For centuries, a secret fraternity with curious rituals familiar at the highest echelons of American power was known as the Freemasons. In 2021, the Arlington versions of those once-spooky lodge members are now out of the shadows.
I’m assured of this by Don Strehle, a retired Truist banker and longtime resident of the Maywood and Rock Spring neighborhoods, who is the deputy grandmaster of the group’s Cherrydale Columbia Lodge no. 42. “If the brethren continue to elect me, I will be grandmaster next November,” he says. “It will give me pleasure to be in charge of approximately 30,000 Virginia freemasons.”
The group built around ceremonies and tools of the ancient bricklayer’s guild is most closely associated with active members George Washington and Andrew Jackson. (A new book from the University of Virginia Press titled “A Deserving Brother: George Washington and Freemasonry,” by Mark A. Tabbert, is due in February, and Strehle looks forward to it.)
His Arlington compatriots have frequent contact with allies at Alexandria’s skyline-dominating George Washington Masonic National Memorial, whose museum is a fun tour.
And Strehle helped me explain a mystery about Arlington House creator George Washington Parke Custis for my recent biography. The curious anecdote had it that a 17-year-old Custis was arrested in 1798 in Alexandria for failure to answer charges that he’d stolen silver spoons from Gadsby’s Tavern. Strehle agreed with speculation that the mishap was a reason Custis never joined the Masons.
Today, Masons number 1.2 million nationwide, says Strehle, now in his 25th year. Arlington boasts two lodges, including the one he frequents above the Cherrydale Hardware store. “We own the 1930-vintage building at 3805 Langston Blvd., and the hardware store has been our tenant since the 1940s,” he says.
The second is the Centennial Glebe Lodge No. 81, at Route 50 and S. George Mason Dr., next to Arlington Hall. A women’s contingent (led by women but men belong) is the Order of the Eastern Star, which meets in Falls Church at the Kemper-Macon Ware lodge.
In contrast to their Hollywood image conjuring mysterious ancient temples, “Masons have always been active in our community,” Strehle says. “And we’re going to ramp up our civic activities to increase visibility. We host blood drives with the Red Cross, at least six a year.” They assemble food donations, and sponsor Little League teams and Scout troops.
In the future, “We will try to ratchet up activities to make sure the world understands what we are and what we do, to pull back the veil on freemasonry.”
Members are “just average in the community, a fraternity of men” seeking to “make better human beings,” Strehle adds. Yes, the Masons still “have symbols that we identify with one another that are not public.” But nowadays, “you can see everything about us on the Internet, some true, some not.”
The goal is to “support each other, our families and communities. We teach morality to members in search of greater understanding of life.” Some are taught in symbols and veiled in allegory, he acknowledges, invoking the brick artisan’s vocabulary. “In the lodge, you meet members on the level,’” meaning no man is above another, no matter their station in life. We say ‘Part upon the square.’” That means “when we leave each other, we’re always square and honest.”
I was almost hit by a car last Friday. A neighbor’s.
On my morning walk, I waited patiently at Langston Blvd. and N. Quantico for a traffic lull. Then I moseyed out in the zebra-stripe crossing.
But a Hyundai coupe entering from Quantico turned left. I won’t soon forget its front grid aimed directly at me as the unseen driver accelerated. I dove forward, turned and cursed at the culprit, who sped off.
Next day, I wandered around the neighborhood and found that Hyundai. Luckily, a man from the same house appeared and I asked if he knew the owner. “My brother,” he said. So I asked him to relay a piece of my mind.