Lynn O'Malley brought up an item under old business at a recent meeting of the Voyagers. "This is very old business," she announced before she began.
It was a handwritten invitation to a Sunday school St. Patrick's Day party dated 1929. O'Malley was 15 when she received it. She's 72 now. "I just thought you'd enjoy hearing it," she told the people seated around the Lakewood living room.
The fact is that some of them had been there. And of those who hadn't, most knew the invitation's author. She was Ruth Cardin, a one-time youth leader at Los Angeles' 90-year-old Knox Presbyterian Church. And it was her long-ago efforts at creating fellowship that was at least partially responsible for the gathering here this evening.
A Saturday a Month
For nearly 50 years the Voyagers have spent at least one Saturday night a month together in somebody's living room. They began as friends at Manual Arts High School and members of the same church youth group. In 1942, they organized officially as a club for young married couples. Over the years they evolved into a group of families with young children, then families with older children and finally retirees whose children had grown. Today they are senior citizens who pay $1 apiece at meetings to brag about their grandchildren.
"We like each other," said Betty Donan, 72, standing next to a friend with whom she had attended junior high school and joined the Campfire Girls.
In truth, the group has accomplished something far rarer than mere mutual affinity. In a world of transience and impermanence, they have managed to hold on to each other. In a society of fleeting relationships, they have found a way to stay friends.
Some attribute the club's longevity to the shared values of its members.
When the bunch first took its name at the beginning of World War II it was an official affiliate of the Mariners, a Presbyterian organization dedicated to promoting Christian fellowship and social interaction. But as members began drifting out of Los Angeles and away from Knox Presbyterian (formerly at 43rd and Figueroa streets, now on La Tijera Boulevard, the group eventually broke away from the church and declared its independence.
A Lifelong Ritual
Today the club has 33 members, all but a handful of whom are married to other members. Scattered throughout Southern California, they gather each month at homes from Oxnard to Escondido for what to many has become a lifelong ritual.
Like most meetings, these begin with business. To the Voyagers, that can mean anything from planning a weekend picnic at Descanso Gardens to orchestrating a campaign to send a needy child to summer camp. Then starts the real fun. Passing around a bowl called the Joy Box, the old-timers fill it with dollar bills as each takes a turn talking about whatever is on his or her mind.
"I want to set the record straight," declares a lady in blue as members of the audience nibble on nuts and chocolate kisses. "My 15-year-old granddaughter is not 5-11. She's only 5-9."
A man, upon receiving the bowl, reads a letter from a cousin who recently married a 28-year-old Filipino woman and moved to a grass shack in the Philippines. "He's just a little younger than I am," says the man, who appears to be in his 70s. "It's amazing."
Members say they charge extra to anyone who goes on for too long. Most months, they say, there are few transgressors. "We always get along," says Frank Jones, 77, the group's current "skipper" whose main job during meetings is to keep the discourse on course by startling wayfarers into submission with the loud clang of a ship's bell.
Between meetings, the Voyagers keep in touch through an elaborate telephonic "grapevine" by which each member calls another located nearby. The fastest a hot personal news item has ever traveled from one end of the chain to the other, they say, is 15 minutes. Over the years the system has disseminated some pretty exciting items, some of which are reflected by the group's rather impressive statistics.
Among those collective statistics are 53 children, 90 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Also four 50th wedding anniversaries, with a fifth slated for April 1. And in close to half a century, they say, only one couple in the club has gotten divorced.
"The secret is to forgive your friends and overlook their faults," said Herbert Mueller, 72, a Fountain Valley resident who, having been a Voyager for only 31 years, is still considered a newcomer.
Some of the "faults" that required overlooking through the decades have been political. When County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn first ran for Los Angeles City Council in 1947, the Voyagers mobilized to help put him over the top despite the fact that Hahn was a Democrat and many of the club members Republicans. The reason: Hahn's older brother, John, was and remains an active Voyager. "Everyone got writer's cramp addressing envelopes," said John Hahn, now 74 and living in Sierra Madre.
Indeed, even members' children seem aware that something special happens when the old folks get together.
"These are all like aunts and uncles to me," said Don Donan, 37, surveying the scene at his parents' home following the conclusion of the Voyagers' recent business meeting there. "We kids all grew up together; it's almost a way of life. It's family."
That seemed evident from the easy familiarity with which the Voyagers rounded out their monthly night on the town by playing dominoes, gambling at 15 cents a throw in a card game called "31" and consuming a generous dessert of cherry pie with whipped cream.
"These people really care for each other," said Ed Blore, 71. "It's something you can depend on."
Added Elda Barnes, 69, who said she'd been married since 1938: "Saturday night is still date night after all these years."