NASA and the Food and Drug Administration have been jointly funded by the National Science Foundation to study something that has been called T3 syndrome. T3 refers to a hormone produced by the thyroid, as does T4. These hormones have a lot to do with states of mental alertness. When you get cold, when you're stressed, when your sleep patterns are disrupted by eternal day or night, these hormones go into your muscles, instead of your brain.
NASA is interested because the same thing happens to astronauts, and they can't afford to have astronauts become as weird as ice people get.
In the perpetual day, in the perpetual cold, in the perpetual stress, you become stupid. And tired.
On my last night in Antarctica I woke on the floor of an office in 155. I didn't remember how I had come to be there. There was some drinking. A bottle of wine from the Italian Antarctic base at Terra Nova. Not all that much, I thought. There were women and men. Some yelling.
The floor was as flat and hard as a platonic grid of the universe. There was a balled up red parka under my head. My hip and wrist still hurt from where I fell skiing.
About twenty times. The prior week.
The clock on the wall read 4:30. The window shutters were closed, so it would have been dark inside if the christmas tree lights hadn't been on.
Sound bullets from a sharply plucked guitar string tore through the thin walls. There was a hangover nail through my forehead.
When I sat up I hit my head on the underside of a desk.
I remembered someone saying they couldn't lie anymore.
"Shut up. They'll hear you."
"I don't care. I want them to know. I want everyone to know."
"That you think you were abducted by aliens when you were a kid? Are you nuts?"
"Yeah. I don't get to be..."
I had to catch a plane home. It was a flight I couldn't miss. They'd left time in the schedule for the MPs to hunt me down if I didn't show up for retro. They could search the entire base in half an hour, I'd heard.
On Sunday evenings in McMurdo they have a science lecture. As the base is crawling with scientists, it's fairly easy to get one to stand up and talk about their research. The day before a woman was talking about T3 syndrome in such a lecture. Kathleen Reedy of the FDA. The FDA wanted to do a punch biopsy of our thigh muscles.
My roommate for my tour this year was the base doc. He said, when I was getting my orange bag to leave, that he couldn't believe an agency as inept as the FDA got a grant for the research.
"Nepotism," was what he said, indicating he thought there was little scientific merit in the study. And then he reminded me how much a punch biopsy of my thigh muscle would hurt.
"A lot more than twenty-five bucks," I supposed. The bounty on thigh muscles was pretty low in Antarctica.
"At least they pay better than the aliens."
"I hear," I said, because I had.
"But don't you think there's some truth to it?" I asked him. "When they went through Scott's provisions, they found 'Burroughs Welcome Thyroid Pills'. They knew, back then. Something was up. Somehow over the last hundred years..."
One point six degrees. That's how much your normal body temperature drops in Antarctica. Nobody knows why. It happens even if you don't go outside. Like the cold of the place is in the chemistry of the air, or the magnetic force field of the earth as it plunges straight down under you.
"Body temp..." I started, but I couldn't finish the sentence even though the thought was in my head.
"The graphs. You get them? Even one?" he said.
I didn't. I was writing a poem during the lecture.
With someone else. An old friend. She trusted me and I trusted her. Mutual trust, they call that. Just in case I forget.
I remembered I had a sheet of paper in front of me. Write a line, fold it over. Then she does it. Then you read what you get while Kathleen Reedy is speaking.
This is what they
Meant when they
In the storm
She says, "This is totally wild. We're both thinking the same thing."
No wait. I said that.
Someone asked the NASA flight surgeon, Symanski, if people had ever had sex in the space shuttle on a mission. That was easy to remember.
So was his answer.
Sex, it seems, gets right past the haze of thyroid hormone imbalance. Not much else, though.
I have a plane to catch. If I'm not at MCC by six, they'll come looking for me.
I just want to ask her one thing, first. If I can find her.
Awake. I'm awake with a hangover at 5AM in an office somewhere. Somebody's office. I think I'm in 155.
I stood and opened the window. The sun blared in so loud I had to cover my ears.
One thing. She's gotta ask me one thing. Wait. That already happened.
At the lecture, the woman says that people keep lists at Pole during the long winter. Long lists of things people remember, usually.
6AM go to the bathroom
7AM eat breakfast
7:30AM Brush teeth
8AM read e-mail
9AM put on jacket
9:15AM go outside and work
9:30AM make list
I gotta catch my plane. Jacket on. Gloves on. Hat on. Out of the office. Down a hallway. Open the big reverse freezer door to the bright cold outside.
Trudge across the volcanic soil.
"I'm leaving now."
Pick up my orange bag in my room. Five forty five. FIfteen minutes to climb the hill to report but I can't stop thinking that I can't think.
"Where are you going?"
I gotta catch a plane. I left my camera in that office down the hall. I have to start leaving now, about four hours early, so I make it the 200 yards up the hill to where we catch the busses to the planes.
"Do you feel like me? Do you?"
People in Antarctica have to eat 30% more calories to maintain resting weight. Many lose weight. Many gain weight, because they can't moderate their perpetual hunger. There are four meals a day at McMurdo, spaced six hours apart, roughly. Sometimes you forget you ate. You think you didn't and you did. You think you did and you didn't. You could starve and not know it. Or grow fat as a house.
Happens all the time. It gets so you're afraid to daydream because you'll forget you made it up.
"People get used to this?" I ask the long blonde hair I don't think about touching for fear I will.
"This what?" she knows.
"This stupid feeling. I feel like I have a hangover all the time."
"Are you reading my mind? Or is it that between the two of us..."
"We can only think simple things?"
"You're finishing my sentences."
"You're finishing my sentences."
"You have to catch a plane."
"No, that's you."
I do. I do. I do. Couple of hours. Or is it now?
"Wait a minute. Who's saying what here? I'm confused."
"I gotta ask you. What just happened?"
"What are you asking me?"
"If we had had sex, one of us would remember."
"You're tired and out of your mind."
"I gotta ask you something back."
"Me first--Are you in love?"
"That was it. Oh, god. Yes. I love everything, I love the ice. I love the people. I love my family. I love being cold and sleeping in tents and being where the explorers were. I love being them. I'm one and I love..."
"Yeah, I know. Me too."
"But you know, when you get back in the world and you wake up the first morning, you're going to feel different."
"Never. That's what I say. Ice people. Forever."
"You need to leave. Right now."
Not after. There are morning mirrors to look into.
I have a plane to catch and I'm already on the bus. Somehow I'm not where I was. Somehow I'm not in the office. My bags are packed on the plane. The sun goes behind Ob Hill, where it is early in the morning.
It's cold. My breath leaves me as clouds of steam I want to become so I can stay.
I'm still in love with all of it. I don't want it to go away.
But it does.
Just like we said.