Pennsylvania Stories -- Well Told


The solitary, robed figure writes at a desk, intent as a monk copying sacred texts. A pewter-colored cross holding a writhing Christ rests near his left hand, and on the wall behind him is a framed likeness of Jesus. There is somber music, and twitching candles bathe the room in a fragile, semi-darkness, silhouetting the graying, avuncular man with a face like a benediction .

But this is no monastery. The room is festooned with Confederate flags, swastikas, knives, swords, daggers, revolvers, and helmets with the stylized thunderbolts of the Third Reich. The music is by Richard Wagner, the Jew-hating genius beloved by Hitler; it bespeaks bloodshed, demons, and death.

And this is no monk. He is Roy Frankhouser, who has spent most of his 54 years in this tiny house he inherited from his father in a frayed-sleeve, out-at-the-elbow section of Reading. Link by link, he runs down the chain of memories: The first-floor front room smelled of Vitalis and Bay Rum where my father cut hair and warned me about niggers and kikes, and the back room was where I lived after they let me out of that … orphanage, and here on the second floor just above the window are the bullet holes from when the Black Panthers tried to kill me but only hit the plastic turtle bowl, and right above me here on the ceiling are the bloodstains from the time poor Dan Burros blew his brains out. 

With his only eye, Frankhouser glances at his watch. Abruptly, he snuffs the candles and descends the steep stairs for the weekly meeting of the Reading-Berks Pale Riders, Ku Klux Klan.

Frankhouser, holding a blazing torch, begins the ceremony near Rising Sun, Md., by barking a series of dismounted drill orders to the robed Klansmen and women, who are assembled in ranks. “Halt! Right face! Left face!” Frankhouser’s orders are snappy and precise, but the response is disorganized, almost comic.

At Frankhouser’s command, the Klansmen converge on the cross, each taking up an unlit torch from a pile near the base. They form a wide circle and rotate around the cross slowly; as they pass Frankhouser, he lights their torches and says, “I give you the sacred light. Proceed.” When all the torches are burning, they stop, and Frankhouser says: “Behold, the fiery cross is still brilliant. All the troubled history has failed to quench its hallowed flame.” He ignites the cross. Flames leap up the post and spread over the horizontal bar; the Klan members step forward and place their torches at the base of the cross.

Frankhouser, his one eye borrowing glitter from the fire, intones: “We light the cross with fire to signify to the world that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Where the holy light shall shine, there will be dispelled evil, darkness, gloom and despair. The light of truth dispels ignorance and superstition as fire purifies gold and silver, but destroys wood and stubble, so by the fire of the cross of Calvary we cleanse and purify our virtues by burning out our vices with the fire of His word. . . Who can look upon this sublime symbol or sit in its sacred light without being inspired with a holy desire and determination to be a better man?”

“Amazing Grace” plays over the loudspeaker – “… how sweet the sound …” The cross continues to burn. The heat can be felt 30 feet away, and the Klan members sweat under their heavy robes and hoods. They spread their arms wide and look into the sky filled with acrid smoke. “… I once was lost but now am found …”

The sound of the flames licking at the cross is ghastly. “… Was blind but now I see …” The air is varnished with the smell of kerosene and burning wood. Large black tatters of burned burlap flap from the cross. ”… how precious did that grace appear. …”

Frankhouser asks, “What’s the solution?”

“White revolution!” comes the chorused response.

“White power,” shouts Frankhouser.

“White power,” comes the response.

“White power!” “… ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far …”

“White power!” “… and grace will lead me home.”

“White power!”

“White power!”

Frankhouser stands silhouetted against the burning cross, dreaming of the day when men will be judged by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. Less than a mile away, Americans are speeding along Interstate 95 on their way to ball games and family reunions, unaware that, nearby, significant events are taking place, important rites are being celebrated and young minds are being molded. On the official Klan Kalendar, it is the day of Desperate in the month of Sorrowful in the year 78 A.K.

William Ecenbarger is the author of Pennsylvania Stories — Well Told (Temple Press, May 12), a compilation of his articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer on the Keystone State. This excerpt is from an Inquirer Magazine article published March 13, 1994.