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Wednesday, Dec 9 1998
Sons and Others
I'm sitting in the back seat of a 1981 Buick Century with my neighbor Jimmy Barrett and his pal Frank, and we're cruising to the Native Sons of the Golden West's big holiday bash.

Jimmy's 80. He's a retired Coca-Cola bottling plant worker and veteran of World War II and the Korean War. Frank's a retired Muni man and veteran. Both are native San Franciscans as well as Native Sons. They are oddities in transient, polyglot California.

Jimmy used to sell newspapers to Mayor "Sunny" Jim Rolph in front of Dreamland at Steiner and Post, where every Friday you could watch the fights, and every Tuesday you could see wrestling. Real wrestling. Jimmy wanted to be a Native Son ever since he first saw members of the group riding down Market Street on horses. That was Admissions Day, 1925.

Frank doesn't reveal much. He "stepped on too many toes" at Muni, and he ran the bingo games at St. James for 18 years. That's about all he'll say about himself, even though he knows exactly what's wrong with every aspect of the world exterior to him, and is sure his grandchildren will fix it all.

I'd been warned by Jimmy that Frank is an odd one. Ever since he finished serving on a grand jury, and since he started doing volunteer work for the Police Department, he has adopted a strange shroud of secrecy that he enjoys, in a Walter Mitty kind of way. But he's serious when he says his position, whatever that may be, would be compromised if I revealed his last name in print. I'll call him Frank the Walrus, mainly because Frank is a big man with a big mustache and, I hope, a decently developed sense of humor.

Anyway, Frank the Walrus is at the wheel, resting on his back-support system (fur pad, roller beads on top) and steering with his big paws in the drizzling rain, looking through fogged windows in a car that smells of old men and hair cream and moves at speeds up to, but never exceeding, 20 miles per hour. All of a sudden Jimmy remembers he's forgotten something.

"Oh damn!" he shouts in his elfin voice. "The peanuts!"
A detailed conversation ensues about whether the peanuts should be retrieved. Options are discussed and given varying degrees of weight and importance. But it all boils down to this: Jimmy says the peanuts are important, so they are important. "The 90-year-old guy. He loves the peanuts. He can't have his cocktails without the peanuts."

Without complaint, we head back for nuts.

Eventually, we head for Twin Peaks and the headquarters of Parlor No. 214 of the Native Sons of the Golden West, one of the oldest fraternal organizations in the state of California, founded within the confines of the City and County of San Francisco on July 11, 1875, by a native son of Virginia, one Gen. Albert Maver Winn. This happenstance is sometimes judged to be ironic; the Native Sons don't allow anyone who wasn't born in California to join.

But we'll get to that little controversy later. First, I suppose I better explain why a 36-year-old columnist is in the back seat of a slow-moving car that holds two old men, one of whom thinks his police volunteer work and jury service has freighted him with an obligation of paramilitary secrecy.

I got to know Jimmy about a year-and-a-half ago as I walked my dog down his street. One day I noticed his Native Sons bolo tie, which he wears pretty much all the time, and since my only knowledge of the group at the time was not positive, having mainly to do with its role in supporting the infamous internment of Japanese during WWII, I asked him what the organization was up to these days. I was a little surprised that it was still active, and that such a sweet old Irish-American belonged to a group associated with a historic act of extreme prejudice.

That bolo-tie-inspired conversation is why I'm in a Brylcreem-scented sedan on my way to a dinner of bad roast beef. You see, I too am a native son of the golden west -- lowercase, and not by initiation, but by birth -- and Jimmy wants me to join his uppercase brethren and sisteren. (Since 1993, when a female interloper sued, the Native Sons have admitted women. But we'll get to that later, too.)

It's important I join, Jimmy says. The organization to which he has devoted himself for nearly four decades, along with various other fraternal organizations, is dying. The reasons are complex and have to do with sociological factors affecting all fraternal groups. But it also has to do with the Native Sons' reactionary reputation, and their birthright prerequisite.

But like I said, we'll get to that whole mess later.

Before we left for the Sons' holiday shindig, Jimmy was sitting in the way-too-warm bedroom of his Noe Valley/Mission District hinterland apartment, amid the curious smells of two cats and old age, watching the end of his favorite show, Law & Order. He was explaining his concerns for the continued existence of the Native Sons of the Golden West.

"Us old guys are dying off," he says, sitting on the edge of his quilt-and-cat-covered bed under a wall of pictures. "The people today, they don't know anything about us. We are down membershipwise just a smidgen below 10,000. That's statewide. We see the handwriting on the wall.

"The young people, they don't want to join anything anymore. I'm a registered Democrat, and I do things for the local Democratic Party. I'm a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and do things for them." Jimmy has even joined Catholic service organizations such as the Dominican Guild, although he isn't Catholic. "I did it for my friends," he explains.

Jimmy is an associational man, if that's a word. He belongs to an informal group of retired cops, firefighters, lawyers, and judges who call themselves the Pack of 10. "Each week one of us is the guest and we pick a place to eat and the rest pay for it."

About The Author

George Cothran


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