Well-oiled wayback machine

The perpetrators of California's longest-running practical joke
are serious about two things: history and drinking


One drizzly Saturday morning along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, a man wearing a black vest, red shirt and battered black cowboy hat walked up to the Java House, the oldest restaurant on the waterfront. Two similarly attired men soon joined him. Within half an hour, a moth-eaten army of about 60 -- a veritable 1850s fashion parade of stovepipe hats and prairie coats -- had assembled on Pier 40. Some were nursing the first beer of the morning. Some worked on the second.

As if their own serious whiskers -- muttonchops, even! -- were not sufficient, several men had adorned their gear with small pelts that may have originated as roadkill. One carried a pickax.

"Dynamite'' Deke Sonnichsen, a professorial gent in an antique coat covered with at least five pounds of brass badges, cast a serene eye over the crowd and pronounced it "satisfactory.'' Then the retired engineer and munitions expert went back to lecturing a bystander on why they don't fire black-powder cannons at events like this anymore.

Cannon or no, the brothers of E Clampus Vitus -- a fraternity that calls itself a "drinking historical society'' or a "historical drinking society'' -- party like it's 1849. While others may drink to forget, the red-shirt brigade drinks to remember: Over the last 70 years, this rolling costume party has installed about a thousand commemorative plaques in all corners of California, recounting the historic significance of saloons, school houses, bordellos and blacksmith's shops.

If you've ever driven past a 150-year-old building in the Gold Country and wondered what its story is, the brothers probably have a plaque there to tell you.

On Pier 40, a ragtag brass band began to play "California Here I Come.'' There was a brief speech about the significance of the Java House. A bottle of Anchor Steam was poured over a new brass plaque by the door.

With the serious business of the day behind them, gentlemen and scholars of Yerba Buena Chapter No. 1 decamped for a park eight miles down the freeway, where there were more beers to be drunk and more legs to be pulled. Within 10 minutes all that was left of the 19th century flashmob was a puddle of beer and the lingering aroma of two dozen cigars.

Revival of a spoof
E Clampus Vitus (which means exactly nothing in Latin) is the Golden State's longest-running practical joke. The brotherhood sprang to life in the mining camps of the Mother Lode as a parody of the self-serious fraternal orders of the day. When the mining towns became ghost towns, E Clampus Vitus faded away with them.

The modern organization was conceived in 1931 by Carl Wheat, a San Francisco lawyer and amateur historian of great repute. Over strong waters at the Clift Hotel, Wheat convinced some of his buddies from the august California Historical Society that the Gold Rush spoof should be revived, with a new historical mission. It would be, Wheat proclaimed, a "comic strip on the page of California history.''

Today, California's cultural rear guard operates as a loose conspiracy, in which all members are said to hold the rank of "Chairman of the Most Important Committee.''

A senior leadership council does meet once a year in Sonora (mostly to formulate guidelines for Things Not To Do While Drinking), but each chapter is autonomous, governed by a chapter president called a Noble Grand Humbug.

As with so many things Clamp, membership numbers are a little slippery. The total brotherhood may number 100,000 or 130,000. There are more than 40 chapters in California and four other Western states.

While other fraternal groups wane, the spoof is growing. San Francisco's Yerba Buena No. 1 chapter (YB1) has about 1,300 members and Santa Clara County's Mountain Charley chapter has about 2,000. Both add 50 to 100 members each year. Central Valley chapters are gaining hundreds of new members at each event.

"A big part of it is you feel strangled by political correctness,'' said Patrick "Aloycious'' Sweeney, an ex-Noble Grand Humbug for the Mountain Charley chapter. "Sometimes you need to just get away from it all. Sometimes you just want to go some place where you can cook big hunks of meat over an open flame and pee on the ground. And it's difficult to find opportunities like that.''

Plaque for nothing
With the exception of an occasional parade, the Mountain Charley chapter keeps a low profile around the South Bay. Still, it's hard to go more than a few miles without running into its handiwork, marking everything from the site of the world's first radio station (in downtown San Jose) to a carbonated spring (in the Almaden Valley).

The most prominent marker may be the one outside Terminal C at San Jose Mineta International Airport, commemorating the introduction of honeybees to California. "We put up a plaque once that said, "On this spot absolutely nothing of historical significance has ever happened.'' Sweeney said. "It had been a while since we'd put up a plaque, and we didn't have anything better to say.''

The brethren's traditional cry of approval and affirmation is "satisfactory!'' Historians say the plaques are far better than that.

"It's excellent -- that's what's so bizarre about the whole thing,'' said Stephen Becker, executive director of the California Historical Society. "They do this excellent work figuring out these historic spots that they think somebody should stop and look at so you can feel tied back to some thing.''

For most of the brethren, the post-plaque beer-and-barbecue is of equal or greater importance. A typical "doins'' might call for one pickup truck of ice, a pallet of garlic bread, 250 pounds of steak and a chili pot that looks like a small trailer-mounted Jacuzzi. In the Central Valley's mega-chapters, crowds of 1,500 red shirts are not unheard of.

San Jose's Mountain Charley chapter, with its fleet of elaborate rolling bars and barbecue rigs, is particularly famed for its cuisine. The worst insult a Clamper could hurl at another chapter would likely be an accusation that they cannot cook.

Beer and bull
Since a good 80 percent of Clamping comes down to standing around shooting the bull, it should surprise no one that these are Olympic-caliber bull-shooters.

In the span of one beer, a Clamper at the post-Java House doins might have found himself in heated, simultaneous discussions about: the petty politics of local college radio, the science of using black powder to blast an anvil 25 feet in the air ("It's just a giant "ka-WHANG' that wakes the entire county''), the religious practices of Supreme Court justices and the logistics of serving Dungeness crab to 200 Clampers. Satisfactory.

The appreciation of strong drink is still central to Clamper culture, but the chill wind of temperance has blown into the tent. "I probably shouldn't say this, but we have a lot of members who don't drink,'' Sweeney said. "I know. That's heresy.''

Drunken driving may well be the only thing the Clampers take seriously. They're against it. "It's called growing up,'' he said. "Eventually, if you don't die you're gonna do it.''

Big-hearted men
Unlike other fraternal and historic organizations that welcome only those with the right ancestors, E Clampus Vitus is an egalitarian crew. Any man with an interest in Western history can Clamp provided a brother deems him worthy of sponsorship.

Run the prototypical Clamper through a sociological assay office and he might be made of 20 percent California history buff, 20 percent biker, 10 percent High Sierra good ol' boy, 10 percent Boy Scout, 10 percent high school drama club geek, and 30 percent indeterminate substances most likely to be bull.

Sweeney's criteria for the ideal Clamper is someone who is both civic-minded and kind. "And he is generous with his brothers. You have to have a generous nature.''

There was no dearth of bigheartedness at the Java House doins. Many of the brethren -- some of whom had traveled from other states -- had never met, and yet the men were at ease with each other in a way rarely seen these days.

Despite the Clampers' carefully cultivated reputation for partying, they are solicitous of each other. Everyone gets an equal measure of guff; under no circumstances is anyone made to truly feel badly.

There is a tremendous range of perspectives under the big red flannel tent and more than a few men whom society would simply label odd. Yet no matter how lubricated the brethren get, one will never see Clampers fighting. It is simply not done.

One rough day
In addition to plaques and party ing, the third piece of the Clamper holy trinity is "poor blind candidates'' -- PBCs. There are many roads to Clamperdom and each is lined with some degree of extreme discomfort, filth and terror. Sweeney's induction 20 years ago was an epic bender that began with orders to chop 100 pounds of onions for chili. "A day of abuse for a lifetime of partying,'' he said. "It was a very good return on my investment.''

Initiations are almost the only aspect of Clamper culture where the senior oversight body sets standards and enforces them with a panel of traveling inspectors.

It's all pretty basic, common sense stuff, said Joel Roberts, an ex-Noble Grand Humbug and proctor: "No guns. Watch stuff that goes in the eyes. Watch the stuff that goes in the mouth.''

Many of the 32 hapless PBCs at the Java House doins had done their homework and wore clothes they could afford to discard afterward. But the Mother of all Chapters has a reputation for civility to uphold. The PBCs may have been shaken up or dirtied up a bit, but none were injured.

"This is YB1 -- they just talk them to death,'' remarked a Clamper from a chapter that takes a more hands-on approach.

The Grand Imperturbable Hangman in charge of the two-hour secret rite was Frank "Big Hitch'' Reppen, a towering figure with a lab coat and a gray ponytail who apparently joined the Clampers because pro wrestling deemed him too ugly.

As the brethren socialized, Reppen outfitted the candidates with the requisite baubles: dimestore tiaras, plastic pig noses, ding balls. When his exhortations had the PBCs on the edge of panic, he marched them single file to a hidden place where they were to receive some enlightenment.

Becker, of the California Historical Society, said there are great advantages of throwing in with YB1, the class act of Clamperdom: "You can even go home after the initiation and your wife won't put you out of the house for two weeks until you un- smell.''

Buying into a brotherhood
What is it about a Gold Rush-era secret society that prompts men to drive great distances, put on silly hats and engage in a form of highly stylized burlesque? California is a stratified society; we do not associate voluntarily with many people from different life circumstances. But the Clampers are above -- or perhaps below -- distinctions of class, age and geography.

A cultural anthropologist trying to understand the Java House doins would have to figure out why a twentysomething college student was engaged in a passionate discussion about oak trees with a man old enough to be his grandfather. Why a PhD was receiving a Clamper-sized load of guff from a journeyman electrician.

The Clampers offer a social insurance policy: There will come a day when you're old and uncool. You will be marginalized. But you won't be alone, and you won't be forgotten. These guys in the red shirts will still be there. They'll still laugh at your bad jokes. Legs will still be pulled.

To feel safe and completely at ease in a public space should not be a luxury, but it is. Perhaps this is why, every so often, the men of E Clampus Vitus leave 2004 to take refuge in what they say is really the year 6009.

"It evokes a feeling of great trust,'' said Bill Clark, the historian of Mountain Charley chapter. "And for some people, it's very important to be able to say 'Hey, brother ...'''


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