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Knight on the D Train to Brooklyn

WHEN I was a boy, my father entered the knighthood. He is not a man of high birth, and our holdings did not even extend to our apartment in Flatbush, which was rented. His steed was usually the D train, and he did most of his jousting with his boss. But once a month his routine was gilded with ceremony at the regular meetings of his lodge of the Knights of Pythias. My father had a modest job, yet as a knight he rose to the exalted status of chancellor and assumed the mantle of leadership. When his term was up he was known as Past Chancellor; p.c. was appended to his name whenever he was mentioned in the newsletter.

It would be easy to dismiss my dad's knightly past as a vestige of adolescence in an otherwise thoroughly practical man. Yet there was more to the lodge than ceremony and secret handshakes, although it was supposedly the secret rules and rituals, of all things, which helped drive him from the knightly fold. My mother couldn't stand it. She wanted to know whatever irrelevancies my father claimed he was sworn never to disclose. They became symbols of withholding, but for him it was a matter of honor. Finally, busy with work and unwilling to further antagonize her, he hung up his armor and quit.

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When he did, much else was lost with the clandestine greetings. My father is not a rich man, but as a knight he threw himself into the lodge's charity activities, which provided an outlet for his best Samaritan instincts. There were blood drives, gifts for needy children, and other fund-raisings. The lodge enabled my father to rise above the grinding pettiness of everyday life - of making a living, finding a seat on the subway, holding an unrewarding job. The lodge let him do some good for those to whom he bore no familial obligations.

More than that, the lodge was his community, a decent, citizen-governed polis in the heart of indecent, ungovernable, and anonymous New York. The lodge offered that crucial ``third place,'' not the workplace and not the home, but a refuge and buffer and place of belonging between the two in which one man - and thus every man - mattered.

It was a democracy purer than most. Everybody got a chance to be chancellor sooner or later, though this didn't diminish my father's satisfaction in his term, and everybody came roughly from the same socioeconomic slice of Brooklyn. They were dry cleaners, salesmen, cabbies, modest tradesmen. I don't remember anyone in ``marketing,'' and there were no consultants, although perhaps now and then someone was unemployed.

Nor do I remember wild parties. My father came home from meetings at a decent hour, stone sober and with no sign he'd been wearing a fez cap. He's never used a hand-buzzer in his life.

In retrospect those days seem innocent. There was always a nice Hanukkah party for us kids, and when the annual installation and awards dinner rolled around, my mother always referred to it, like all roast-beef occasions, as ``an affair.'' It meant my mother got her hair done and fussed over last year's dress.

There are many differences between my father and me, perhaps not least that I have never aspired to knighthood, Pythian or otherwise. I give to charity, and I try, in my feckless and self-absorbed way, to do good. But I have never sought admission to a benevolent and fraternal order of fellows for the sheer purpose of ``membership,'' a word so distorted by American Express and other such machines of exclusivity as to lose a good half its meaning.

I am not unique in this. I don't know anyone who belongs to such an organization, and the groups are suffering accordingly. There are about 100,000 Pythians now, down from perhaps 160,000 in my father's day, and from 1.5 million 60 years ago. It goes down every year, says Pythian Supreme Secretary Jack Klai, adding that, ``I think we're speaking for all fraternities.''

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It's trite by now to bemoan the tattered threads of social cohesion that once, for better or worse, seemed to bind us all so much tighter together. But the decline of the Pythians, and the endangerment of all those Elk, Moose, Lions, and so forth, is to me one of the more poignant reminders of our collective flight from one another. Where once there was this fellowship, this philanthropy by those who never considered any income ``disposable,'' this happy shouldering of community responsibility, there is now only silence, shopping malls, and indecision at the video store.

This is not to place a halo above the Pythians and their ilk, whose babbitry and foolishness could be substantial. These groups helped kill themselves. Stick with the Pythians: Women are barred, of course, but until perhaps 15 years ago so were blacks, sadly in a group that drew so many Jews who themselves were barred from many other organizations. And not all the lodges were so tame; some stressed carousing more than charity. A few got into trouble.

Ironically, there is little truly clandestine about the Pythians, if you know where to look. Chartered by Congress in 1864 to promote amity after the Civil War, Klai says virtually everything about them is public information. They only have one secret: the password.

The truth is, my father's knighthood elevated him. Never famously articulate, as a knight he gave speeches and penned articles, telephoned, organized, politicked, and decided. The Knights challenged, fulfilled, and exhausted him more than a television set ever will.

He has no outlet now for many of the impulses that were channeled and expressed through the Knights, and although he scoffs, I often think he is poorer for it. I know for certain the rest of us are.

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