IN A HALL ABOVE A LINCOLN HEIGHTS PHARMACY ON A RECENT thursday night, a small ship's bell was rung, and the membership rose from their folding chairs to toast in silence "our adventurers, absent and departed."
On the whole, they were an abdominous lot, about 30 men, mostly on the sundown side of 60, many banded at the wrists with thick watches of multiple functions. The heads of water buffalo, bighorn sheep, exotic antelope and various predator cats peered dazedly down on them from the walls. Along one side of the hall lay a contextless pair of giant elephant tusks. In the foyer a gigantic polar bear stood at full height, as though to terrorize anyone wandering up the stairs from the unmarked doorway on North Broadway.
Thus began the weekly meeting and lecture program of the Adventurers Club of Los Angeles, an odd and inconspicuous part of life in the city for 80 years and counting.
As is the custom, master of ceremonies Pierre Odier asked those present to describe briefly their recent adventures. On this night, the pickings were rather slim. One man had just returned from Las Vegas Speedway, where he'd driven a Richard Petty race car (at $40 a lap). Another had traveled the Chattooga River, on which the film "Deliverance" had been shot. Most impressively, it was revealed that one attendee, a man who has dived the wreck of the Titanic more times than anyone else, had just been elected to the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences.
The night's featured speaker was club member Ib Melchior, a splendid-looking gent of 80 with white hair and white goatee nicely set off by a black turtleneck. Melchior, an author and television director (he worked "The Perry Como Show" for three years), was in the U.S. Army's counterintelligence corps in Europe during and after World War II.
Melchior, who speaks six languages, told of spiriting a defecting German scientist out from behind enemy lines. He told of staging mock executions to persuade German saboteurs to inform on their comrades. The membership hanging on his every word, he described exchanging pistol shots with a former Nazi official he'd caught masquerading as a farmer.
As it happened, Melchior acquired the man's pistol, "the only gun I have that was actually shot at me." The gun, a 6-inch-long automatic, was inscribed with the man's name, Anton Eckel. It had been a gift from Hitler himself. The members passed the pistol among themselves, fingering and hefting it appreciatively.
When Melchior was finished, the audience applauded heartily. His tales were a lot more enthralling than a garden-variety account of climbing a mountain or kayaking a river.
Which points to a couple of problems the club faces.
The men who founded the organization (which is still an all-male preserve) were mostly big game hunters. They, like their ethic, are long gone. The World War II generation, which engaged the globe in a big way during perilous times, is also disappearing.
"We are having difficulty finding new young members who have done something and could balance the older members who, as they've aged, have tended to become credit card adventurers," says Odier, a past president of the club.
New members, typically from the ranks of endurance racers, divers and the like, trickle in, only eight of them last year (bringing membership to 175).
Odier, a high school teacher, is 61. He has high hopes more new members will enter via the club's category for humanistic and naturalistic adventure. He himself has walked from Mongolia through Siberia to the United States, and undertaken journeys to document the histories of vanished indigenous peoples.
Yet, in seeking a youth tonic, the club must take care not to poison itself. It must work to screen out braggers and bluffers from what Odier calls "the real thing, human beings who are significant and have no reason to lie or exaggerate."
The club was founded on gentlemanly principles, he adds. It does not wish to degenerate into a "redneck gun club" or a haven for extreme sports types, men who put themselves at risk for no identifiably useful purpose.
The club has an even bigger problem, however.
How many places are left on earth that no one's ever been to? Anyone with the money can arrange to have a go at Mt. Everest or traverse the Serengeti by minivan. So much of what the outdoor adventure magazines celebrate seems to have more to do with the egos of the questers than with anything being quested after. The justifying mantra seems to have changed from Sir Edmund Hillary's "Because it's there" to something like "Because I wanna."
Challenges to the human spirit-- outer space, the world beneath the sea--remain, of course. Unfortunately, they're the provinces of science and technology and offer little opportunity for the merely intrepid. Adventure itself, in other words, may have become as endangered a species as some of those that look down from the Adventurers Club walls.