Experiences At Pole

Day Three: The Equipment Finally Arrives

Journal Entry:
At the South Pole
Monday Feb. 3

At last my equipment is due to arrive. I go out to the runway in time to see the plane land: in eager anticipation, a herd of snorting Caterpillars are waiting, emitting loud purrs. As soon as the plane halts, the activity begins: no time can be wasted. The passengers climb down the ladder and walk towards the Station: they include Dr. Jane Dionne, the NSF program manager for my main project, and also Dr. Harry Mahar, with whom I will be measuring the aircraft engine emissions in whose toxic cloud the ground crews have to work. The point is, that the aircraft engines can not be allowed to stop: in the intense cold, then engines might not re-start, or something might get damaged if it froze and was then abruptly turned. Thus, the aircraft's four engines roar, the propellers spin like wheels of death, and the ground crew do their work in a blast of turbine exhaust. Imagine riding a bicycle right behind an old school bus. Now imagine doing heavy labor in similar exhaust, drawing deep breaths at a physiological altitude of 13000 feet - in temperatures of 40 below. The Cargo-Operations crews have been developing symptoms and complaints: they are immersed in exhaust for almost an hour. For this reason, the NSF is studying the emissions to see if respirators or other protection will be needed.

So I watch, from a safe and less-deafening distance. Cargo comes off on pallets and bundles and onto fork-lift dozers, until the plane is empty. All this while, the plane's excess fuel is being pumped out into a storage tank - this is how Pole receives its fuel. Finally, the Giant Dozer right behind me emits a Giant Belch, and starts dragging a huge tank strapped to a sled. It backs up behind the plane, and the tank is winched inside. The noise of the aircraft engines is deafening, the blast of snow from the propellers mixes with the exhaust from the turbines.

I reflect quietly. Not a Fun Job. Am I privileged, or was I lucky?

But my reverie is shattered by the magic of peripheral vision. I've seen those boxes before .. those, there in the bundle on that pallet getting taken to the Warm Storage Shed. Yay! - my equipment finally arrived!! Yes, those boxes getting thoughtfully flattened under the treads of a behemoth, for easier delivery .. but seriously folks, no, they clanked away safely to the inner recesses of Cargo Ops.

Those four boxes .. all the way from Berkeley. I paraphrase the Late Jerry Garcia: "What a long strange trip it's been". Twenty years ago, a germ of an idea at a desk, a research curiosity. Eleven years ago, a work bench in a garage. Today, a fully-professional instrument is made in Slovenia and distributed world-wide. And here I am, now, watching the boxes go by at the South Pole. I feel like a proud father at his child's graduation. I feel older. But then I say to myself, "Nonsense, I'm here on an amazing adventure as a direct result of all those late evenings, the persistence, the toil. It's not over yet."

I think of a scene from the movie 'Down and Out in Beverly Hills'. Danny de Vito plays a businessman who has made his fortune by manufacturing coat hangers. He is appalling, as are his family. At one point, he's at home, talking about his business. His daughter says something like "Hangers? - I *HATE* hangers!". Danny de Vito's eyes bulge and he screams at her: "Hangers? HANGERS??? Hangers FEED you, hangers CLOTHE you, hangers PAY FOR YOUR DAMN BOYFRIEND....", you get the idea.

Well, for me, it's soot. Soot in the air. 'It's a dirty job, someone has to do it'. [Gong]. The humble soot particle, the oldest pollutant, has gotten me here to the South Pole.

But now what? - I must ransom my boxes from Cargo Ops, and the rumors are Not Pretty. Don Neff pulls me aside into his cubicle, and in a conspiratorial whisper he says the word: 'Chocolate'.

I look as blank as I can, given years of training. Don repeats urgently in a monotone: 'Take chocolate'.

For an instant, my blood runs cold, the short hairs on the nape of my neck wake up. I didn't *BRING* any chocolate. It didn't say anything about that, in the official NSF publications. Will my equipment languish in the storage shed until it's time for me to depart? - this IS the Government, after all.

Don cracks a smile. I had almost believed him. He pulls open his bottom desk drawer and reaches way in the back to an unmarked box. He pulls out a Snickers bar. "Go talk to Diana in Cargo Ops, she'll get you your boxes". I go limp, accept the candy bar with a whispered word of thanks and walk through the labyrinths to Cargo Ops.

Suddenly, pathetically, I feel like an Old Hand. No clueless Beaker this, trying to do things according to official procedures. I am empowered, privy to the inner workings, and able to introduce myself to people on a first-name basis. I have overcome altitude sickness. By the time I get to Cargo Ops, my boots barely touch the snow.

Inside the brand-new office, cheerful and competent women greet me. I offer my dowry, the Snickers bar. They laugh. "No problem". An older woman is there in brown work overalls. "Sharon will get them out of the shed for you". As we walk over to the shed, I ask Sharon how she likes being here, doing manual work. She replies "I didn't think they'd accept me, being a 'mature' applicant" - but here she is, a dozer driver and cargo hand at the South Pole. And why not? why not this, than a job in a library or a wicker chair in retirement, if you can do it? I am very heartened, I no longer feel old, the future is boundless.

Sharon Tredway on her Cat.
To follow a little more of Sharon's story, click here.

We load the boxes into a van, and drive over to the New Clean Air Facility building. It is a giant blue box on stilts: it is BRAND NEW, and the carpenters and electricians are just finishing up while the scientists are moving in. Two things are not yet completed: the lack of plumbing hookup has led to the placement of an outhouse on one side. The outhouse overlooks the endless expanse of the Polar Waste outside, while providing an opportunity to create polar waste inside. The outhouse is unheated. Almost anything you can imagine is true. The other thing not yet completed is the hoist. The four boxes, 70 pounds each, must be carried up two flights of stairs. I expire again. The air is still thin, though Sharon says she's used to it.

The aethalometers have arrived safely at 5 PM. By 8:30, I have unpacked them, missed dinner, and am listening to them humming away, sitting on boxes. Tomorrow I will get a table and an air inlet. They are working PERFECTLY, the two of them show identical readings on the indoor air. I am SO RELIEVED. No breakages, no problems, just out of the box and plug in: just as I told Jane Dionne, my manager .... who is now here.

The aethalometers are made in Slovenia: and my friends there had told me that these will probably be the first Slovenian products to ever reach Antarctica or the Pole. An article had been written last week in the main Slovene newspaper 'Delo', the Minister of Science had been very pleased. I brought two 'SLO' decals with me: I took their pictures on the instruments, and then again on the Ceremonial Pole, and I sent the pictures back to Mirko. "Pozdrav z juznega tecaja", and as I walked back to the Dome I whistled the tune titled "Made In Slovenia" by the very talented Slovene country-and-western band 'Pohorje Express'. ( you ain't NEVER heard country tunes till you've heard them sung in Slovene, yet with a Western intonation).

Back at Clean Air, I went up onto the roof for a panoramic view. It suddenly hits me: we are an island in an ocean of snow and ice. In Cherskiy, they used a term to refer to the European part of Russia, the unfrozen part with farms and cities: they called it the 'Continent'. They would fly back over 8 time zones across the tundra, back to the Continent. They were islands too, and in the old days the islands along the Kolyma constituted the Gulag Archipelago. I look out across the flat expanse of the South Pole, sere and cold from horizon to horizon, with a camp in the middle: add a few spindly trees, it is Yakutia, and I am Ivan Denisovitch.


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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 30 Jan 1997