Friday, July 17, 2009

A Walk on the Shrine Side

Shrine Parade, 2006

Every September for more than fifty years, Shriners have come to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to hold their annual conventions. In 2006, both the Mid-Atlantic and South-Atlantic Shrine regional associations came. A mostly graying crowd of portly old white guys and their wives hailing from New England to the Carolinas gathered to affirm their Masonic bond and have a good time.

When I was a kid, we lived well north of the resort strip. But it wasn’t unusual in the late summer when the Shriners came to town for them to set up card games even at our corner and drink and carry on loudly all night long. One year they even had a fire engine out there, and would wind up the siren when things got dull. I can still hear my mother yelling at my father to go out there in the middle of the night and tell them to shut up. And I can still hear him trying to explain to her the futility of that approach, especially considering that the chief police was probably playing and drinking and carousing along with them.

The Shriners are a little tamer these days. Most of them are probably in bed by 9:00 p.m. And rather than keep the locals up all night, before they left town this time each group thanked the local community for its hospitality by bringing out all their toys and holding a 3-hour parade down the main drag of the resort area.

It’s easy to snicker at their whites-only tradition (there is a parallel universe of African American Shriners) and to ridicule their silly customs and rituals, their jingoistic patriotism, cornball humor, midget cars, hillbillies, potentates, pointy toed shoes, fezzes, camels, clowns and rhythm bands. In this era of oil politics, their fixation on Middle Eastern iconography and their archaic way of referring to the Mideast as “Oriental” seems especially ironic.

But I grin and bear it. Over the years, the Shriners have raised almost $8 billion dollars to support a network of twenty-two hospitals in the United States, Canada and Mexico where transportation and care for children with severe burns and orthopedic injuries are provided without regard for ability to pay. If you’ve even seen these kids and the loving care they receive at Shrine Hospitals, this legion of corny codgers having a good time on the streets of Virginia Beach doesn’t seem quite so silly after all.

A series of photographs from the 2006 parades can be seen here.


  1. I didn't realize they did the good they do, as you describe here! I have always been amused by them--especially in those midget cars, as you say! Great photo. I remember them from my childhood in parades, and I saw them a year or two ago in Whittier, CA at an early Christmas season parade. I love your photos!

  2. Wait a minute.....portly, graying white guy....THAT'S ME! I've been known to carouse and raise a little hell on Atlantic Avenue and still can even if I don't drink any more. Where do I pick up my goofy hat, pointy toed shoes and little car?