he buttoned his coat. “No, Fred, I’m not. At least I don’t plan to right now, but I do want to see my grandson walk without a crutch. And, Fred, the boy’s never been able to run. I’d like to see him run. If they can make that happen, then I’ll owe them.”
“Hey, Ben, I….”
Benjamin brushed past the man on his way out into the cold night air. He was considering what he’d say to Eleanor.
Thank you Bro. J. J. Knights for you contribution this week!
If you would like to be the next contributor, send me an email. I hope you will.