In late February 2003, as Mainbody came to a close, the fuel tanker had still not offloaded the 6.5 million gallons of fuel that would keep The Program running for the coming year. The tanker could not traverse the glut of ice on the Ross Sea. A gargantuan iceberg north of Ross Island was keeping the annual sea ice from blowing out to sea, while one of the icecutters was simultaneously hobbled by mechanical problems. The solution was this: fuel lines were run from McMurdo Station over four miles of sea ice so the tanker could offload from the ice edge. Several dozen people, mostly Fuelees, stayed behind to perform the unusual task, and Last Flight was pushed back until March 10, when the summer folks finally left the Winterovers in peace.
No sooner was the fuel offload completed than managers from every tier began an orgy of showboating unrivaled since the last mid-winter medevac. A manager’s career is fragile because years of persistent toadying can be ruined in one afternoon in an interdepartmental sideswipe, and renowned incidents like the Fuel Offload procedure are amnesty holidays that allow a manager of any stripe to grab a feather for his cap: a feather that could potentially lead to a promotion, or might act as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for the next time he fucks something up. Any smaller achievement would have been set upon by the heads of one or two departments and picked clean for credit like skuas scouring a plane crash, but the floodgate of kudos was thrown open when a prominent NSF figure wrote, “This is one for the history books.” All of Denver and a handful of McMurdo managers were thrown into a congratulatory frenzy, and the President of RPSC announced to the workforce that the failure to offload the fuel “could have been a major setback for the Program and Antarctic science.” To his boss in Raytheon corporate he wrote that it “would have kicked our sales in the butt”.
While those who worked the Fuel Offload were either getting on with their winter or being asked to account for lost government-issue socks in Christchurch, the glory in Denver became abundant enough to stir the gratitude of the office hive, which eventually unleashed an act of official, authorized sentiment: each person who worked the Fuel Offload would receive a commemorative vest.
No doubt some cynics, now accustomed to working for years under dubious labor-contracts in the guise of Human Progress, will merely see the vest as yet another example of a stingy bone left over from distant feasts. They may even claim that the vest’s conception was motivated more by guilt than by generosity. These are astute observations, but deluded ones since their utterance implies that a dose of law or a touch of sincerity would be more favorable to the contract worker than the rote mechanical gratitude that the company’s Morale gland churns out like so much T3. This is not the case. “Law” is a product bought by organizations able to wield political leverage. It is unlikely that the Antarctic contract worker will ever benefit from law enforced in Antarctica until a union is formed to start buying that law for them. And if the company were to be completely sincere about matters, one only need have the smallest capacity for empathy to understand what a hideous nightmare any given body of employees are, and that if it weren’t for precedents and laws bought by labor-unions, then company sincerity would find contract workers wearing chains rather than commemorative vests.
The fact is that a simple email to a Denver custom embroiderer has quantified the company gratitude for the “history book” Fuel Offload at approximately $35 dollars each for sixty or so vests. “It’s better than nothing,” one hears from those around station, and they’re right. It is better than nothing. It is approximately $35 dollars better than nothing. It is also approximately $35 better than the Mid-Winter Greetings from the President, the Christmas Greetings from Erick Chiang, the Thanksgiving Greetings from Karl Erb and Rita Colwell, and the onslaught of Thanks, Regards, Kudos, Attaboys, Pats-on-the-Back, and useless Best Wishes that continually hemorrhage from Tom Yelvington and the other smiling cartoon characters running the Saturday Morning Antarctic Program. The vest is infinitely better than these meaningless blasts of hot air, precisely because the vest is windproof.
Beyond that trait though, the quality of the vest is suspect, and there would be little to distinguish it from a promotional item dispensed at the grand opening of a stripmall were it not for one remarkable characteristic. On the vest’s right breast the embroidered patch reads, “Fuel Offload, On-Ice, Antarctica 2003″. Like any good trophy or a proper lead paragraph in a news story, the logo provides the basics: What happened? Fuel Offload. Where did it happen? Antarctica. When did it happen? 2003. (“Who” is implicit in that the wearer of the vest had something to do with it, and “Why” is a question whose answer is too complicated for a logo.) The most remarkable characteristic of the vest, then, lies in these extraneous words: “On-Ice”. For only someone in the Raytheon Polar Services Headquarters in an office park in Denver, where people wear “Antarctica” shirts to work on a daily basis, where the three conference rooms are named “South Pole”, “McMurdo”, and “Palmer”, where a double-size cardboard figure in polar clothing adorns the wall next to the water cooler, would think to claim that an incident in Antarctica actually happened in Antarctica, rather than in Denver, where credit is claimed daily for all “On-Ice” achievements.
The vest is the trophy Denver would make for itself were it Antarctica. But were it Antarctica, it would never make such a trophy. This so succinctly expresses the psychological character of Denver’s relationship with Antarctica that the vest is not only a cheap trophy, but a unique cultural relic.