"I'd like to say first of all it's nice to be here," said Maxie Anderson, cross-country balloonist and one of the newest members of the Explorers Club. "But of course, when you do what I do it's nice to be anywhere."
This time, however, Anderson was on safe ground speaking before 1,000 members and guests at the 75th celebration dinner of the Explorers Club at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City Friday night. Members paid $175 apiece to mingle with "the most exciting cross section of people in the world," according to real estate magnate and fellow explorer Samuel J. J. Lefrak, who himself is working on the project of finding the Titanic. "If you can't find a good conversation in this room, you got a problem."
The dinner was a fund-raising effort to promote more exploring and brought together the world's leading explorers and field scientists to honor 10 men and women with the Lowell Thomas award. The recipients were scientist Carl Sagan, reporter-adventurer Dan Rather, Henry Taft of Outward Bound, author and biochemist Isaac Asimov, J. Louis Reynolds for his support of underwater exploration, research biologist Sylvia Earle, Maxie and his son Chris Anderson, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, and the 88-year-old Lowell Thomas himself.
"I bet I've spent $10,000 of my own money on this award just to see myself receive it," said Thomas, who was wearing a dinner jacket he first wore in Peking 40 years ago. "Now if that isn't bribery I don't know what is."
The club, which began on Oc t 17, 1905, was founded by seven men who wanted to "keep alive the vigorous spirit of challenge and the inspiration to action which has typified great explorers." Virtually anyone and everyone who has made their page in history by exploring -- from Charles Lindbergh to George Willig (the man who climbed the World Trade Center Towers) -- has become a member of this club. When on expeditions the club's flag, a red and white cloth with the club's initials, is often taken along.
But the well-know recipients were not the only interesting people in this group. Noble-looking men and "ologistss" of all sorts stood correctly with cocktail glasses in hand as waterfalls of gold and silver metals spilled from their handkerchief pockets. Bits of overheard conversations sounded like excerpts from Scientific American and National Geographic. Television cameras created pools of bright light in an otherwise elegantly subdued room, and like moths to a flame, some of the biggest egos science can create gradually drifted over.
"Everybody here has done something," said Brad Washburn, 70, who holds his own with expeditions to the Alps and Alaska, and whose wife, Barbara, was the first woman to climb Mount McKinley. "In fact, you might greet someone here that way 'Hello, what did you do?'"
At one point a guest approached Lute Jerstad and asked, "Were you on that space walk?"
"No, no," said Jerstad, "I'm Everest," referring to the fact he was part of the American team that climbed Mount Everest.
The club is well known for its outlandish humor as well as its resident genius, a trait that president Charles F. Brush said, "develops naturally when one plays in dangerous situations." In the past, boa constrictors have been shackled to dinner chairs, live Sout American condors have run around stage and a monkey has piloted a helium balloon. Dinners have included shark salad, roast mountain sheep, rattlesnake cutlets, and hippopotamus jowls. But Friday night, things were "a bit down-to-earth," according to Asimov, for the gorilla that showed up was, alas, just a scientist in a suit.
"We thought this dinner should focus more on the real accomplishments and the encouragement of more exploration rather than our wonderful sense of humor," said Bursh. Indeed, true speakers -- from Carl Sagan, who showed Voyager One slides of Saturn, to Sylvia Earle, who showed pictures from her visits to the depths of the sea -- spoke of exploration, risk-taking, adventure, and not fearing the unknown so brilliantly that Asimov joked, "Now we shouldn't be afraid to leave this ballroom and go out into the city."
The group dined on a "space shuttle" hors d'euvres plate of oysters, shrimp and mushroom caps (foods that will be served on the space shuttle), followed by game hen with "celestial stuffing" and for dessert, an "erupting voclano bombe" which was an ice-cream statuette in the form of Mount St. Helens. It was served with a roll of the drums.
"They're risk-takers, not just in the physical sense, but people who rather like to put it on the line," said Dan Rather, who was being awarded for his reporting from Afghanistan. "I found it inspiring and exciting to be among such a group of adventurers."
Mike Harris, who is leading the expedition of the Titanic, was, like Maxie Anderson and Carl Sagan, among the newest explorer celebrities who drew quite a bit of attention.
"Five years ago I had a dream I was in a submersible," said Harris, talking to a small group of tuxedo-clad listeners just before dinner. "I was lying on my stomach, looking out the window. We were moving along this hull of a ship and from our light I could see parts of the ship, then parts of these bodies, and then I came across the word "Titanic.' I woke up the next morning and I began this project."
"Would the bodies still be there?" asked one listener.
"It's a matter of debate," said Harris. "Some say the bodies will be there. Some say they won't. They could have been eaten by sharks or they could be there frozen."
At least one woman was visibly upset over the stern tradition of the club which allows no women members.
"I think it's absurd it must be changed," said Maria Szpak, who just recently returned from camping in a Kenya volcano for two weeks. "Women have been and will be great explorers and they need the validation and pat on the back and giving one another plaudits at celebrations like these just like the men need it. That's what they should be exploring now."
Business is inevitably tied to the Explorers Club because as president Brush said, "Expeditions cost money." That was the reason Chemical Bank's Doug George was there. His business actively supports the club. As for his exploring, he said it remains "mostly the tip of Manhattan."
"After 6," said Geroge.