A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him. For more about this and my other books, go here.
Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books. Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC." For the whole review, click on US Review.
It's an old joke, appropriate for Valentine's Day, but I can't resist repeating it.
He: Darling, I don't know what to do. My heart tells me one thing, and my head, another.
She: What do you hear from your liver?
Explorers Club: A Stuffed Cheetah, the Penis of a
Sperm Whale, and for Dinner, Ostrich
with Madagascar Cockroaches
I first heard of the Explorers Club when I read Thor Heyerdahl’s book The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft across the South Seas, telling how he and five others, all Norwegian except for one Swede, left Peru on a raft in 1947 and sailed across the Pacific to Polynesia. Heyerdahl believed that people from South America had once crossed the Pacific to settle in Polynesia, and his expedition, using only materials available in South America in pre-Columbian times, was designed to show that this was possible. Before they left, Heyerdahl visited the Explorers Club in New York and discussed the expedition with members there, one of whom was so excited by the expedition that he wished that he too could go. And Heyerdahl’s account was fascinating, telling how they lived on fish that were tossed up on the raft, how on the 97th day out they made contact with the inhabitants of one atoll, but were unable to land safely; how three days later the raft struck a reef and was eventually beached on an uninhabited island, where a few days later they were found by men from a village on a nearby island, and in time were taken to Tahiti by a French schooner with the salvaged raft in tow. He had traveled 4,340 miles and spent 101 days at sea. Heyerdahl believed that he had made his point, though not all anthropologists agree; the matter is still being debated.
|Heyerdahl's raft, 1947.|
Such was my first awareness of the Explorers Club and its members. I could well imagine them sailing thousands of miles across the ocean, at the mercy of wind and waves, or penetrating the jungles of New Guinea to be welcomed by natives with poisoned darts or bows and arrows, or trekking Arctic ice caps in the most incredibly frigid of climates, maybe stalked by a hungry polar bear. Adventures that I myself would never dare to undertake, but exciting to read about if one is snug and comfy at home, and inclined to applaud the doughty doings of others.
As regards New Guinea, I have heard that it harbors some of the last wilderness to be explored. I also recall seeing, long ago, a photograph taken from an airplane, showing a bunch of New Guinea aboriginals shooting arrows at the low-flying plane. Similarly, I recall the attempt by five American evangelicals to Christianize the Huaorani, an isolated tribe in the rain forest of Ecuador who are known and feared for their violence. In 1956 the undertaking ended in the massacre of all five missionaries, following which the widow of one victim and the sister of another went to live among the Huaorani. They succeeded in converting many, including some involved in the massacre, but at the cost of promoting contact between the tribe and the outside world. Not an Explorers Club undertaking, but one showing that there are still remote primal peoples on this earth, to contact whom is an adventure fraught with danger for both them and their presumably “civilized” discoverers.
Now back to the Explorers Club. My attention was drawn to it by a recent article in the New York Times: “What’s Left for the Explorers Club to Explore?” by Alyson Krueger, in the Metropolitan section of the Sunday Times of March 24, 2019. The article discusses the difference between the older members, for whom exploration meant going to faraway places and bringing back significant artifacts, and the younger members, some of them still in college, who thanks to technology can do their exploring from their couch. One young explorer uses high-resolution satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to to track whales, and another builds robots able to explore caves, so humans don’t have to. The difference between traditional exploring and the means used by the young newcomers is vast and could well create tension among the membership.
That membership totals about 3,500 today, with chapters all over the world. To understand the stance of the old-timers among them, it’s useful to glance at the history of the club, which was founded in 1904 in New York City to promote the scientific exploration of the world by supporting research and education in the sciences. The seven founding members included two polar explorers, a museum curator, an archaeologist, a war correspondent and author, a professor of physics, and an ethnologist. Dedicated from the start to science, it wasn’t just place for veteran explorers to get together to swap adventure stories and share tips on clothing and equipment, perhaps over a drink or two, though that probably happened also. And the members were doers, responsible for a lot of firsts that the club’s website proudly lists:
· North Pole, 1909.
· South Pole, 1911.
· Summit of Mount Everest, 1953.
· Greatest Ocean Depth, 1960.
· Surface of the Moon, 1969.
The club’s flag has gone with these explorers and has flown at both poles, in the ocean’s nether depths, on the bleak and sterile surface of the moon, and even in outer space. To be a member and carry the flag, one must be actively involved in scientific exploration. But there have been honorary members too, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Charles A. Lindbergh, Prince Philip, and Albert I, Prince of Monaco.
|The Explorers Club headquarters on 70th Street.|
Jonathan S. Knowles
Today the club’s headquarters is located in a six-story Jacobean revival mansion at 46 East 70th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with heavy entrance doors and ornate turn-of-the-century stained glass windows inside There, mementoes from earlier endeavors are on display. A virtual tour online shows the elongated tusks of a rare species of elephant flanking a fireplace, and the preserved head, mouth agape and showing daggerlike teeth, of a lion donated by Theodore Roosevelt. Also displayed are tusks galore, a formal gilt-framed portrait of an explorer, a huge polar bear rearing on its hind legs, a stuffed cheetah, stones from Mount Everest, a stag’s head with branching antlers, and a globe used by Heyerdahl to plan his expedition. Topping them all, perhaps, is the penis of a sperm whale.
Plaques on the walls commemorate members’ firsts. Also on display are flags that flew on the moon. In all, to date there have been 202 numbered flags, each one displayed on an expedition and returned to the club with a written report of the expedition. Also in the building are a library, and on the top floor, research archives comprising 13,000 books, 1,000 museum objects, 5,000 maps, and 500 films.
Once a year hundreds of members gather for the legendary dinner, famous for its unusual cuisine. Once the pièce de résistance was a 235-pound ostrich that took six and a half hours to cook, along with Madagascar cockroaches raised on a farm in New Jersey. Another dinner featured martinis with goats’ eyes, a steamed goat penis with honey, and for dessert, strawberries dipped in white chocolates garnished with maggot sprinkles. But these delicacies are available only to members.
Today a clubhouse full of phallic jutting tusks, mounted severed heads, and whole stuffed wild animals displayed as hunters’ trophies raises an eyebrow or two … or three or four or five. Wild animals once so plentiful are being killed off the world over, and hunters’ trophies are seen by many as both antiquated and barbaric. This view is often shared by the club’s young members, tech-oriented and not veterans of treks in distant places. Recently, in the club’s annual weekend, it broke with tradition to let its young members present their initiatives. The young members are using new tools to take a closer look at environments that have already been discovered, forcing the older ones to rethink and expand the notion of exploration. For the young, tech is in, trophies are out. The whole atmosphere of the clubhouse can strike them as outdated, Victorian, quaint. Some oldsters resist this invasion of the young, clinging to trophies and the traditional view of exploration, while others welcome the initiatives of the young and declare that satellites and lasers are cool.
Coming soon: Breaking the Law
© 2019 Clifford Browder