I first met “Nero” at McMurdo in 1998. He has spent several summers and a few winters in McMurdo. After one winter, he flew to Indonesia for a vacation, where he narrowly escaped death in the 2002 Bali terrorist bombings. Afterwards, he showed up at my flat in Christchurch, New Zealand, and told me stories of bodies in the street and blood in hotel pools, and also how the press had sought out his grandmother, told her that her grandson was involved in a terrorist attack, and then offered to reunite the two for an emotional radio piece. He’s since done two contracts in Iraq, and is presently in Afghanistan.
How long have you been contracting?
I have been contracting since the age of nineteen. Previously I was a busboy at a Mexican restaurant in Downtown Denver.
One night the waitresses were talking of some men who just came into the bar:
“They came from, like, Antarctica! They worked down there and, like, go back and forth and, like, travel all over. Oh my God, they are, like, so brave!”
I had to inquire.
About four weeks later I was sitting in an office filled with posters that showed the various cuts of meat you can get from a single cow. Behind the desk sat Warren Hoy. He was a greasy, blue-collar version of Donald Trump. He had gold on almost every visible appendage. One of his rings was an enormous Egyptian Scarab that could easily be mistaken for a golden cockroach. An odd ring of choice for the Manager of Food Services, but I didn’t care. The moving hands of gold, the snappy Boston accent, the wallpaper of bloody beef: these had all hypnotized me as I dreamed of the distant land of ice. And in the end I was offered a job washing pots and pans on the harshest of continents.
That was over 13 years ago. Since that time I have spent about four years actually in Antarctica working multiple jobs. Other than a short stint at the South Pole, most of my time was at McMurdo Station. The contract that followed was Iraq, where I spent about a year and a half. Currently I’m in Afghanistan.
You spent a lot of time in Antarctica. Why did you stop contracting there and go to Iraq?
There are several reasons.
First reason: When I first went down, McMurdo was still full of rust, canvas, and barefoot hillbillies playing fiddles in their tents. Resembling a fire-swept mining town, McMurdo looked like shit. It was a portrait of struggle, full of the odd and the rustic. Strange events blossomed without scripts in a landscape of decay, dirty machines, and whiskey-soaked mustaches. Men were piled into old military tents on the side of the mountains far from the heart of the town. It was the only place I had been where at night you lulled yourself to sleep pretending that the noise of a half dozen men whacking off was actually a group of thirsty dogs lapping at a water bowl. As cum-soaked socks hit the floor with gentle thuds, the heavy breathing was followed by the click of zippos and I would grab my blanket for comfort in the darkness. We had stepped back in time to a place that you would never bring your mom or your sister—a primate working class culture in the harshest of environments. Like a small town out of the Twilight Zone, or one of those old “Weird Tales” comic books, anything seemed possible.
However, as the years went by, McMurdo morphed into Boulder, Colorado. It became full of mountain bikes and bongos and penguin paintings. A delousing had replaced the raw and the real with gingerbread crap and rainbow-riding unicorns. People were suddenly drinking chai, doing yoga, and listening to the sounds of whales. The rust was removed, the vehicles replaced, and even the grubby dining hall ended up looking like a ski lodge. Suddenly there were MAAGS, raves, and disco parties— It was as if everyone purchased a copy of “Antarctica for Dummies” and followed it page by page. And the dudes became “carabiner-on-my-coffee-mug, North-Face-jacket-wearing, I-knitted-my-own-hat” yuppies, while the lesbians spilt their menstrual juices on their guitars at the coffeehouse, and everyone started holding hands and singing Carpenters songs.
All the little things that originally made McMurdo strange and matchless were either eliminated, copied, collected, or reprinted over and over. Abnormal became normal and everyone thought they were so crazy. And it is those practiced “I’m so crazy” looks that still haunt me when I think about MacTown.
Second reason: Raytheon. Raytheon came in and started a slow evolutionary process that took the town and put it in a Petri dish as an experiment. With microscopes, management was forced to sit around in white coats looking for the viruses and discolorations. These coats would have collars with chains that extend to the mother ship where reports were expected at least five times a day. Someone in Denver who drove home in a Lexus with an “I Brake for Penguins” bumper sticker would control the puppetshow on the ice. This Someone in Denver would stop at BlockBuster Video on the way home and rent the latest Robin Williams movie. This Someone in Denver liked Home Depot and decided that McMurdo too could be run like a corporate giant. A new level of idiocy had reached the ice and it became not unusual to find yourself watching a video on “How to Walk Correctly”, or being forced to sign a contract disallowing the use of the word “vagina”.
Third reason: To be perfectly honest, I became Toasty, and not in a good way. I began to hold semi-decent conversations with the several mannequin heads in my room. I had shaved my eyebrows off. I was drinking liquid morphine with someone named Big Hand George. A pair of panties belonging to my friend’s girlfriend lay under my bed as a reminder to my rusted morals. My plan to disappear from station and live in a snow cave at the end of the winter fell through disastrously; I was found face down in front of the fridge at work clutching a half-eaten five-pound summer sausage. Hypothermia had kicked my ass. The employee who found me helped me to my feet and said, “Bro, you got to go home.” And at that point it became crystal clear: home was no longer Antarctica.
Don’t get me wrong, Antarctica is a place that will always tickle my heart, bring back good and bad memories, just like an old fucked-up girlfriend. I used to walk out onto the back porch of the dorms to look down on Robert Scott’s Hut, which sits outside of town near the ice edge. As I looked at the primitive hut with a stomach full of bacon burgers, a cold Guinness in hand, a Marlboro hanging from my mouth, and a towel clinging from my naked body as I had just stepped from the sauna, I tried to imagine Scott and his crew looking up at me. Their bellies bloated, their skin burnt by cold, and a pot of smoking seal blubber bubbling on the stove: their historic struggle mocked by my comfortable state.
Another great thing about contracts in Antarctica is the Winter. To live seven months without a drop of sunlight, trapped in a small town at the base of a volcano. Over time, the lack of sunlight creates a chemical imbalance in the brain: T3 syndrome, or as it is better known, “Going Toast”. Psychologists have found that after a winter in Antarctica, 5% of the people there are deemed clinically insane. Genius! I loved watching people fall apart. I loved falling apart myself. Simple pleasures: watching a line of pale white zombies lined up at Sunday Brunch waiting for a slab of bloody beef to be hacked from the shoulder clod and placed on their plate. A bearded man sits alone in the corner with a half glass of milk mumbling words unheard.
Comparing the contracts, why do you prefer the combat zone to the Antarctic contract?
Remember when we were talking about going to ‘The Hell’ of the Middle East while we sat in the Smoking Bar in Antarctica? We wanted the dregs: the lowest. I remember us talking about being chained to a group of scavengers, dragging giant stones across the desert with men on camels yelling at us to get down as rockets flew overhead and scorpions bit at our heels. To take a bath in hot oil and shit in holes in the sand. Below was one of the questions that came with the job packet for the Middle East:
Living and Working Conditions
Do you accept these conditions and wish to continue?
I especially love the part where they describe the conditions as “like on the show M*A*S*H”, because most of these clowns they hire can only relate to a TV for an idea of anything outside their worlds. They have to make parallels and visuals for these people who have never owned a passport, nor ever traveled, nor even read of other places or cultures.
The War Zone offered a chance to experience this misery; putting myself in bedlam and unknown circumstances. I would watch the war unfold on the TV and I would get jealous that there were people over there experiencing this moment in history while I was busy shaking martinis at a bar in Long Beach. War was happening and I had an opportunity to go. Application after application I waited for the call back.
It does not take an insane person to want to go to the most fucked-up places on the planet because, to me, the most fucked-up places on the planet are in little neighborhoods, behind little fences, under little roofs. A little world that stretches as far as the little sedan will go. Working in the little office with the little lunch break and the little retirement fund as you lose a little more hair and a little more hope. The little dreams fade, the little bible makes little promises and then one day they might chisel some good words on the little tombstone. To me, that is hell on earth.
Nevertheless, the main reason that the War Zones pull people in is the pay. Antarctica offered nickels and dimes compared to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Combat Pay is ridiculous. The other night I was out drinking and ran into this guy who makes $15,000 every two weeks setting up IT systems. Some are making $400,000 a year working security or supervision.
Contracting allows the government to disperse funds in a cloaked fashion and to stand upon the shoulders of the corporate giants: Raytheon, Kellogg Brown and Root, Halliburton, Boeing, Blackwater, URS. And at the feet of these giants scurry the smaller contract rats that feast on all the meat and bones dropped from the giants’ table. History will one day catch up to the scams, the money shuffles, the seedy business. There is an insane amount of money over here.
In any case, salaries are the major pull for contractors to come to a war zone. I myself am making six figures doing a job that is one of the easiest I have ever had. Though I had to do a few lesser-paying gigs to get to this one, I have now landed a nipple that I will suckle until it dries up. Even if a lawyer or doctor is pulling in over $200,000 a year back home, they still have to deal with the insurance, the car and house payments, the cost of food, the gas prices, and I have to laugh because finally there is a wee bit of gravy for the blue-collar worker. Key example: I had a supervisor in Camp Taji who couldn’t read or spell or speak or really do anything productive besides breathe and smoke cigarettes. She labeled our Supply Manual with “Suppy Manula” and she was making six figures. She can thank Bush for that.
The number one reason however that I enjoy the War Zone contract more is because so many amazing and horrible things happen in war zones, and being part of that has changed me. I have swam in Saddam’s swimming pools and hung out in his palaces, I have shook hands with Bush, lifted body-filled caskets onto trucks with a forklift, built boxes for the KIA (killed in action), have been in over 80 rocket and mortars attacks, have lived in a tent with over thirty insane truck drivers, watched helicopters blow up insurgents. I have shot big guns, have rode in big tanks, have flown in a big chopper as it attacked ground forces, have been rocked by car bombs, have been involved in underground booze operations, have mingled with the Iraqi and Afghan People, have been to cat houses and bars in the red zones, have sang “Blue Suede Shoes” in the middle of Kabul in front of a bunch of locals, have said goodbye to somebody and ten minutes later they were dead, have worked with soldiers from all over the world, have lived with a porn-crazed Iraqi who is part of the new forming government, have seen Saddam go in and out of court, have watched bullets pound the wall directly above my head as I smoked a cigarette, have watched them pull bloated bodies from the Tigris, have ran from camel spiders and snakes, have done road trips across Afghanistan in a pickup drinking Heinekens purchased from Afghan soldiers, and have been introduced to local warlords.
To be a part of a historic moment in time, part of a complete clusterfuck, a money monster that is chewing and chewing, part of the battle against the Axis of Evil, but no one is right. It is an insane “perfectness”. The War Zone and Antarctica both offer so much. But due to pay and the setting, the War Zone wins hands down. Antarctica prepared me for the War Zones, a stepping stone which made the transition to Iraq a little bit easier. But the ice is a place I will never go back to.