The Long Trip Home
Part Four: Epilogue
Friday, February 14th
The Antarctica that I experienced on this trip was a contrast of the expected and the unexpected, a dichotomy between the natural world and the organizational world of human life.
I had seen the picture books, marveled at the wonders of scenery and wildlife. I had read the tales of early sacrifice and disappointment. I had viewed the instructional videos, and had read about the frontiers of science. I was prepared for a heroic and uplifting experience.
Antarctica itself *was* astounding, indescribable, awe-inspiring. I saw a piece of ice that was as big as a part of Europe. I stood at the Geographic Pole and watched the sun go around me, felt the earth turn beneath my feet. I felt the bite of cold, the pressure of wind: I gasped for breath and saw icicles in the sea.
I met remarkable people: not leaders or visionaries or Nobel candidates, but people who washed dishes and drove Cats and shoveled snow by hand. These people were paid little more than minimum wage, put in 12-hour days when they had to, and lived in complete lack of privacy for months. They suffered the petty vagaries of favoritism and profanity, yet fulfilled their contracts. They could do it, and they did. They worked in oil and grease and diesel fumes, and were allocated two 2-minute showers per week. They bussed the dishes from the 'power table' in the galley where the administrators and office personnel sat. They climbed ladders and put up siding until their coveralls wore through and their faces iced over and their fingers couldn't hold tools any more. They were stuffed into airplanes like soft cargo by the Crisp Military in their clean uniforms, worse than anything I have *ever* experienced on Aeroflot, and herded like convicts upon their return to the world of their families. Many of them will go back for more.
The image of Antarctica that is created for public consumption is one of transcendental purity. Not in a single book that I read prior to my trip did I ever see detailed mention of human life in the major settlements on the continent. The 'Antarctic Centre' in Christchurch features a gift shop full of politically correct items, but without a single postcard of McMurdo or Pole. The fact that Pole Station is necessarily suffused with exhaust fumes is not for public release: the orderly storage yards of McMurdo are never photographed.
Many of the aspects of life and work in Antarctica that I viewed, are immutable. The cold and bleakness at Pole are the meteorological flip side of the clarity of sky and the occasional displays of ice crystals and optical phenomena. The lack of night and stars could be predicted. The lack of privacy might be foreseen by the very astute, but an appreciation of the submarine atmosphere requires a longer stay than I had. In the corporate world in the big city, the office is left behind: at Pole, it seems as if nothing is left anywhere; in McMurdo, it seems as if nobody cares.
I hope to go back: there is more of my work to do. I look forward to meeting the subsequent staffs of people who Go There because it's There, despite the unavoidable and the unnecessary, the natural and the human harshnesses. Perhaps the ultimate face-down of the military is to sit on the thirty-year-old airplane for eight hours, pull out your earplugs and to walk off with your head held high, slowly down the hill into the Pole Dome, and to treat everyone with respect and kindness. If I am so fortunate, I shall so try again.
Antarctica is worth the indignity, the human price that is endemic for working there. I was astounded at that which was natural, and shall try in my own small way to improve that which is the result of human activity.
I thank you for your attention, and will welcome your comments.
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PS: Sharon Tredway met her husband in New Zealand, as she had longed for since before Thanksgiving. She is no longer a slight Materials Handler in an oily jacket who cried from exertion at 60 below zero: she is someone with Real stories to tell to her grandchildren.
Back to Tony's Antarctica Interactive Trip
Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 15 Feb 1997