Antarctic Diary: December 7, 2002
Welcome to my blistering Antarctic hangover
I deserve it. That's all I have to say.
Maybe something else: is there ever a good excuse to drink a bottle and a half of shiraz and a six pack of Speight's Old Dark? I mean--really. We're talking consumption.
It wasn't even like it was fun or anything. It was just something to do.
Get this straight: I got hammered because there were drinks in my hand. Not because I was having a particularly good time or even on a dare. Booze was there. I was there. I put it in me. I passed out. Woke up in my bunk, in my clothes, a railroad spike through my skull.
I accept the mantle of the heritage of Antarctica. Brain boils. Cerebral edema. Puking.
It started when the NY ANG (New York Air National Guard) bought our table a bottle of wine because the lone woman with us had been with them in Greenland years earlier. We reciprocated by buying them three bottles. Not to be undone, they bought us four. Etc.
We spent the evening toasting the guard, America, New Zealand, Antarctica, and everything about men and women together, holy and unholy.
And THEN I went to the helo hanger for the party there.
They had a band called "Safety Second" (get it?) who played "Rage Against The Machine" covers. The beers were "free", meaning they were provided gratis by the USAP, meaning the American Taxpayer.
Meaning most of us reading this.
I don't know how to dance. But I did anyway.
This is what doesn't make sense about Antarctica. I suspect that in a benign way it's the same thing that doesn't make sense about places the military goes to do its job.
Here we are in this place that for all intent and purpose is deadly. Take a long walk with the wrong clothes, you're dead. This ain't no joke. Every year some bozo does it. We've been through this. And the helos can crash. Or a box of nails can fall on you. Or they drop you at a high altitude camp where it's -50F and you get a pulmonary edema.
Goddamn. We're burning 5000 calories a day just staying alive. You can eat like a pig and lose weight. God's own fat farm.
And so you're in this bizzare place and some guy is pounding out his version of "Meatplow" by "Stone Temple Pilots", and there are green lasers blasting over your head, and the women are dancing in black velvet evening dresses.
And then what. What. What what what the fuck.
Here in one hand you have the field manual that tells you how to keep someone alive long enough for the medevac. In the other you have a beer. Someone kisses you on the cheek. At midnight the sun pours through the hangar skylights. They have black out curtains to cover them. Velcro them up. Velcro darkness.
I woke up in my clothes, in my bed. My roommate got up at 6:30AM. I'd only had about three hours sleep. I downed some vitamin B12. Some NAC. And when I couldn't take it anymore, tylenol washed down with a nalgene bottle of McMurdo water.
When it got to be three o' clock I went over to Scott's Hut. I was signed up for a tour, and so I got to go inside. By then there were only traces of my hangover sticking to me like grape juice stains.
Inside smells musty and animal. It's the soot from the blubber stoves. It's still there, 100 years later. On the walls and floor. Touch it, it gets on your fingers. Smells like old blankets and rotting fishy steak.
There are artifacts in the hut. Tools. Dishes. Pots and pans. Hammers. Axes. Stoves.
These were used by Scott and his men. Shackelton on his voyage later. Scott and Shackelton's men on later voyages. Artifacts.
Maybe that's what we should aspire to as people--to have our possessions called artifacts by scientists 100 years from now.
(My palm pilot is already an artifact.)
It's good to stand in that place. They've cleaned it out. On several occasions it was completely buried and filled with snow. Now they keep it opened up.
And it's true, as all the diaries and books have said, it's colder inside than out. It's a hut designed to shed heat. It was made for the Australian outback. There is nothing about the design appropriate for a cold place.
Our "tour guide" called Scott's judgement into question at every turn.
"Look at this--" he says, and points out the sun porches. The lack of insulation. The gaps in the walls where the tongue-and-groove don't meet correctly.
On the walls is the soot from their blubber lamps. On the walls are their signatures. Pencil. Wild. Shackelton. Early 20th century grafitti.
Their leaky fuel canisters. Crates of dog biscuits.
Everything they brought was ill suited to Antarctica and grossly inferior to the gear the Norwegians brought down when Amundsen made it to the pole.
Right there, stacked in the corner, are the fuel cans that leaked so badly they doomed Scott.
When the rescue party located Scott, Bowers, and Wilson on the ice shelf, they bolted back here. Then they sealed it up and got out.
It feels like pain in that place. Dessicated mutton still hangs in the anteroom. Hay for their ponies is piled in the corner.
I've wrapped my fist around the handle of one of their rusted hammers. I've touched the stalks of hay falling from a bale wrapped over a hundred years ago.
What the hell were they thinking?
We're dancing to an Antarctic cover band playing Jimmy Eat World. They're dressing in drag and dancing to music on the wind-up victrola. Ten thousand watts of music make my ears ring. I'm hot in my down ECWs. They're burning seal blubber and the only thing getting warm is the tin can they cut to make the lamp.
We're drinking beer. The helo hanger smells like AvGas.
In the hut, it smells like death.
You can almost see their tracks in the snow when they fled, their foreheads aching from dehydration and last night's rum ration, their stomachs twisted around fibres of undigestable pemmican.
My head is killing me. My stomach in knots around last night's dinner of moroccan chick peas and filet of sole.
What the hell were they thinking?
It makes me want to run. Load up the banana sledge and head toward the planes--toward the ships anchored at the ice edge.
Get everyone out. Tell the world what we've seen.
Commander Scott is dead. Wilson is dead. Bowers. Evans.
Macintosh took one look out the window of the hut and tried to walk across the sound toward the ships. They found his footprints in the snow--and then they didn't. Somewhere between WinterQuarters bay and Cape Armitage the tracks stopped as if he was lifted from the earth in mid-stride.
That's the way Antarctica kills you. You don't have time or the luxury to be afraid.
They were thinking what I'm thinking. Exactly what I'm thinking. What we're all thinking down here.
Live until it stops you. Run until it kills you.
We're all gonna die. Someday. Some minute.
Gimme a beer.