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They take their friendship on the road

May 11, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Marjorie Bantle has so many travel photo albums that she had to make an index. In one volume, it sums up the other albums, recalling the trips she has taken since 1978 with her husband, Dave, and three other couples. There is a group shot for each travel adventure through the years, showing the friends -- dubbed the "Crazy Eights" by one of their children -- with the Golden Gate Bridge, Peru's Machu Picchu or Spain's Costa del Sol behind them.

Bell-bottoms, bouffants and cat-eyed sunglasses come and go. But on almost every page, the same smiling faces appear, of eight people who love one another and travel, in that order.

Lenna Welling, of Cruise Stars/Plaza Travel in Woodland Hills, has been their travel agent for 20 years. She said it's unusual for a group of couples to travel together as adventurously and consistently.

"They always do crazy things," Welling said.

I recently got to know the Crazy Eights over dinner at the Oceanside home of Joyce and Forrest Dohlin. Martinis, expertly mixed by Forrest, and some warnings came first.

"We're all chiefs; there are no Indians," Joyce said.

"And we all lie," Marjorie added, punctuated by laughter from all the chiefs.

The Dohlins, who spend their summers at Big Sandy Lake in northern Minnesota, are both 72. He's a retired aerospace engineer and the group's official sayer of grace before dinner. Joyce, formerly the director of a retirement home in Eagle Rock, kept popping out of the kitchen where she was preparing dinner.

The Bantles live in Chatsworth. Dave, who manufactured wheelchairs before retiring, is pushing 80. Marjorie, 74, was a grade-school teacher for 12 years. There's a gentility about her, overlying something tougher; you'd be nuts to throw a spitball in her classroom, I bet.

Florence and Dale Hammer, both in their early 70s, just moved to Cambria. She had her eye on Dale from the moment she walked into the Glendale Foster's Freeze he owned and operated for 40 years. "She was a customer," Dale said. "I kept having to hand out free ice cream to her and her family."

The fourth Crazy Eight couple was the Brannans, of Ojai, both elementary school teachers. Jim Brannan died in September, and Lois, who now lives in Exeter, Calif., couldn't attend the dinner party.

Jim always wanted the group to do a train trip, and he got his wish last year on the Coast Starlight north from Los Angeles, an Amtrak package that included meals and cabins on the train and a three-night hotel stay in Seattle.

"The train was eight hours late because of a power outage and a drunk passenger. There was an Amtrak executive on board who had to get off and take a plane to make a meeting," Florence said, giggling. "But the trip was beautiful. We spent most of the time in the lounge car where we saw snow on the Cascade Mountains."

"You run into problems a lot of times when you travel, but it's an adventure," Joyce said.

Despite the hitches, Forrest hopes Amtrak's long-distance trains will never go out of business. "There are always going to be people who think the trip is as important as the destination," he said.

The Crazy Eights met in the mid-1950s at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, where Marjorie conscripted the wives to teach vacation Bible school. Their first trip together was in 1978. They hitched the Bantles' ski boat to the back of a car, drove to San Diego and stayed in the apartment of the Hammers' daughter, camping on the living room floor.

"This group will sleep anywhere," Joyce said.

The four couples have 13 children and at least as many grand- and great-grandchildren among them, and their upbringing included family vacations. But when the Crazy Eights traveled together, they rarely took the kids. Their trips were about seeing the world with friends, laughing and sharing good times with people they didn't have to be careful around and couldn't insult because they knew one another so well.

Between San Diego and the Coast Starlight, there were 23 trips, the most memorable of which were, by consensus, a European tour in 1984, a trip to Peru in 1989 and a 1991 van expedition in Costa Rica. The group tended to alternate close-to-home getaways with longer, exotic trips, planned at dinner parties with their travel agent, where somehow, amid the hilarity, itineraries took shape.

Some trips, though, were sudden inspirations. When plans for an African tour fell apart in 1991 because of the Gulf War, Dale said he had seen some good airfares to Costa Rica. So away went the Crazy Eights.

"In general," Dave said, "we travel independently and don't take tours."

"We have confidence in ourselves," Marjorie said.

"And three of us were former schoolteachers who did a lot of research," Florence said.

There were problems, of course. The airlines tended to lose Marjorie's luggage, and Joyce said Forrest often wandered away, drawn by one intriguing sight or another.

He looked sheepish at that, but said that none of the problems was impossible to solve or life-threatening. "We don't allow bad trips," he said.

I knew the secret to their success by the time we finished Joyce's baked pork chops, carrot and raisin salad and gingerbread.

Just before I left, Dave put it in words: "The friendship comes first, not the travel."

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