December temperatures could soar above freezing and the skiway turned to
slush as runny as the instant mashed potatoes served up by the Navy cooks
in the Willy Galley.
No matter how trying the conditions
became, we always had the landscape for solace. Once you got
away from the noise of camp, the only sounds were your footsteps, your
breathing and the wind. I learned to cross-country ski and spent
the evenings traversing the Willy Field road. You could ski all night
if you wanted to. Since it was summer, the sun never set. Around
three a.m. the sky turned pink behind Erebus, purple and gold hues richocheted
off the bottom of clouds, and you knew it was nearing 'dawn.'
Just to get a look at the horizon is reason enough to go to Antarctica.
Desolate, pristine like the bare bones of the earth exposed. Across
McMurdo Sound loomed the Royal Societies, a ghostly mountain range with
glaciers spilling into the frozen sea at its feet.
You do things in Antarctica you'd
never dream of doing at home. There's something about being at the bottom
of the world where no one can get to you - unless they've booked a reservation
on a C-130 months ahead of time - that loosens your inhibitions.
No spouses, no girl or boyfriends, no parents or relatives. Just
you and your newfound friends who are all in this adventure together.
Many of the things I did I best
not tell here - word gets around, especially on the Internet.
But I can tell you the story of how I broke my leg. It was January
and we'd just helped NASA launch one of their football field size long-range
balloons. The previous year the only place the balloon went was straight
down, nearly smothering some people, so it was a big deal that this one
looked like it just might make it into orbit. It was time to
celebrate. And there was no better place to party than on the roof
of the power plant.
Maybe a half-dozen of us clambered
up there. I'd had one beer. (Later, when people asked if I
was drunk, I said, "No, but I wish I was, I might not have hurt myself.")
Tina Turner belted out 'What's love got to do with it?' on the boom box,
and all of a sudden, it seemed like a good idea to me to jump off the roof
into the snow. It was only a twelve-foot drop and the ground looked
soft enough. I did it three times. The third time I backed
up and took a running leap; I wanted to catch some real air.
"Be careful," my friends said.
"I don't think that's a good idea," they warned.
When I landed, I didn't hit anything
soft. I hit hard ice. I heard a sickening pop, went into shock
and started spouting swear words and variations on swear words. My
buddies carted me off to Willy Medical. They took a look at my ballooning
ankle and suggested I take a trip to the big hospital in town.
No one could find my coat, so I stood
out on the ice shelf leaning on my crutches in just jeans and a sweater
waiting for the shuttle. Before I left camp we all got our stories
straight: I was just walking along on the ice and turned my ankle in a
hole. No sense in alarming the powers-that-be in town. It'd
just give them a reason to stick their noses into Willy Field business.
Nobody wanted that.
After the doctor put a cast on my
leg - leaving a cut up the side so my leg wouldn't swell and explode on
the airplane - he sent me back to Willy where I packed up my things in
between condolence calls from my friends. They saw me off two days
later. I was still crying. I ended up in Christchurch Hospital in
New Zealand where I had surgery and spent a delightful week amidst the
geriatric set in the orthopedic ward. Twice a day the tea lady came
around with her tea cart. It was all so damn civilized. But that's
Lord Webster hired me back the
next year, and I managed not to break anything. Well, nothing
of mine anyway. I did smash up a window on a Caterpillar tractor
and earned the nickname 'Crashglass.' Or then there was the season
after that when I took a job in town as a shuttle driver and forgot to
put the brand new orange passenger van in park when I jumped out to get
It rolled into a building, smashed
the hood and scared everybody inside half to death.
In total, I've worked 31 months in
Antarctica over six seasons. The times at Williams Field were the
best but maybe that's just because Willy's receded into the annals of lore.
They tore it down a couple of years ago. Said it was too expensive
to maintain and that from now on everybody would live at McMurdo Station.
They yanked the buildings right out of the ice shelf like they were bad
teeth that had to be pulled. Nothing's left but a couple of phone
poles and raucous memories.
Fortunately, that is enough to sustain
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