"A Company Town"
It is my last couple of days at Pole: last for this trip, who knows, maybe the last ever - my 3-year funded research project has run its course. In these visits I have seen the sublime and the ridiculous, the light and the dark. I have seen the reason why people come to Antarctica, and the ways in which individual heroism still shines thanks to and despite The System that makes it all work. There is a necessary dichotomy: each person does far more than their job description would provide, each person works for their own inner cause even when they are shoveling snow or cleaning toilets, and somehow The Company - i.e. ASA, Antarctic Support Associates - must coordinate them, must orchestrate them like a concert hall full of hyperactive virtuosi, each playing a very different instrument. I talked with the diesel mechanics in the Heavy Shop. They work in a small, oily hole of a room, where each tractor driven in temporarily fills their world with smoke. They are surrounded with engine parts and thick iron pieces of caterpillar. They are immersed in grime, their work horizon extends no more than ten feet in any direction, they are allowed two 2-minute showers per week. When the front doors open to admit another patient, their ambient temperature drops a hundred degrees. I asked them if they liked it. The answer had nothing to do with liking it or not liking it - there was a job to be done.
During the windstorm a few days ago, I brushed my teeth in the washroom next to an older man who works the radios. I commented to him that despite the wind and swirling snow, I could still hear the clank of tractors, I could see headlights dimly through the blizzard. He replied: "At Mactown, they have Conditions: 3, 2 and 1. Here, we have only one condition, it's called Work."
I asked Jerry Marty, the NSF's construction manager for the new station, about the fact that I saw quite a number of young women in brown overalls - i.e. tradespeople or laborers. I asked him how they compared to men in terms of physical strength. He answered that the crucial factor was not so much strength as sheer determination. Earlier in the season, the new construction required that a whole lot of ice and snow be chipped and shoveled out from under and behind the arches, some 30 feet below the surface. At that depth there's no heat from the sun, the temperature is a steady minus 55 degrees. In this agile hard labor, he said, the women beat the men no contest, and though they were dog-tired at the end of their 10 hour shift and covered with ice, they were proud of themselves.
No-one has to ask the people to do this - it comes from within. Somehow the interviewers at ASA have an x-ray vision that identifies the right candidates and screens out those who wouldn't make it. But when this workforce arrives on-site, they find a definite hierarchy, a company town.
A graduate student in an esoteric branch of Physics doesn't have many options within his field if he seriously angers his professor. Technical managers in specialized industries in small countries don't have good job prospects if they seriously mess up. The smaller the fishbowl, the direr the consequences of upsetting the Chief Fish. At Pole, the fishbowl consists of maybe 150 ASA employees, a very few NSF managers, and a steady flux of visiting scientists. This last group, the redcoats, have their meals served and their electricity provided. Their eyes are in the stars, they notice nothing if it's bigger than a neutrino. They come and go typically for a few weeks at a time, just as I did. They are similarly motivated from within, but the results of their work accrue directly to themselves. They will get their name on the published paper, they will get their funding renewed. In contrast, the visible results of the toil of the ASA employees accrue to others. Excellent meals are cooked ... and then eaten. Trenches are dug in the snow ... and then filled in again, after the cable has been laid. Girders and steel plates are welded together for a structure that will not be completed for years, the final floors not to be walked by those who set the foundations. In some way then, the motivation must be internal, the reward is the process, the process is the reward.
The company town aspect of South Pole Station is like a mining or lumber camp in the Old West. There is some product that is wrested from the earth (or snow) by sheer hard labor. There are the distant beneficiaries, the investors, the consumers of the product. There's the chow hall, the company store, the rec. room and the Saturday night beer bust. In this case, there is the tempering influence of one-third women, but none of them are blushing violets either. From time to time the Feds come around and make sure that no-one's getting hurt or worked to death, but for the Company there's only one goal: Meet The Schedule, Punch The List, Get The Job Done. "Kinder and Gentler" is a phrase that no-one expects to hear. ASA management knows this: their contract to provide services in Antarctica to the NSF is up for renewal, they are judged according to progress on the project. This puts someone like me in a potentially uncomfortable situation. Much of what I have been doing these last years has been connected with studying the occupational and living environment. If a workspace is suffused with fumes, does ASA really want to know? Those employed within that workspace are hardly going to complain: a real troublemaker gets an immediate ticket off The Ice, termination of contract, deleted from hiring list. One wonders exactly how Adam Smith's invisible hand works down here. In these three visits I have been struck not only by the dazzling natural aspects of Antarctica, but also by the interaction between individuals and the organization, and how we adjust and adapt the social contract to meet the reality of the location and conditions.
For instance: for a period of time, the water in the Elevated Dorm building was quite frankly unfit to drink or wash in. ASA was reluctant to make any official announcement in any form (e.g. e-mail) that could be forwarded or become part of a record on their contract: like the Soviets of old, a problem is not official until it has been heroically remedied. Some of the employees were unhappy: if the water is unsafe, why don't they fix it right away, why don't they cop to it? But then another voice says "Hey, we're in ****ing Antarctica. Outside, it's just as deadly as it was for Scott, it's 30 below zero and we're a thousand miles from the coast.. Inside, you've got heat, TV and 3 good meals a day. Quit whining." How do we reconcile these? Does one condone the other? Two years ago, in my journal I reacted strongly to the manner in which the military herded us around on cargo airplanes. Today, I'm sitting on the same webbing seat, I'm used to it, it comes with the territory. I can read with embarrassment the pansy text that I wrote only 2 years ago. Does learning to put up with something make it acceptable? - or do we need the bright lights of competition to show us that better things are possible?
I can't answer these questions. The scale of human operations in Antarctica is too small to allow for the effective exercise of competition. I expect that some Econ. student has written a thesis about it: if not, it would be a fascinating topic with a field trip thrown in that would dazzle the examination committee. Suppose Alaska Airlines offered competing air transportation from New Zealand to The Ice ... they certainly have the equipment and the expertise. You or I could go to a travel agent and buy a ticket in February to Anchorage, then Fairbanks, then Prudhoe Bay. Minus 54 degrees and blowing hard. You would sit in a real seat in a real airplane and they wouldn't ask you to wear ECW's. Given this kind of option from Cheech to Mactown, the 8 hours of webbing straps and the funnel toilet at the rear would go unpatronized pretty quickly.
My eyes mist over ... but the dreaming of air travel brings me back to my immediate reality.
I pack all my stuff into my soft-sided case. Everything has to fit into the standard orange zip bags, and I had discovered on my first trip that the orange bag can just swallow my suitcase. It opens wide, straining its canvas gums, its brass teeth grasp at the nylon and slowly, like a snake eating a rabbit, the bag goes in.
The baggage pickup point is outside an adjacent building. Alone in the snow, next to a sign saying "Goin' North". Soon a snowmobile zooms by to whisk it away to wait by the runway for the plane in a couple of hours.
Down in the Dome, something far more important than my ruminations is going on. The winter season's supply of beer has arrived, several pallet loads. It must be stored indoors before it freezes: all hands on deck. Everyone who isn't doing anything essential rushes out to form human chains, passing the cases from one to the next, off the pallets and into the buildings.
helping out, I go into the galley for my last meal at Pole. I don't
know whether to feel like a good friend being wished good-bye, or a convict
getting his final selection. Michelle the van driver is knitting, having
only recently learned how: in the space of a few days she has knitted two
socks and a hat. I joke with her that it's a good thing she's not
wintering, she could knit 28 sock-and-hat sets in a month and then what?
She looks at me very seriously: there would be more to it than knitting, to be left behind by mistake.
Outside, it has clouded over. There is a plane on the runway, pumping out fuel into the storage tanks. Mine will be next. I walk over to the Clean Air building to get a last view of this little world, this outpost on the Ice Planet. As the first plane departs and I hear mine arriving, I walk back and look at the Dome for a last time. It symbolizes a remarkable achievement, an expression of the National Will: yet it is based upon and contains today the essential elements, the contrariness and individuality of all the people involved, the suits, the overalls.