Twenty feet ahead of me I can see the outline of Mark’s snow cat trudging through the deep powder, snow swirling behind it like the glittery trail of a fairy. Five feet beyond his machine I discern nothing.
We are heading back to McMurdo, driving south on the Ross Ice Shelf, and the weather is getting worse. Mark and Doug are steering by GPS. I am following them, trusting their navigation. Without warning they come to a halt and I almost hit the sled they are towing.
There is a call on the radio. “Three-oh-nine to three-twenty. Copy.” Mark is hailing me.
“Go ahead, Mark…”
“Where are you L.M.? Over.” Even with my running lights, front and rear spotlights, and two yellow beacons twirling, Mark cannot see that I am close enough to warrant doctor/patient confidentiality.
We left town this morning in flat light and blowing snow, following the flagged route to Windless Bight. There, in the protected elbow of Ross Island’s southern shore, Science has established a complicated array of barometric sensors able to detect a nuclear blast anywhere on the planet, and we were to erect a tent for the technicians. None of us pretend to understand the workings of their sensitive equipment; we have clear instructions: set up the tent and don’t go within fifty feet of anything else.
I joined the United States Antarctic Program six years ago as a GA with the FMC. This is McMurdo-speak; every job, every department, has a TLA, a Two or Three Letter Abbreviation that puts the FNGs (Fucking New Guys) at a clear disadvantage. A typical assignment could go something like this:
“Go up to the VMF, pick up a truck and drive over to the BFC.
Don’t cut through the MCC or they will write you up. Talk to Elizabeth, she’s the POC, find out the TCN for the LTER then pick up a generator from the MEC in the SSC and drive it over to CSEC on the JSOC side.” FEMC, AGE, ANG, RFI. I could tell you what they all mean but it would be pointless unless you planned on working down here some day, in which case you will just have to figure it all out for yourself. (Left to the imagination of the tradesmen and women working down here, these acronyms often take on new meanings. The new Science Support Center, which began construction in the winter of 2001 and is still not finished, has become known as ‘Super Slow Construction’. And NASA’s Joint Space Operations Center, built crooked by a drunk ironworker named Big-Hand George, is referred to as ‘Just Slightly Off Center’.)
I arrived at McMurdo Station in November of 1996 and began a series of menial jobs that usually involved shoveling snow or demolishing buildings. I spent three months that season armed with a thirteen-inch, gas-powered, circular saw, similar to those used to rescue victims of horrible automobile accidents. Under the supervision of a Carpenter Helper, I cut apart the fifty-odd modular buildings that made up the now-defunct Williams Airfield Station. I did not know it then, but I was reducing a major site of local culture into neat stacks of wood and metal. To this day, whenever I hear stories from the old-timers lamenting their early days working and living at Willie Field, I am struck by the thundering march of time as I consider my part in the destruction of their once beloved home.
That season was followed by another as an Iron Worker Helper, demolishing and shoveling. That season I spent a week chipping solid ice from a trench three feet deep, two feet wide, and one-hundred-twenty feet long. Three days in a row I shoveled out the same machine, which drifted over again as soon as we went home for the evening. Every night, Charlie blows up this bridge, and every day we rebuild it, just so the Generals can say that the road is open. What, you might ask, does this have to do with ironwork? I did too.
That summer I demolished the HAM Radio shack where people used to book a week in advance for a fifteen-minute patch home. (“I love you, honey. Over.” ) I also took down the Sprung Structure and Building 89 on the hill by the old nuke plant. (While removing the dusty, fifty-year-old insulation beneath the four-inch subfloor, the question of asbestos came up, and the Safety Guy was called in. He collected a sample to be sent to Christchurch, NZ, for analysis. He told us to continue working, with his assurance that it probably wasn’t asbestos, but if it was, it was the worst kind.)
We did put up the Haz Waste Building that year, piecemealing together the twisted steel from an old pump house, but this small constructive effort paled alongside the fact that in the last two seasons I had destroyed more buildings in Antarctica than fire and weather combined.
Continuing the wake of destruction, I spent three following seasons, two summers and a winter, in Solid Waste Management operating a diesel forklift, a one-ton metal baler and, most frightening, the Diamond Z tub grinder. With twenty-six cast-iron hammers rotating at 1800 rpm, it pulverized piles of wood into toothpicks within minutes and hurled metal chunks high into the air. These twisted projectiles returned to earth sizzling hot and unrecognizable.
Last summer I joined the Carp Shop. I am not a carpenter. I was hired as their equipment operator. But through keen observation of the structures I have demolished, I can recognize the difference between something that will withstand the impact of, say, a forklift, and something that will be easily rent by a General Assistant with a crow bar and a hammer, and on those wonderful occasions when I am permitted to build something, I build strong.
This morning Windless Bight lived up to its name and, in a light snowfall, we set to work on the tent’s wood floor and steel frame. I question Mark, almost rhetorically, “Do you ever look around and say to yourself; ‘I can’t believe I am doing this in Antarctica’?” Of course he has. We all have. It’s a thread that connects us. And though this feeling usually overcomes me when I am drunk and urinating outdoors, I sometimes feel it while I am working.
Within minutes, as if to confirm that we are in Antarctica, we are struck by a turbulent curtain of swirling snow and howling wind. We hunker down out of the wind, listening to the walls flap, and secretly plan who to eat first if the storm keeps up as we politely devour our sack lunches instead. When the walls stop shaking we spring to action. Moving quickly we button up the tent, anchoring it to the snow just as the next wave of weather envelopes us.
Weather in the USAP is rated by Conditions Three through One, three being the fairest, and all clearly defined yet skewed by practical considerations. (In the winter it is not uncommon for a Condition 1, where employees must not venture outside, to change abruptly to Condition 2 at 7:25 AM, allowing us to walk to work on time, and if necessary, work outdoors.) Driving back to town through Condition One, steering by GPS alone, Mark and Doug have come to a sudden stop, understandably disoriented and no longer sure which way the road lies. I radio ahead: “We have a few more waypoints along this stretch. We’ll take the lead.”
Lucky for me, the woman in my passenger seat was thinking this morning. Unlike me she can work a GPS and, on the trip out, regularly dropped waypoints, electronic breadcrumbs, along our path. She is a veteran of the US Antarctic Program. Plus she’s crossed Greenland on skis, and in 1992, as part of the first all-female expedition to the South Pole, she skied half way across Antarctica dragging a 185 lb sled. If things get bad I am counting on her to haul me back to town, physically, through the storm.
I put the Cat into gear and we pull around Mark and Doug into…nothing. If I didn’t know better I would suspect that Christo, the international artist known for wrapping buildings, trees, islands, and fields in colorful fabric, has shrouded our vehicle in white linen. I creep forward, staring at the tiny display of the GPS.
I am ready for this. Two months of hanging out in my friend Tim’s room playing Grand Tourismo on his Play Station 2 have prepared me. What could be simpler? Watch the screen, follow the road. But the GPS is not nearly as graphically advanced as the PS2, and the snow cat handles much differently than a GTO. Besides, it has been so ingrained in me to watch out for children and running deer that it feels cavalier to rumble through physical space while staring at a Game Boy.
Soon I too am disoriented. The flags appear out of thin air just ahead of me, then to the right, then the left. I lean forward, straining for a better view, a fruitless gesture as my new proximity to the windshield only creates the illusion that I am snorkeling through a bowl of cereal, the snapping flags floating by like Golden Grahams in grey skim milk.
As we get closer to McMurdo the flags come more regularly and we can see two or three at a time. We travel faster now, sitting back in our heated seats, stopping now and then to get out and clear off the ice from our windshield wipers and check the straps on the sled. We huddle together in the lee of our vehicles to comment on our progress and compare GPS tips.
I take one more deliberate walk around my snow cat. We are nearing McMurdo and, though the workday is over, I am reluctant to return to the warm cab and end this adventure. I brace my shoulders against the wind and urinate into the snow. I can’t believe I am doing this in Antarctica. In these moments I am all too aware that every season I spend here may be my last, and experiences like these may one day become sad anecdotes used primarily to impress women at parties. Unless my career as a photographer doesn’t pan out. Then I may find myself still in McMurdo fifteen years from now, misty-eyed and nostalgic as I watch a wide-eyed FNG razing the buildings I will be working on this week.