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Fixmaster G in da house!

September 24, 2008 Leave a comment

Every lodge has those people who hold the place together. Generally when we say this, we’re talking in the metaphorical sense of the term: people – usually Past Masters –  who are always there to do ritual, investigate candidates, run the Widow’s Night dinner, etc.

Gerry is one of those other types of people who hold the lodge together in the more literal sense of the term. We have an old building (not a big surprise in New England) that frequently needs TLC in the form of repairing a leaky pipe here, a leaky roof there, installing new floor tiles, storage shelves, replacing rotted boards, and the hundred and one other things that it takes to maintain a century-plus old building. Now our Junior Warden, Bro. Gerry combines the skills of Bob Vila with the temperament of Norm Abrams, and has been our own “Mr. Fixit” for the past several years. If there’s something that Gerry can’t fix, then we don’t know what it could be.

Well, perhaps breakfast. I’ve seen him crack open eggs into a pan of boiling oil, then serve this surprisingly tasty treat over an English muffin layered with bacon and cheese. I can feel the grease clogging my arteries just thinking about it… but it wouldn’t surprise me if Gerry had a miniature plumber’s snake to fix that, as well.

Last week was his first time in the East, on a move-up night for an EA degree. I was there in my official capacity to check his proficiency, and it’s no surprise that he did an excellent job – as did the rest of the officers, all of whom moved up a station, as well.



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There are two types of people…

June 11, 2008 Leave a comment

Watching an old movie the other day reminded me of a discussion I had a while back with someone who intimated that I did not take my duties – or Masonry, for that matter – seriously. Predictably, he went on to mention some of the things that he, himself would do if he were me; including, not unsurprisingly, making sure that people who didn’t abide by the rules would be “dealt with.”

It became apparent that my well-meaning brother was under the a mistaken assumption in which he was confusing the tools that I use in my duties (“levity” and “a relaxed approach”) with my underlying attitude and approach toward them. Obviously, this brother and I hold fundamentally different philosophies as to how the structure of our fraternity works: he seemed to think that just telling people what to do is sufficient, and considered what I do as a District Grand Lecturer something akin to a traveling minstrel show.

See, as the District Grand Lecturer, my duties as assigned are actually pretty light: I just have to administer a test to make sure that the incoming Master is prepared, ritual-wise. However, several lodges have asked me to help them polish their ritual proficiency and floorwork, and so I spend most of my time at rehearsals, giving tips, making suggestions, and (hopefully) inspiring new officers to be better by coaching them along. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how I was taught in my own lodge by some experienced Past Masters. In theory, I could simply read the book to them and say “Okay, that’s what you’re supposed to know. I’ll be back next week to grade you.” In practice, I tend to be light-hearted and jokey (where have I heard that before ?), simply because that was the kind of style that inspired me. I figure that if I’m going to join a half-dozen guys walking around a cold lodge room on a rainy evening, then I want to at least make it enjoyable for myself. If the other people get something out of it, then so much the better.

In the aforementioned discussion, I found myself rather surprised to hear the suggestion that lodge officers should be given the ritual book, and have it explained to them that the rules of our Grand Lodge say that they need to follow the instructions. Their testing, as it were, could then be done by some other officer, thereby obviating the need for District Lecturers. I was surprised because, indeed, this is exactly the case as it has been for the past fifty or more years. Connecticut has a published ritual monitor, and it’s relatively clear what the Master and officers should be doing. The problem is, some people haven’t been doing it. In fact, by my estimation, a hell of a lot of people haven’t been doing it properly for quite some years, and many lodges have had several generations of officers pass without seeing proper ritual work modeled for the younger officers, who would then model it for the officers after them.

This is where I come in. I see that there is a disconnect between what the officers should be doing and what they are doing. So, in my light-hearted and jokey way, I’ve been giving ritual coaching. While I agree that the officers should be doing things a certain way, I don’t believe that throwing a rule book at them will make them change their behavior. My counterpart believes that it doesn’t matter – they knew what the expectations were when they signed up; or at least, they should have done so, because they agreed to it.

So, which one of us is correct?

Actually, he is.

Unfortunately, being right doesn’t always fix the problem.

This is a common situation for people in organizations because of the nature of the various types of people who are in – indeed, who are needed – to run an organization.

Freemasonry, like every other organization, is comprised of people who take on various roles. Most organizations have people who have a command of every rule and regulation, down to the sub-articles and clauses. It needs to be stressed that these people are very important to the organization because without rules, you have no organization! During any discussion in which group members want to “hurry up and do something”, it’s easy to dismiss the comments of the rule-keeper when what the members are proposing run a little out of bounds. “Oh, you’re just being fussy” or “Rules were made to be broken” are typical responses to those who strive to keep order. In our rush to be post-modern action heroes, we often fail to think our actions through to the possible consequences. Organizations in which the members do not follow rules soon devolve into anarchy. Those who keep track of the rules help to keep the structure of the organization intact.

Large organizations typically also have members who understand that the underlying purpose of those rules is to have a better organization, one that is more effective, more enjoyable, or more satisfying to the members. They also understand, however, that sometimes the rules – or the imposition of new rules – have unintended consequences which affect the performance of the organization. To these people fall the unenviable task of trying to achieve long-term goals while working within the scope – if possible – of the existing structure. If they are successful, the rules are usually modified in order to accommodate the new strategies. Masons – indeed, members of any organization – need to realize that both types of people are essential to the health and longevity of the organization, and neither is more important than the other. As Entered Apprentices, we are taught the importance of a proper, true and square foundation to our temples. Those rules and regulations are the foundation of our organization, and it is essential that we understand their importance. Yet, we also understand that we are all human beings, and as such are all different in terms of abilities, skills, and talents with the tools at our disposal.

Friendly competition between the left-brain and right-brain people is necessary for the continued health of the Fraternity; indeed, this is the root of that “noble contention of who best can work and best agree;” but I think that many of us are prone to forget this when we get caught up in overseeing our own very small piece of work that we contribute.

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Picture: The Fairly Odd Parents

Information Overload

June 8, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve known my Canadian brother Justa Mason for a few years, and I’ve learned that you can always depend upon him to present a responsible opposing viewpoint to virtually any situation. Actually, what I’ve learned is that you simply can’t stop him from presenting an opposing viewpoint. On a recent post about our Past Masters MM Degree in which I described the dramatic additions to our Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend that some lodges have been known to perform, he asked a particularly pertinent question:

I understand; the MM degree is long, and Friendship Lodge adds another dramatic section to the Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend, which adds to the memory work. In our state, some lodges choose to add sections to the degree that give more background, which helps the candidates to better appreciate the lessons of the story. A number of them add the same section that we do, and one of my lodges, Frederick-Franklin 14, adds yet another section which serves to give even more insight into the character of Hiram Abiff.

Tom, I will opine here all this additional stuff does wonders for the member who can show off his memory skills.. and very little for the candidate.

What value is all this extra ritual if he can’t absorb any of it? His mind’s on overload to begin with. Shouldn’t stuff like this be done on a separate night where he can let it sink in?

What is the reason behind subjecting him to all kinds of optional ritual on a degree night?

That’s an excellent point. Most of us assume that if some ritual is good, then more is better, and lots more should be great.

Admittedly, I, myself, have pointed out that our candidates sometimes have a difficult time processing the information presented. I’ve even made light of it by writing, in a post about ritual:

The lectures and speeches are filled with symbolism and instruction, and those of us who have put the time into learning them know just how difficult it can be to deliver them with meaning.

All this just for the candidates?

You mean those new guys standing there in the front of the room with the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look? Those guys?

Yeah, those guys. Those guys can barely remember what to do with their hands and feet, and we’re expecting them to absorb some esoteric lesson, which has often been delivered by people who would have not been allowed speaking parts in the local amateur theater group. On the surface, it does sound like a waste of effort. Why go through the trouble to present such material – done well or not – if the candidates aren’t grasping the meaning?

RW Paul (the latest Nutmeg State Mason to start blogging) has another perspective, one which I’ve heard a number of times:

I am on the side that the extra lectures add value, of course I enjoy ritual and often perform some of the extra parts so my opinion is bias.

I have heard this argument in my district as well. But based on the comments by Grand Lodge that there is a lot lousy ritual being done, I think the lodges that still can perform these eleborate degrees should be proud.

I would much rather sit through extra long well performed degree than a short poorly performed degree.

Connecticut, like most US states, uses some variation of the Preston-Webb lectures in which there is a catechismal section (a Q&A section) and two other sections that elaborate on the symbols and allegories of the respective degrees. Each section can be ten to twenty minutes long, and in my experience generally seem to have been memorized by ol’ Brother Joe who retired to Florida a few years ago, so nobody does them anymore. I’ve seen these sections presented on non-degree nights a few times, but as degree nights typically get a larger turnout, it seems like the energy is better spent having them done when the largest number of people can potentially benefit.

Often, arguments – i.e., debatable points – are presented as a matter of extremes. Paul’s last sentence is an example of this, and Justa’s entire message does the same thing, albeit more subtly. I believe that there is a position between those extremes, however.

First of all, I firmly believe that lodges can deliver extra ritual that is good and well-performed. I know it’s true: I’ve seen it done. That said, one could argue that if they can do a good long degree, then they should be able to do a good short degree, too. Yup, I’ve seen that as well. But there are several advantages to a degree ceremony that pulls out all the stops, for both the candidates and for the other lodge members.

As to the candidates, I could point to the importance of total immersion in the initiative experience to create the most overwhelming feelings of awe which may inspire intense thoughts or associations on a deeper level. I suppose that I could also claim that – like the ‘shotgun’ approach – it’s important to throw as much as possible at the candidates in hopes that something will stick. Personally, I think that it’s rare for most lodges to get motivated enough to perform sections of a degree ceremony on off-nights, especially sections that require a certain amount of dramatic talent. It’s easier to present the material when all of the candidates happen to be in the room. Just the preparation for a degree ceremony tends to inspire the lodge members who are actually rehearsing the parts; I think that it would be difficult for some of them to “get psyched” enough to do inspiring work as a program after a regular stated communication.

But there’s something else that we miss: Yes, the candidates will miss some things with a longer degree. Hell, they’re going to miss things with a short degree. But later on they are going to be watching that same degree performed on someone else, and then they’ll have the opportunity to catch a few things that they’d missed.

And why do we assumed that the ritual ceremony is all for the new guys? What about the regular brothers? I’ve noticed that degree nights have a much larger turnout than regular business meetings. Wouldn’t it be nice if the older members had the opportunity to hear that rarely-done piece of ritual? Most of them might miss it if it were done as a “program” in a regular business meeting.

Let me repeat something that I wrote over a year ago in the post referenced above:

Our fraternity has some of the most morally instructive and spiritually inspiring ceremonies, all of which are delivered from memory at no small personal effort. When did we lose the motivation, the initiative to do it for ourselves?

I’m at the age where I attend almost as many funerals as I do weddings; but for each occasion I have lately discovered that during the ceremony I suddenly “hear” something new. Yes, I may have seen the ceremony and heard the same words a dozen times, but each time I hear something that I never noticed before. Why? Maybe a minister or rabbi delivers a line with more or less emphasis, or maybe because of where I am in my own life’s journey some passage that I’ve heard countless times before will strike me with a new insight. Who hasn’t been sitting at a wedding and suddenly turned to their partner upon hearing a line that reminds you of your love? Who hasn’t been to a funeral and been suddenly reminded of your own mortality? That is the purpose of ritual and ceremony – not only to instruct the new members, but to remind us – the old members – of our previous instruction.

Give this some thought: When did our ritual become less inspiring? When did our degrees become merely a pastime between dinner and desserts? When did you stop noticing something “new” in a lecture?

How many of us have substituted listening for hearing?

If the “extra” instruction is presented well – and not just once every several years – then it benefits everyone, new brothers and experienced members alike.

Past Master’s MM Degree – 2008

June 4, 2008 Leave a comment

Every year, the next-to-junior Past Master of Friendship Lodge gets the the unenviable task of gathering together a large group of his predecessors for the purpose of putting on a Master Mason degree. We typically hold two sets of degrees, one in early spring and one in the fall, and the Past Master’s degree is performed at the Master’s discretion. Some choose to do it early to give them more time to study for their own degree.

If you’re having deja vu, it’s because I first wrote that two years ago, and again last year. This is obviously a sign that I’ve been blogging too long.

Last year, we did this degree in the Fall. This year, we did it in the spring because the WM has slacked off needs more time to prepare before he can do it well. I understand; the MM degree is long, and Friendship Lodge adds another dramatic section to the Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend, which adds to the memory work. In our state, some lodges choose to add sections to the degree that give more background, which helps the candidates to better appreciate the lessons of the story. A number of them add the same section that we do, and one of my lodges, Frederick-Franklin 14, adds yet another section which serves to give even more insight into the character of Hiram Abiff.

Anyone who has run an event comprised of all Past Masters can well understand the metaphor “like herding cats.” Some check their email daily, some weekly, some never. Some were going to be gone for the scheduled week, probably because it was close to the Memorial Day holiday. Some wanted minor parts, some weren’t going to make it for dinner, some wanted parts, but weren’t sure if they were going to be there at all.

Of course, it didn’t help matters when, not for the first time, I scheduled a rehearsal on Mother’s Day.

Lucky for me, I had just done this degree at my other lodge, so unlike last year, it was still fresh in my memory. One of my occupational hazards is that I’m often seeing, coaching, or participating in different degrees each week, and sometimes one degree will get stuck in my head and remain there for a couple of days. This becomes a problem when in the middle of a lecture or charge, I suddenly blank out and forget which degree I’m on. Fortunately, it wasn’t a problem for me this year, and I somehow managed to get through the degree without any mental infarctions.

The junior officers put on a huge meal: a very tasty surf & turf dinner that was heavy on the cholesterol, for which they made no apologies. It didn’t seem to faze the dinner guests, and when I walked in I saw wall-to-wall smiling faces. How we all managed to stay awake after such a lavish feast is beyond my ken.

I took the East for the first section of the degree, and WB Richie took the West. We traded seats for the dramatic portion, and at the end of the evening had raised three new Master Masons. Those of you who are reading this, hoping for one of my little humorous tales of something gone wrong, are going to be disappointed, I’m afraid. We had an excellent crew of Past Masters, and by all accounts the evening was a success.

It was, however, the first year that I actually felt like a Past Master, myself. Last year the whole PM thing was still new for me, and I was still getting the hang of being the District Grand Lecturer. This year, though, I had more of a sense of how removed I am from the Oriental Chair. I’m not sad or melancholy, quite the opposite: I’ve had a long time now to look back and to think about what I liked, and what I might have done differently. The weekly phone calls from the current Master Worshipful Jim serve to remind me that my opinion and advice are still valuable, and I have come to appreciate that.

Past Masters need not devolve into moss-backed old turtles once they leave the chair.

Column unfinished

May 22, 2008 1 comment

Add my name to the list of fellow bloggers and Masons who are saddened by the untimely death of WB Theron Dunn, author of Beacon of Masonic Light, and prolific contributor to a number of other web forums, message boards, and online publications. Add my name as well to the list of those who occasionally disagreed with his perspectives, but managed to do so in a fraternal manner. Our disagreements never prevented Brother Theron from emailing some joke, a Masonic inspiration, or a funny video. I’d like to think that Bro. Theron believes – believed – as I do: that our agreements are far more important than our disagreements, and that our appreciation for the fraternity is the basis for our mutual respect. May the Great Architect of the Universe grant some peace of mind to his grieving family and friends.

I was thinking, understandably, of Bro. Dunn’s death in the context of the dramas of our own fraternity. The Hiramic legends in the 3rd degree deal with the tragedy of death. But what is it that makes death a tragedy? reflecting upon this question, I thought about the death of my grandmother a few months ago. I wrote

“She was 95 years old. She died peacefully in her sleep, in a warm room surrounded by trashy romance novels, jigsaw puzzles, and loving family members. We should all be so fortunate.”

Maybe our connotation of “tragedy” is the concept of “unfinished business.” While there are certainly some people who are still vital and active in their mid-nineties, my grandmother certainly fit the definition one thinks of when hearing the phrase “lived a full life.” She was a nurse during WWII, she raised 4 children, and then had an active social life. She lived to see grand-children, and even great-grand-children. She’d never been sky-diving or hiking in the Himalayas, but she didn’t seem to have any regrets.

Our unrealized potential, the things that we will never have the chance to do boggles the mind. I may be reacting to Bro. Theron’s death out of a certain sympathy, as he and I were of a similar age; perhaps I’m saddened because I realize that I, myself, will probably not be able to accomplish many of the things that I’ve dreamed of. And perhaps this is why the death of a child or young adult affects us so deeply; the unrealized potential in all of us is tragic, but the younger one’s life, the more potential we see. We say that we are saddened by the loss of life, but maybe what we are really saddened by is the loss of potential realization – the songs that will never be written, the stories that will never be told, and the work that will never be completed.

I have always thought about the tale of Hiram Abiff as some kind of Death allegory, but now I’m seeing it as a metaphor that points out the unfortunate – and inevitable – inability of all of us to fulfill our dreams. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should always feel sad, though. We all work on our own spiritual buildings, and none of them will ever be complete. But ultimately we will all need to lay down our tools, if indeed, those tools do not simply fall from our own nerveless grasp. Maybe the story of Hiram should remind us that it’s not the completion of the building that is important, but the fact that we’ve started it at all.

Revenge of When Bloggers Collide

May 2, 2008 Leave a comment

“[. . .] whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons, that must have remained at a perpetual distance.”

There is supposedly an old Chinese saying (are there ever any new Chinese sayings?) that runs something like: “If you save somebody’s life, you are responsible for them forever.” I left my friend 3M of Northeastern Corner in the fraternal care of Bros. Eric, Kevin and Kyle some concerned brothers of Friendship Lodge who wish to remain anonymous, on the night before the Grand Lodge Annual Communication. While his life was not in danger, his reputation certainly skated on some thin ice as a result of several incidents involving car batteries, kitchen utensils, a visiting dwarf-tossing team, and a large luggage rack. I was informed of this the next morning by Bro. Kyle, who, with the aid of a cattle prod and the aforementioned luggage cart, was able to minister to the needs of our brother who was led astray. For valor above and beyond all reasonable expectations, not to mention courage in the face of violations of several safety reglations, Bro. Kyle not only wins the Mason of the Month award, but now would seem to be responsible for 3M’s reputation for quite some time to come.

Proving that he did not learn to leave well enough alone, 3M invited us halfway across the state, down to St. John’s No. 6 in New Jersey Norwalk on Thursday, May 1st, where he would be sitting in the East for the first time to confer an EA degree. So, Thursday night saw Bros. Kyle, Eric and Kevin the anonymous brothers barreling down the Merritt Parkway in their officer’s tuxedos, as Kevin and Kyle had offered to sit in as Stewards. Yours truly followed up about 20 minutes later, having come right from work. The photo of 3M and I shows that while I was smart enough to remember to bring my tuxedo with me, I had forgotten the black bow tie, so I wore a festive blue one that I’d had in my pocket. I had also forgotten my apron case, which my traveling brothers graciously picked up for me.

Worshipful Du Jour

More embarrassingly, though, was that I had forgotten to bring a white shirt. I probably could have gotten away with wearing the grey work shirt if I’d remembered the black bow tie. Fortunately, it’s not as if I have an important position where people would notice that kind of thing about me.

3M assumed the East with only a few minor newbie fluffs, and my counterpart in District 1, VW Bro. Lem and I commented several times on how well he was doing. Most of the other chairs were filled by PMs of St. John’s, and the several younger officers that filled in the Junior officers chairs did admirable work. They initiated three candidates, all younger men (which, from my perspective, is anyone under 45). 3M graciously allowed Bro. Kyle to deliver the long-form apron presentation lecture, and Bros. Eric and Kevin to perform the first section lecture in the Friendship Lodge “walk around” style. Afterwards, we were treated to a rarely seen second section lecture by WB Paul Chapin from Federal 17. I was able to sit on the sidelines and simply observe, which is a rare occurrence for me lately. It also assured 3M that I would not spoil his EA degree by accidentally delivering something from an MM or FC degree.

Owing to the long drive ahead, we didn’t hang around long after the meeting . . . much. A few cold refreshments and cigars did manage to make the rounds, though, and a few of us had a great time ribbing – and congratulating – 3M as we developed an impromptu tailgate party.

More to the point, though, is this: A month ago, except for me, nobody in Friendship Lodge knew 3M. A month later, he now has several friends and acquaintances – some of whom were willing to give up a night in which they could have been doing almost anything else, to drive halfway across the state just to cheer him on. As I walked to my car, I watched half a dozen younger officers and new Masons chatting away, trading stories and jokes, and making promises to get together again soon.

And that is one of the beautiful things about our fraternity: the ability to remove that “perpetual distance” which separates men.


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The District FC Degree

April 6, 2008 Leave a comment

Well, we pulled it off.

On Saturday, March 29, a dozen and half officers from the eight different lodges of District 5 managed to put together a very nice FC degree in the auditorium of the Masonic Health Care Center in Wallingford.

Anyone who has ever seen the bedlam which accompanies a normal degree rehearsal can only imagine what our single rehearsal was like the week before the degree. Well, that’s not fair – since half the people didn’t show up, the confusion in the temple wasn’t anything like it could have been, I’m sure.

On Saturday morning, several of the brothers met at Friendship and piled the officer’s stations, jewels, aprons, and the movable set of stairs into RWB Gary Arseneau’s and Senior Steward Kyle Charette’s pickup trucks. WB Ted Hasty, the poor guy who coordinated this event was already at the auditorium, moving the chairs and rearranging the room. By 10:45 am, everything was in position.

Which was perfect timing for my arrival at 10:55.

Apparently, WB Ted was a bit antsy about the event, and got there very early just to make sure that things were going to work out. He’s obviously my Bizarro world twin: he shows up as early as I tend to show up late. Oh, and I think that Ted has a reaction to the red kryptonite.

After the room was set up we were treated to lunch in the MHA cafeteria. I declined, owing to a traumatic lunchroom incident in my childhood involving spaghetti, soy meatloaf, and canned wildebeest – the details of which are best left to the imagination. But shortly afterwards, several of us took a small tour of the Ashlar Village facility, just up the hill from the hospital. Ashlar Village is a small community having a mixture of independent and assisted living buildings. We took a look into the newly remodeled main building. “Newly remodeled” is perhaps not the best term, and for the last several years it seems to be under a new plan called “constant remodeling.” I think that the facility changes every month. One of the highlights, though, was the small lodge room that has been built on one of the basement areas. It hasn’t been used for any official purpose, however as you can see from the pictures it’s had some unofficial uses.

By the time we got back, other people started showing up: officers from other lodges, several interested onlookers, and eventually, a few brothers from the hospital itself. Personally, I was a little disappointed at the turnout – only eight brothers from the hospital and nearby Ashlar Village ended up visiting. But that disappointment was mitigated by learning that one brother had not been to a lodge in over 40 years, and another had been hoping to see a degree for several years, but had no way to travel. Four of our guests were in wheelchairs, one had a walker, and another had a cane. One brother happened to pass by me heading down the hall and called out “What part are you doing, sonny?” I slowed down to talk to him and keep him company on the walk down. After assuring him that I really did not need to borrow his ritual book (why do some of the old timers read the books while following the degree? Self-appointed quality control inspectors?) he told me not to walk with him because he was shuffling along rather slowly and he didn’t want to hold me up. “I’m pretty sure I’ll make it by one-thirty!” he called after me as he inched along the hallway.

Click here to see the rest of the photos

The degree itself was a pleasant affair, made interesting because we had one candidate from Sequin-Level and one from Unity. Being a Fellowcraft degree, Friendship brought along their stairs. Yes, we have a set of spiral stairs that appear to have been built in the 50s; they disassemble for storage, so we were able to fit them into the back of a pickup and haul them down. Some of the visitors who had never been to Friendship spent some time testing them for strength; but we’ve never had a problem. I fear, however, that we’ll need to make some minor repairs, simply because age and knocking around in a closet every few months is taking it’s toll on them.

The officers performed admirably and the candidates had a very nice degree, made even more memorable by the fact that parts were done by officers from eight different lodges. Even the “Staircase Lecture” was broken up into several parts to allow the lodges to take a more active role.

On the way home, most of us wondered why we didn’t do this kind of thing every year. By the time several of us had driven back to Friendship to help unload the furniture, we’d resolved to have another District degree for the residents of the hospital for next year.

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