January 2004–Houston, Texas is much different from the town I came from. I grew up in Vernon, New Jersey, a small town where everyone knows everyone else in some way. If you didn’t know the person, you knew the name. I moved here to live with my grandparents and go to school at the University of Houston. Instead of paying rent, I work on the house for my grandpa, and I run all the errands that Grandma doesn’t have time for. Before I moved to Houston this year, the only elks I knew of were running away from the hunters who wanted to put their antlers on the wall of their study. Then, one Tuesday afternoon, my grandpa asked me if I wanted to go to “the lodge” with him.
I said “What lodge?”
“The Elks lodge,” he told me, realizing by the confused look on my face that I had no idea what he was talking about. “The Elks lodge is a great place,” he explained. “It’s just a building that the Elks bought, and we use it as the clubhouse.”
My grandpa explained that he pays a membership fee which allows him to participate in activities provided by the Elks. There are limitless possibilities as to what he can do at the lodge. They have a bar where he can buy drinks ranging from Cokes to Bloody Marys. The bar tender is a volunteer, and only makes tips, so you always try to tip generously. Almost all of the members take advantage of the green-felt covered billiards table, which is getting old, but holding up well. According to what Grandpa said, it’s a lot like the table my dad has in New Jersey. There is a shuffleboard table, and a small game room with a mini-arcade, cards, and board games. All of the board games are old hand-me-downs, so they have all the classics.
Outside, in the backyard of the lodge, is the full size, in-ground swimming pool with a diving board that the kids love to use. Hearing about it made me decide to pay it a visit many times while I’m in Texas. Around the pool, he said there are lounge chairs, with some open pit barbeques, and every once in a while, members bring their families for picnics and pool parties.
After he described the club to me, I decided I had to see it for myself, so I put down the want- ads I had been searching, and went along with him. On the way there, my grandpa asked me to go into his wallet and get out the membership card. At first I couldn’t find it, but when I did, I asked what it was for, and he told me I would find out when we arrived. The first thing I noticed when we arrived was a cast iron gate in front of the front door. It is about twelve feet high and it is painted black with an Elks sign in the center. It had an elk’s head, with the lodge number and the name “Elks” on it. They also have signs that say: “This area is private property and it is surveyed by cameras twenty-four hours a day.” I looked around and sure enough there were cameras. One on the pillar scanning the parking lot, one on the gate watching the visitors, and there were a few on the sides of the building as well. I thought this was interesting. The security made it seem like we were entering a top-secret facility. I began to wonder if they had been robbed before, and that was the reason for the precaution. Before I realized it, I was daydreaming about a person climbing the fence and then attempting to break the lock on the front door. Then I bumped into the wall and returned to reality. If you don’t have a membership card, you can’t get in. You need to swipe your card in the locking mechanism, which is just like an ATM machine. When you swipe the card, the door unlocks.
The parking lot was small, and we crossed it quickly. I followed Grandpa into the front room where we were greeted by an unexpected face. There was an elk’s head mounted on the wall. It was stuffed and it had huge antlers. He told me about a woman who called it a moose head once, and they will never let her forget it. Every time she goes to the lodge, somebody brings it up. Charley, one of the other Elk members, greeted my grandpa and then said, “Who’s the baby?” while referring to me. Although the minimum age for a membership is 21, most of the Elks in Houston are seniors. My grandpa introduced me, and we started talking. Charley is a graduate of the University of Houston, and he was glad to hear that I am attending school there. He told me a lot about the Elks organization.
It was founded in 1868, as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPO Elks), and it is one of the largest fraternal organizations with just less than 1.2 million male and female members. There are members of every religion and nationality. Their main commitments are to charity and patriotism. If they can raise money for others, then they are happy. With an average of eight million dollars in scholarships each year, the BPO Elks are one of the nation’s largest providers of college scholarships. Lodge number 151, the one my grandpa is a member of, is one of the oldest among the lodges. There are now over two thousand lodges nationwide, but number 151 was among the first to be established. They have changed the location of the lodge over the years, but it is still one of the oldies.
After we had some lunch, Dave, another member, showed me the flag porch. This is where they keep each of their fifty flags, one for each state. On the fourth of July, Veteran’s Day, Flag Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day, a representative of the lodge (usually someone with a truck) goes and sets the flags on the median of one of the highways. This tradition is in honor of all who have been lost and all who serve our country with pride. I really appreciate this since my brother is in the Navy, on a destroyer, based in Japan.
While Grandpa was socializing, I decided to explore the grounds. It seemed as though they didn’t throw anything away. There were broken televisions and tables around that just sat unused. I came across the kitchen, the restrooms, and even the janitorial closet, but the most interesting thing I found was a big rectangular bulletin board with every color paper you could imagine posted on it. One of the postings said “Thank you Ladies Auxiliary,” but I had no idea what the Ladies Auxiliary was. As I read a little more, I found a list of names. It was the names of the officers who belonged to the Ladies Auxiliary. The most surprising thing was that my grandma is the secretary of the organization. I never knew because I didn’t have the chance to talk to her very often. She is in charge of calling people and making reservations, she plans most of the events, and she does most of the paperwork for the events. This was about the time my grandpa found me and introduced me to another one of his Elk friends.
He called himself “Yippy Skippy”, though other people just called him Skip. He is a tall gentleman with glasses, and his voice is like Louis Armstrong’s, but it’s a little higher. I asked him what the Ladies Auxiliary was, and he told me it was a group for the wives of the Elks. I asked if women could be Elks, and he answered yes, but then they have to pay the membership fee along with their husbands. If a woman who is not married wants to become an Elk, she would pay for her membership. However, Elk’s wives can join the Auxiliary for no cost, and that way they are not paying another membership fee, but they are still welcome at the lodge any time they want to go. Skip said that the Ladies Auxiliary was one of the most important groups associated with the Elks. “They do most of the work,” he said. “They do most of the planning for all of the activities, they host bingo every Monday and Thursday night, and they put up with all of the Elks all of the time.”
While I was looking at the bulletin board, I had also noticed a schedule of things to come. After speaking to Skip, I went back to the board to see what kinds of activities were coming up. Every Monday, the Ladies Auxiliary voluntarily hosts an open to the public bingo night. Anybody who likes to play bingo is welcome, and the proceeds go toward the Elk’s scholarships programs. On the first Friday of every month, they hold “bring your own steak night”. All of the members are encouraged to bring a steak, and after paying five dollars a head, a man named Herb cooks your steak to the specifications you desire. Your five dollars also includes all you can eat salad, and baked potatoes made by one of the members.
Part of the money raised here is contributed to the Sweetheart. This is a person who tries to raise more money than the other sweethearts in Texas (one per lodge), and whoever has raised more money by the end of the year wins. All of the money eventually goes to charities and scholarships, so it’s really just for fun.
During the dinner itself, there are other activities. They hold a raffle for a cheesecake made by my grandpa, and this always brings in a lot of money because he makes the best cheesecake there is. He has a secret recipe from Jack Dempsey who owned a restaurant near my grandparents’ old house in New York. Grandpa made a big one for October’s steak night, and a small one for one of his friends. We brought them to the lodge, and put them in the freezer, but the person grandpa made the small one for, took the big one by mistake. We were looking for it for about twenty-five minutes before we realized that she must have left with the wrong cake. By then it was too late, and we just had to raffle off the small one. Later in the night there is a shuffleboard contest. When you sign up, they give you a partner, and take another five dollars from each of you. The winners split half of the money; the other half goes to the charity fund. There is also a raffle for the “Booze Basket” which the Ladies Auxiliary stocks with various wines, and other liquors. The winner traditionally opens a bottle, and shares it with everyone that night.
On the second Friday of the month, “Chicken Night” occurs with a nice variety of chicken dishes for all who arrive. Grandpa bakes the potatoes for chicken night, and he always does them differently. From what the Elks tell me, they always taste good. The money they make during Chicken Night is split between the Ladies Auxiliary and the charity fund.
On the third Friday of each month, a “fish fry” happens. Just like the other Fridays, there is salad, potatoes, and usually a vegetable; but this time, fish is the main course. The type of fish depends on the month. Each month is different. Sometimes, they mix and make an assortment of fish so that everyone has a choice. The Fish fry’s proceeds are distributed to charity funds, and it counts towards the money made by the sweetheart. All of these gatherings give the Elks a time to socialize, and have a good time. I think it is nice that they have a chance to do this every month. The fact that all of the proceeds are used for charity or the Ladies Auxiliary makes it even more important to go and support the cause.
There are thousands of Elks lodges all over the country, but not too many people know about them. It is a great organization, and the members are great people, too. I had no idea what they were until I came to Texas, and now I love to go to the lodge. I know all of the guys, and a lot of the wives, but the best thing is that even if the Elks don’t know you, they will take the time to meet you. Anybody who is twenty-one or older is eligible to be a member, and it is definitely a worthwhile group to join. Although I am not an Elk yet, the members all treat me like a peer, and I go to the lodge as often as I can.