5 November 1989, Postcards from Hell
An absurdly lush tropical sunset, is sinking into Singapore Bay.
Black shapes crowd the foreground like a tangled pile of sticks and
wires. Sound! The chaotic tortured cry of a million poorly maintained
machines. All screaming for attention. Center stage is occupied by the scientific research vessel
JOIDES Resolution which is stranded high and dry in
the enormous concrete pit that passes for a drydock. The
huge ship seems befuddled somehow, like
the last dying member of it's species stranded in an an alien environment.
Literally a beached whale.
Smoke rises lethargically from the deep pit. Not smoke,
worse yet, the poisonous grimy haze of sand blasted metal covering all surrounding surfaces
like a shroud. Coating your eyes and lungs as you
stand and gape. At the bottom of the pit, vaguely humanoid shapes scuttle
around in the deepening gloom. Their motion seems purposeful but
oddly undirected. Hive behavior. Fire Ants wielding dangerous
probosci: pneumatic needle guns, howling metal saws, stroboscopic
Perfecting the ship's humiliation are its two giant propellers scattered
uselessly under her stern. A group of drydock workers are eating hurried
dinner squatting on the once proud flukes. Up on the rim of the drydock
pit a line of Rez crewmembers shuffle along stoically as
they wait to use the pestilent
dockyard toilets. The ship's sewage system is being overhauled and those
of us who must live aboard are condemned to squalor. A grey wharf
rat the size of a cat scurries along the cableway, causing a few of the men to flinch
involuntarily. No one in the line is smiling.
Aboard the world famous research vessel the decks are lined with cables,
hoses gas lines and a bizarre plastic tubesnake that simultaneously vents
noxious fumes and supplies semi-breathable air below decks. The galley
looks like a scene from ET, the Extra Terrestial, the part where the Men in
Black try to
kill the helpless space alien. Visitors to the ship invariably migrate to the ship's
Lounge, usually a quiet sanctuary. At the moment, this strategy proves to
be a very big mistake. The normally sedate Science Lounge is a seething
chaos of toxicity; fumes, dust, sweating bodies and ear numbing noise. The
entire lab stack is well over 100 degrees. It has been for weeks
now. The place has that equilibrated feeling that means, even when the
air conditioning does finally come back online, it will be days before it
actually cools off in here. Most of us working in the labs really don't
know if the chromatographs, cameras, computers and microscopes we are
responsible for will actually come back to life when the power comes on.
No one has ever done anything like this to them before.
It's dark in the Lab Stack. Not pitch black, but a surrealistic
horror-movie twilight that combines with the heat and moist smoky air to cast a
dreamy liquidy light. Every shadow is sharply etched, unequivocal
blackness that defies scrutiny. If you drop your safety glasses, you'd
better have a flashlight or you'll never see them again. In the Core
Lab, the predominate sound is the rhythmic throb of a giant electric fan,
pushing the hot stale air from side to side. People are working
here, dripping, grouchy people, moving in a
plodding and stunned manner. Time passes very slowly for these people.
Droplights reveal new lab furniture stacked against the wall. The color
appears to be various shades of dusty blue, dusty olive blue, dusty
green....hard to say for sure. Prefab maple countertops are stacked behind
the new chairs awaiting installation. The sickly sweet smell of epoxy,
carpet shards and small hillocks of empty cardboard boxes, attest to the fact
that installation of all components is underway. Simultaneously.
Everything is on a deadline and we're behind.
Near the door to the Operations Superintendent's office is a stack of
well-used ice chests. The contents of these plastic boxes comprise the sum
total of all human sustenance aboard the ship. This meager stack of
Personal Pan Pizzas, Big Macs, Whoppers, Kentucky Fried nuggets and Mandarin
hairy-crab noodles (thanks to Michiko, who's more creative than the rest of us),
represent the thin thread that binds us to the rest of humanity. The
sight of something so deliciously mundane as junkfood is enough to make our
eyes water with longing. We all want
this to end.
Time passes. At last, it's time for us to leave this awful place. Time to emerge from the pit
and be relieved by the oncoming shift. We look up expectantly as two
headlights bounce down the dock. A battered minivan pulls up beside us
and disgorges the Day Crew, still warm and drowsy from their beds. We nod,
they nod. There isn't much to say for the crossover. No good news except
that we're another day closer to deliverance.
In the east, the sunrise is peeking over the slag piles and steel buildings.
Bluish laser beams slatting through the clouds in competition with the sharp
snapping sparks of arc welding down in the pit. We board the bus and, in a
moment, are gone.