This interview occurred in McMurdo in December 2007.
How long were you at Palmer?
Almost seven months.
How long have you been in The Program altogether?
This is my fifth time down. I was here in McMurdo as a janitor two times. Then I came back and did a year in Waste. And then last season I did a summer at Palmer, and now I’m back here in Waste.
Before you went to Palmer, why did you want to go to Palmer?
It was supposed to be the cushiest deal. A cakewalk. The prettiest. Warm weather. Beautiful scenery, low stress, not that many people, a lot mellower. The whole nine-yards.
And you wanted to go. You had the idea of Palmer. Seals, penguins…
And the trip to South America, the free plane ticket.
Are there other bases there, like we have Scott Base nearby?
There’s nothing as close as Scott Base is to McMurdo, but the winter previous to my season, some of the guys from the Ukrainian base came to Palmer and the people from Palmer went there. A little exchange. Argentina has a base that’s relatively close, so we would see the Argentine Navy and the Chilean Navy poking around all the time.
There’s a wreck, a passenger vessel that ran aground outside of Palmer. You can see where the water breaks over it. It had a big hole ripped in its hull, and it leaked some oil, and it capsized, and all the passengers at the time were evacuated in Zodiacs to Palmer. This was years ago. So the Chilean Navy will periodically check on the status of this ship. It was leaking oil into the water, so they do environmental checkups and things like that. It’s funny seeing this huge battleship show up. You wake up one morning to go down to breakfast, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s the Chilean Navy with their guns mounted”, which you never see in McMurdo.
And then the British Royal Navy with their ship. They show up but they’re too busy to get close to the station. They’ll send out their choppers to check things out. And that was the time I told you that Princess Anne showed up. She came in by helicopter. She had a tour of the station. I guess she’s really adventurous.
Did you meet her?
I didn’t meet her. I was hiding. I wanted to see her, but at the point she showed up, I was tired of visitors just showing up and dropping in. I was really shocked at how many people are out yachting around Antarctica. They just pop in. I couldn’t believe how many unscheduled little yachts would just pop out of nowhere and show up.
Say you start driving around Death Valley, you see a car out there, you wave to ‘em. But if you live in Death Valley, everyone is stopping in to be buddies with you.
You’re the one house.
They want to borrow something, or need some resource.
They want to visit to see what it’s like to live in Death Valley.
But you see all the cars that come through…
…so you don’t care anymore.
Obviously, to be hostile to these people isn’t the best idea, but nonetheless, you don’t have enough time in the day to do everything, let alone be an escort all the time. What’s the station protocol for that kind of stuff?
They tell you when you have the scheduled ships, Holland-America, or the National Geographic expedition ship. Holland-America would have a hundred people come ashore at a time, so we didn’t work, because there’s like a thousand people on the boat total. So in those instances, like with Holland-America, the station manager, the lab manager, and a couple of scientists would go on the ship and give a PowerPoint presentation. Otherwise they would just overrun us; there’s no way we could deal with a thousand people…
…trying to use the bathroom.
Right. And the store is the size of a janitor’s closet in McMurdo. So for that type of ship, we would go to them and do the presentation and the ship would cruise around up the Lemaire Channel, and half the station personnel could go on the ship and run around. Basically, it was vacation day. So the bigwigs at the station were giving the presentation while half the workers would have vacation day on the ship. We could eat the buffet. If we went to the nice dining restaurant we had to pay, but the regular food where everybody eats was free for us. Sometimes, like on the National Geographic ship, the drinks were free.
I wanted to go to the coffee stand and get a chai latte. So I had seven, and it was free. Everybody wanted to eat, but the food at Palmer is really good, so I didn’t really care about hitting the buffet, because our food was good. I’d been working four or five months and as soon as I got on the ship I just wanted a massage. They charged me the employee rate, which was at least fifty percent off. I got this lime and ginger exfoliating body scrub, with these hot massage stones. I sat in the sauna. I was in there for three or four hours. The whole time the ship was cruising up and down these channels that people pay thousands of dollars for, and I’m running around on deck smelling like a fruit salad.
So basically, you go to the bottom of the world, where it’s the coldest, highest, driest, and all that crap, and you’re on a thousand-person cruiseliner getting a body scrub massage.
We were cruising for seven hours, and at the end of the day they filled up our Zodiacs with fresh fruit and vegetables, and we brought it all back to station. Because the ship is too big to come in to the station, when we were going to the ship, we were getting ferried over in Zodiacs, and on this huge massive floating city, all the people were out on the deck, taking our pictures, and clapping when we climbed up the rope, like we were movie stars or something.
Or animals in the zoo.
Yeah. And they were staring at us when we were walking around on the boat. It was really bizarre.
When you’re at the station, and they’re on the boat, can they see you?
If they had binoculars, they could have seen us. But this thing was bigger than any of the islands out there. It towered above any of the islands out there. It was massive.
Is it bigger than the Chilean battleships?
Oh yeah. It’s huge. I’ve never seen one that close before. I thought the National Geographic ship was pretty good sized, and it only held about a hundred people.
I imagine the National Geographic ship would be full of a bunch of salty photographers doing a TV show or something, but it’s not like that. It’s a cruiseship too, but with a different angle?
Yeah, it was a nicer ship though. It was wooden, if I remember correctly. And the crew seemed more like people like us.
Who are we?
They were there because they wanted to travel. Almost all the crew I saw from Holland- America were from the Philippines. They were there to work; they didn’t care what was going on outside. But the crew on National Geographic seemed excited to go down to Antarctica.
Get a job, get a free ticket…
And they were giving you free drinks?
Yeah, free drinks. So, we were invited on that ship, and after that the crew was invited to Palmer, and that was Party Animal House Central.
With the National Geographic people?
The staff, yeah. There’s a hot tub at Palmer. The next day we found underwear hanging all over the place.
What other ships came?
The Octopus. Paul Allen’s ship.
Paul Allen, the Microsoft guy?
Tell me about that.
414 Feet. My friend worked on it. It has the submarine docking bay, the helicopters, the swimming pool has a glass floor that can be raised and you can squeegee it off so it’s a dance floor. Then you can sink it down so it’s a pool. Total high-tech shit.
He was very quiet.
Did he write anyone to say he was coming, or did he just show up?
I think he said he was going to be in the area, but not exactly sure when. The station manager there was a big Microsoft guy…
What do you mean? He worked for Microsoft?
No, but everything Microsoft, he loves it.
How do you love Microsoft? That’s like loving Sony or Sharp. I love Sharp.
I don’t know, but he was all up to date on when the ship might come. It was huge, white, extravagant, and fancy-schmancy. Only a small group of people came for the tour of the station. It was Paul Allen and his sister. And Dan Aykroyd and Donna Dixon.
That’s Dan Aykroyd’s wife. Remember from Bosom Buddies? The blonde? And then a couple other people in their group. They were really nice.
And they came to the station?
Yeah. I was working in the store. They came in the store and bought a few things. T-shirts.
You went on the boat right?
Yeah, after that. I didn’t stay too long. They were playing. Paul Allen and Dan Aykroyd were both guitar players. And this electrician sang with them.
A Palmer Station electrician?
Yeah. He got up there and sang. A lot of dancing and drinking. But nobody got obnoxiously drunk. That couldn’t happen.
There was a vibe that that shouldn’t happen?
One of the grantees, a younger guy, was starting to get a little too drunk, so they asked him to leave, and they shuttled him back.
So there wasn’t cocaine and hookers and stuff like that?
No, nothing debaucherous like that.
Just good wholesome…
Rock and roll.
…four-hundred foot yachts with submarines and helicopters.
Again, you’re at the bottom of the world, and four-hundred foot yachts show up…
…with movie stars.
With movie stars.
Or British royalty, Princess Anne.
British royalty, and Donna Dixon, and Paul Allen from Microsoft.
So Palmer to me sounds like I want to go there.
Why do you want to go there?
Because it sounds completely insane. I imagine everything out of context. I know there’s a million hours of drudgery for every time you see a Chilean battleship. And a million hours of drudgery for every time a yacht shows up.
And you get sick of the yachts.
…And you’re getting a lime-ginger massage…
One day I had the lime-ginger massage! I was there for a hundred and eighty days, and I had one day of lime-ginger body scrub, and I had two days where I helped the birders weigh and measure baby penguins. That was really great. But other than those three days, no thanks.
That’s what this place is really about to me. Anybody can be excited about it here for weeks or months. But when you actually work here longer, the myths start breaking down because the system doesn’t work very well, the work week’s long, it’s monotonous, and other things. Eventually you just live here. You get used to the cold, so you don’t think about it. You just dress properly for the weather. And you no longer romanticize aspects of being here. Like you don’t say, “It’s so cold and difficult here,” because if you just dress right, it’s uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s okay most of the time. So in a way, it kind of ruins the story for outsiders. A lot of what I’m interested in is people who live here talking to other people who live here, rather than to people who don’t. Eventually it seems like this might be useful information.
It’s funny because my boss is mystified because I couldn’t stand Palmer—hate is probably a good word—but I love the Pole. He doesn’t understand that. At Pole it’s flat and white, there’s no wildlife, it’s always cold—and the thing about dressing is true—but at Pole it is always cold.
You can get frostbite there.
Then there’s the water ration…
Two two-minute showers per week…
But I loved Pole, and I hated Palmer. It was January, I was walking around in a t-shirt, I had a suntan, nothing else on but a t-shirt and jeans, I wore little booty socks running around working. Whales, seals, baby penguins, great food, but I couldn’t stand it. Because it’s not that, it’s the other stuff…
What’s the other stuff?
When I’m at work, I will do what you tell me to do, but when I’m not working, leave me alone. And at Palmer you never get left alone.
You have to be the Dining Room DA at night, you take turns in groups, you have to sign up for radio watch at night…
You have to do that on Sundays.
Well, the grantees don’t have to do it. And you have to do the station watch on Sunday, to check the generator and all that, the power plant.
When the cruise ships show up the managers will say, “We’re looking for volunteers…” but you’re doing it regardless. They say “volunteer”, but there’s no volunteering: you’re doing it.
It’s mandatory, but they call it voluntary.
Right. And you’re on the Fire Team, and the Trauma Team, and Line Handling, and then you’re doing this and you’re doing that. Constant.
So every night you’re doing another job on top of your other job?
So that’s someone the company doesn’t have to pay…
Right. And there’s some people who manage to get out of stuff. Grantees get out of everything. Because if it’s a nice day for science and the grantees have signed up to clean up after dinner, they’ll radio in and say they’re not coming back. And if you happen to be the dummy that’s sitting there when the station manager walks out, you’re going to “volunteer” to clean up.
So Palmer is supposed to be laid back?
It’s not. I made less there, and had to do fifty times more. And also, the thing with Palmer is, you have to be happy about it.
What do people say to encourage you to this sort of behavior?
When I went there the first time there were about six of us who were at Palmer for the first time from McMurdo. And none of us went back. Because when something would come up, like so-and-so’s sick but he can’t take the day off, people would say, “Well, that’s the way it is.” And the six of us would look at each other. I always call Palmer “Stepford” because there you can’t even question how stupid it is. There’s the normal people who say, “That’s stupid.” And the rest of them, it would never even occur to them to let a guy have half a day off because he’s sick.
Let’s say, besides sick, what are other examples of this Stepford Palmer thing?
Everyone had to take turns doing a safety meeting every Wednesday. One time this Comms guy just talked about how people at Palmer never get injured, because we’re better than the other stations, and we’re the cream of the crop. He’d rattle off a list of crushed fingers at McMurdo, or whatever. People at Palmer are always talking about how everyone who goes to Palmer is better. Just very elitist weird things.
I’ve talked to people who said they didn’t like Palmer at all. I’ve talked to other people who say they liked Palmer fine. I’m not sure what that means. Here’s one thing I have noticed about people here though: if they are really into, say, nature, and they can see seals and penguins for three days out of a year, they will give the place a thumbs up for everything that happened here for the time they spent here. And that is how some people gauge stuff. So when people say, “Palmer’s great” or “Palmer’s not that great”, you have to realize how people gauge stuff. Because to me there’s different ways to do that. I want to look at everything. I don’t block certain things out just because I get a cookie. I might like the cookie, but I also see the non-cookie. I want to understand the processes that allow me the cookie. One thing though, is the people I have talked to at Palmer say, “I work at Palmer,” and I’ll say, “Hey that’s great, how do you get a job there?” and they’ll be like “no no no”…
So there were other people who worked at McMurdo, right? Did they feel about it the same way as you?
Yeah. One of the doctors that was there is here now. He wouldn’t go back.
He didn’t want to go back?
No. And then there’s D, from the carp shop. Last season at Palmer, we couldn’t stand it. Me and him were on the same page as far as what was going on there. And another UT, this guy who’s been here a million years, he went there last year and couldn’t stand it. The electrician I told you about that was singing, he couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t go back. But I told you K likes it. She did a winter there, and then a summer, and a little stint again. Then there was another guy who quit and left because he hated it.
He didn’t want to be there?
He didn’t like it. I don’t know how long he was there, but when he saw the last boat coming in for three months, he said, “That’s it”, and he quit.
I know a UT at Palmer who finally quit because Raytheon wouldn’t reimburse him for the eight bucks or so that they owed him, because Finance couldn’t figure out their software. The station manager even offered to give the UT the money out of his own pocket, but the UT refused. He did his job conscientiously, and wanted Raytheon to do theirs. In the end they didn’t, so he got fed up and quit. But that’s a different sort of aspect than the stuff you’re talking about. I guess what I’m saying is that you were there for one season, and it sounds like a bad season.
Well, I think it was. But there were people who liked it.