A Girl Made Me a Shifter

THIS effort is probably in vain. How can I explain The Shifters in this modern day to sophisticated citizens who can no more be amazed and puzzled? Not long ago, here, I asked if anybody remembered The Shifters, and enough response came from elderly readers so the subject is still breathing, if not very well. The Shifters was a sort-of society of pixilated people who didn't need explanations, never asked any serious questions, and remained loyal to the esoterics of their own absurd Freemasonry against the assaults of all else.

No wonder these one-time Shifters who answered my question with ``I certainly do remember the Shifters!'' are vague as to just what it is they remember. Here's Jack Kahn, for one, of Longboat Key, Floridy, who admits his recollection is hazy. He was 11 years old when he became a Shifter in New Rochelle, New York, and his sponsor was one Ralph Heyman.

He says Ralph swore him to secrecy and then divulged the grip, word, and sign, invested him with the jewel of membership, and whispered the password. Jack doesn't remember the password. I do. It was ``I'll take the check.'' First a member challenged with, ``Check!'' He was answered by ``Double check!'' and then the challenged member said, ``I'll take the check.''

The jewel of membership was a paper clip. Not the bent-wire kind now common, but a little thing of the period that nobody much will know about if he/she is less than 70 years old. It happens that I have a box of those clips here on my desk (I also save string), and I'm going to guess that I bought them at Ye Greene Teakettle Gift & Variety Shoppe in 1922, give or take.

Miss Caldwell, who kept that shop, specialized in stationery for school purposes, and always had comic valentines in February. It was the only place we could get them; they were 1 cent apiece. The small round box has a label but doesn't name the manufacturer.

The label reads, ``100 No. O-B Oakville O.K. Paper Fasteners Brass Plated.'' As the badge, emblem, and insignia of The Shifters, a clip was worn on the lapel, on a shirt pocket, or on the neckline of a girl's blouse. Oh, yes - The Shifters didn't discriminate even then. Fact is, 'twas a girl who made me a Shifter.

Somehow over the years the decade of The Shifters has acquired a hotshot reputation. ``The Roaring Twenties,'' they say. To me and my school-day chums those Roaring Twenties were quiet and kind. We were not flappers and Joe College, and all we knew about such came from the drawings we saw in Judge and Life at Babe Walsh's barbershop when we spent 25 cents for a haircut.

Babe also took the Police Gazette and Cap'n Billy's Whizz-Bang, but he gave up the Whizz-Bang when he noticed nobody looked at it. Instead, he took Ballyhoo. There was a dance called the Charleston, but we did the waltz and foxtrot.

One night Neddie Brown and Tilly (from ``the Toiler'') Taylor actually did the Charleston at the dance after the basketball game, and all the other dancers paused to watch. It was the only time I ever saw it. Warnie Bean's four-piece orchestra stuck to dreamy music, but once during the evening it would give us ``Barney Google'' or ``Yes, We Have No Bananas.''

In such times, The Shifters flourished. Kathryn Soule made me a Shifter. She was a couple of grades ahead of me and I didn't know her too well, but she was Hank's sister and Hank and I were together all the time. Kathryn was very pretty, but she was altogether too old for me.

Nonetheless, she approached me in studied stealth in the cloakroom and asked me if I were a Shifter. Not knowing the password, I had to say no, and she gave me a pitying stare otherwise reserved for somebody who has to take a shoe off to count over 10. She let me know that I would never amount to a Hannah Cook if I went another day without becoming a Shifter.

I had never heard of The Shifters. According to Kathryn, I should go to George Wilbur's store and buy a box of chocolate cherries, which then retailed for 39 cents, and upon placing it in her hand I would become eligible for further instruction.

The next afternoon I was elevated to membership and Kathryn, with the cherries, pretty much passed from my life forever. But she explained that I could now initiate Shifters myself and in that way could soon recoup my original investment. I didn't work at recruiting new Shifters, but I did wear the exalted emblem for a time, and once or twice - but not more than that - somebody would sidle and say, ``Check!''

The Shifters didn't last long; we didn't have any cause, or any morality, or any purpose. There was certainly no prestige to The Shifters, and if any non-Shifter found himself curious, there was no reason for him to remain long in the fraternal dark. All he had to do was go to George Wilbur's and buy a 39-cent box of chocolate cherries.

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