I stepped from my room into the upper hallway of Dorm 202 to go for a piss down the hall. It was the middle of the afternoon. A man lay on his back in the middle of the hallway. He was barefoot and wearing no shirt. I assumed he was drunk. He, too, must have worked the night shift. His eyes were open. As I neared the bathroom I asked, groggily, "Dude, are you all right?"
Only his eyes moved. "Eventually, you will make a mistake," he said.
Big Dead Place
Big Dead Place is simultaneously a comedy about the insanity of life on the seventh continent under the United States Antarctic Program, and a disgruntled employees' newsletter. Imagine the surgeons from M*A*S*H writing a book lampooning the U.S. Army, and you get the idea. It's riddled with inside jokes and long descriptions of bad internal politics. I truely wonder if an Antarctic outsider would find it anything but inhumanely boring for most of its length.
It highlights a world caught between the stricture of military life, and the ultimate freedom of civilian living -- unable to decide which to be -- and deciding errantly on one course of action or another based on a weak management structure's fear of retribution. In the remote wilderness where a long walk can kill you, chain of command can be vital to keep people safe. But what happens when that wilderness becomes a self-sufficient town, and the inhabitants worry less about staying alive in an Antarctic blizzard than they do getting docked $100 from their bonus for sending inappropriate e-mail?
As someone who has met one or two of the individuals characterized, I found it absolutely sobering. (And despite saying all the names in the anecdotes are changed -- some absolutely are not.) I'd heard many of those stories in verbal form, but the impact on the events to the worker's lives has never been made so real to me. Take petty politics, management that is ill-trained to guide people or even malicious in its dealings with its people, and workers under so much environmental stress they're prone to irregular, if not irrational attitudes, and you have a formula for corporate chaos.
And that's what Big Dead Place is about -- corporate chaos against the backdrop of the earth's last non-aquatic frontier. It's absolutely tragic, but at the same time it's one side of a multi-dimensional story. The "powers that be" will never get their chance at rebuttal. Though one is led to believe it's likely if they did the result would be a stream of sanitized, politically correct hypno-speak.
There's no doubt some of the events mentioned in BDP are true and they went down as advertised. No doubt some are presented in a very one-sided way. Still I think it's good for Nicholas Johnson, and good for the ice people that this came out. If all that happens is that the most blatant, heinous mistreatment of employees by their bosses is stopped -- it will positively effect the lives of hundreds of people.
As an employer and a professional manager of at times hundreds of employees, I am nauseated at the thought of having an employee bring up a minor grievance and hear in reply, "You have no rights here." Yet it has happened on the ice, a place where you never leave your job, not to eat, sleep, watch TV, read a book, have sex with your girlfriend, or take a shit. It happens because at any point in time there are at least 12,000 people who want your job. 12,000 people who believe in the dream of exploration and adventure, and who are not yet pissed off you have to go to medical to get condoms instead of getting them from the open bucket on Highway 1.
Last year I was at Raytheon Polar Services
HQ in Denver
for a meeting of all the polar organizer big shots. The idea was to consolidate the input from the scientific community and present our ideas and grievances in a way that would enable RPSC to respond to a single coherent request instead of hundreds of individual requests from individual scientists.
I was sent in place of one particular big shot. My area was communications and IT infrastructure at McMurdo station. I was supposed to represent the attitudes of the research community known as "the grantees". We were the ones who had been given chunks of the $125 million the U.S. Government spends on Antarctic science, and so both the National Science Foundation and RPSC were our vendors to us. In theory, they were interested in optimization and progress. This would be a way to optimize and progress.
Two weeks after I got home I realized the meeting had been one huge political fuckfest. The managers at the meeting had done their best to placate us. Our demands for more bandwidth on the ice and more wireless access were not only agreed to, but preempted by RPSC managers who portrayed a brilliant plan for giving us what we wanted. But then snags were hit. Plans were abandoned. Fingers were pointed. The announcement was made -- on purpose, nothing would be done.
We'd been used. By addressing our issues to the affirmative, they'd defused all our arguments. Then, by reneging after the meeting was over, they were assured not to hear complaints again for at least another year -- if at all. The science community is notoriously scattered in its opinions. The work we'd done to consolidate issues would be impossible to reproduce once the scientists realized the time they'd put into helping us generate our input had gone for naught. Nobody would want to work with us again knowing the effort would be wasted. And RPSC would have what it needed to assure its payment bonuses from the government. In an atmosphere of chaos, they could claim 110% compliance to their contract goals, and there would be no way to develop any data to refute their position.
The night before the meeting I'd run into an Antarctic support-worker friend of mine in a bar in Denver. I was in the bar with a scientist friend strategizing our approach for the next day's meeting when she found us. She'd just come back from working out, and was looking quite stunning in her jogging bra and tight shorts. She was upset because she had a big birthday coming up and she was going to have completed a quantity of years signified by a number with a "0" at the end, which to my mind had something to do with the exercise outfit in the bar.
Two middle-aged men speaking about anything are imminently interruptible by a well-built woman in a jogging outfit, irrespective of any other parameter of her life. Age. Marital status. Bird flu. All these things are rendered irrelevant by the desire to bring down a running buffalo for her so she is well fed and comfortable for the child-rearing months ahead.
Soon, my scientist friend had to leave as there was a further cocktail hour with the rest of the science community. He left me in her hands and we were still talking four hours later. She mentioned a few things to me about my own behavior on the ice that I had always suspected people thought but had never heard directly. There were rumors I set straight by providing data to fill the gaps in her stories. At first she didn't believe me, so I had to keep presenting data until we found points we could both agree on, and then backtrack. After a couple hours I was on good terms with her from a morality point of view. Because despite the absolute certainty of rampant sex on the ice, married people who partake cross the line into the land of the "unreliable". If you can't be trusted alone in a tempting situation, who's to say what you can be trusted with? And McMurdo has been the cause of hundreds of American divorces and thousands upon thousands of broken hearts. Adding to the carnage doesn't do anything positive for one's rep.
Finding no fertile ground for rumor mongering, our conversation shifted from the sex I didn't have (but sometimes, late at night, wish I did) to the ice politics of the technical work I was doing there. She drove me back to my hotel where the scientists were meeting to strategize. I could tell she wanted to meet up with some of the scientists and schmooze in her skin-tight outfit, so I suggested we sit in the hotel lobby to wait for some of them to pass by. We made small talk, discussing my own projects on the ice.
At a break in the conversation, completely non-sequitur, she said,"You don't realize what you're doing. You're fucking everything up."
"I don't believe that for a minute," I said, not preventing myself from sounding confrontational seeing as how the touchy-feely part of the evening was over. "RPSC can't get out of its own way on a whole shitload of things. All we're doing is making obvious additions. We're providing the scientists what you guys either can't provide, or refuse to provide because your budgets are limited. We could work together on this and make everyone happy."
"You're ruining people's lives," she said, turning the air around me about forty degrees colder. She got up, pissed off.
"Ruining people's lives? By putting up wireless networks? What the hell?" I followed her out the front door to where she'd parked her car. "Wait a minute. Don't just bail out on me like this. Are we communicating or just yelling at each other? Let's at least be sure what we're talking about."
She looked me in the eye. Said, "You have no fucking idea how much damage you've done," and then she hugged me. Got in her car. Left me.
Though living so close to one's coworkers has many unwelcome aspects, a powerful motive behind chronic Antarctic recidivism is the polar community's opportunities and appetite for heedless fucking.
Big Dead Place
In November I won two prizes in the Antarctic Sun's writing contest. Beyond all reason, and in a move which I believe besmirches the good name of the judges involved, I was awarded first place in the poetry category, and second place in the micro fiction category.
The editor of the Antarctic Sun is a dear friend of mine, and she announced the happy news to me over dinner in the McMurdo galley one evening right after I returned from a gruesome field deployment. She sensed I needed happy news, and she was right. I'd been abandoned by helo pilots on no less than four occasions -- left once without any provisions save the ECWs on my back -- and I was now nearly three weeks late in returning home. What was supposed to be a two-week trip was now five and counting. By my estimates, I'd already lost several thousand dollars in wages and bonuses due to weather-induced delays (the number would cross $10K by the time I would get home).
At one camp we were pinned down for six days -- nine of us in a camp that was supposed to accommodate five. Our provisions got so low we were out of Oreo cookies and were reduced to inventing interesting recipes using only Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, frozen burritos, and honey. While we weren't going to starve, we had begun to ration supplies. And nobody from the civilized world who is not attending a fat farm wants to hear their daily food intake is now going to be monitored by a group.
I was not a happy camper. And as much as I dearly loved my friend, her news was barely enough to lift the ragged corner of my misery. I'd never before wanted off the ice so badly, and that was bugging me. My luck had managed to turn my passion into living hell. If I never went to the ice again, I wouldn't care, I told her, angry at myself, the weather, the mountains, and most of my recordable life.
"Well, it's not all good news," she said, and I must have looked at her like I was about to sink my teeth into her neck because she sat backward in her chair abruptly. "NSF is censoring your story."
"My story. My lousy 300-word *paragraph*?"
"They say it's got too much sex. We're a periodical about science."
"But it's their fucking contest. They elected me winner."
"I know. The judges picked you. But they're thinking in terms of literary quality. The Sun is read in grammar schools."
"There's no sex in my story," I said. "You know. You've read it."
"Well, there's the idea of it."
"The idea of it. Where'd those grammar school kids come from, anyway? Their parents THINKING about sex? You know, I fucking hate these goddamned right-wing, book-burning fascists," I said, or something like it.
She leaned over the salt shaker. "You'd better quiet down before somebody hears that. Remember whose money you're spending being down here in the first place. They make the rules. You don't like them, you can stay home next time."
I believe I said, "I intend to," or something equally curt and unfair to a woman who might at that point have genuinely been my only friend on the ice. But the ice does something to you. Lack of sleep. T3. Whatever. I wasn't myself. I was cranky and just wanted to go home and now, after a winning a contest they sanctioned, the U.S. Government was going to censor a 300-word story they claimed won. The stupidity of it was overwhelming to my beleaguered mind.
"Besides, you're not the only one," she said, and then she listed four other entries, three stories and one poem, that she was going to have to cut from the issue -- including the first place winners in the fiction and non-fiction sections.
I said, "They're cutting the non-fiction. The first place winner."
"Yep. It's got something in it about drugs."
"A 300-word non-fiction paragraph that mentions drugs? This is total bullshit. I hope you realize that."
"It is, and I do," she said.
I said, "How about we go back to your room?"
She smiled. Ignored my stupidity. "Bill's going to put the winners on his website, so, they'll be 'published' in a manner of speaking. And I'll say in print that you guys won. NSF is ok with me printing the URL for Bill's site. Oh, and your poem is ok. It's going in."
"My poem," I said, only now remembering that during my 6-day abandonment at New Harbor I'd taken the time to write a poem to drive away thoughts of killing and eating my colleagues. "What was it about?"
"It was beautiful," she said. "It deserved first place. I'm glad you got it."
"First place. I'm not a poet. I'm a goddamned prose writer."
"You have the heart of a poet," she said, making me love her that very instant.
I said, "Are you sure you don't want to go back to your room and fuck? I'm not half bad. Really. I promise. Me love you long time."
I don't know why she laughed, but it was the right thing at that point. Disarming. Warm. Personal. As close to me as she could get.
"No. Never ask me that again if you want to stay friends. The answer is always 'no.' I'm going to let that slide because I'm not even sure who you are right now. It's the ice doing it to you. Go take a Hollywood shower. Go get some sleep. Come by the office in the morning and I'll give you a copy of the Antarctic Sun calendar."
"I don't need a calendar," I said.
"Fine. Then I won't give you one."
She got up, kissed me on the forehead, and left me in the McMurdo daylight.
In the winter of 1996 a Galley worker in McMurdo clocked his supervisor on the head with a hammer while he was eating lunch. Someone who intervened got the claw-end in the face. The red-parkaed assistant left the Galley and was intercepted in Highway 1 singing "Mary had a Little Lamb" and taken into makeshift custody by firefighters. Carpenters made wooden bars for the windows on Hut 10, where the dining attendant spent three days in luxurious captivity until the FBI arrived to spend three days taking scenic pictures or polar beauty before escorting the attacker to Hawaii for processing. A new dining attendant arrived that evening for his first shift in McMurdo. He was excited to be on the seventh continent. His first task in Antarctica was to clean the human blood from the chairs in the Galley.
The following Halloween, hammer-related costumes were in vogue.
Big Dead Place
During my last hour before my departure flight from McMurdo, November of 2004, I got an e-mail from housing stating that I had failed my room inspection and I was being written up. My PI would hear about it and my bonus would be in jeopardy. (Your PI is your boss in Antarctica if you're a grantee. If you're a PI, you have no boss in Antarctica.)
I pointed out the note to my PI who was sitting next to me.
"Did you clean out your room?" he asked.
Not only had I cleaned out my room, but the inspector had left me a note that said, "All DONE! You're good to go! Have a safe trip!" She had put a smiley face on the inspection report. I told him this. I asked him if my bonus was in jeopardy.
"My point, exactly," I said.
I fired off an e-mail to the housing coordinator, copying my PI and several high-ranking NSF and RPSC party officials, assuring her that I had complied with the requests of the inspector and that I could even reproduce the note the inspector had left for me with the smiley face. I added that this unnecessary expenditure of valuable McMurdo bandwidth was taking critical study time away from my government-funded research, and if she cared to take up the matter further, I would be happy to meet with her in either Denver or Washington to make good on whatever infraction she felt I had committed. But by the way, I had the smiley face to prove my point.
I received a retraction in seconds.
I am now terrified to go to the ice again. Most certainly, upon my return close to WinFly in October, I will be assigned to sleep in the stalls of the men's room on Highway 1.
On the ice, being right is irrelevant to the power structure. Being a willing pawn, is. As Nicholas Johnson so aptly points out in his book, Big Dead Place, petty politics on the ice costs people money, gets them hurt, and ruins lives. But it is the culture that has been pervasive since the time of Scott. Changing it is a wonderful, unimplementable idea.
Fear is the biggest motivator on the ice. It is the prime mover for nearly everything -- not fear of the elements or an angry God, but fear of Denver.
Now I know what my speedo-clad friend was telling me last year.
And to all of you ice people, if anything I've done has ever brought down the hammer of rusted retribution upon your heads as injuriously as Nicholas Johnson points out in his book -- I'm terribly sorry. I will find a way to make it right and I mean that. Contact me directly. You know how.