I am on my back in bed at the south pole. I can’t get the room temp above 56 degrees. My fingers are cold and it’s getting hard to turn the pages of the paperback in my hands. New York Times bestseller, folded, spindled, and mutilated by god knows how many readers who thought they were the last. The popular books are the ones bearing a variety of colorful stains across the pages. This is a chick book. I’m guessing most guys on station wouldn’t touch it – “A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing”. The reason I took it from the library was the blurb comparison on the back cover between it and “A Catcher in the Rye” which I like and so does everyone else. It would probably do me good to understand women more than I do. The following is all I know:
All boys are pyromaniacs. All women are firemen.
A Herc lands and pulls up to the refueling area. There’s a noise I can’t make go away by denial. Whirling feathered props. If I poke my head into the window opening and crane my neck I can see it sitting there, four engines blasting away. There’s no contrail on the ground, so I know the outside temp has gone above -40.
I’m on my back on a bed at the south pole. I read a couple more pages. My room is chilly and it’s bothering me that I’m still cold through four layers and big wooly socks. They say this will make me thinner, this perpetual shivering.
Today I had another love affair with the polar plateau. I dug a quarter-mile trench between the ARO building and our device with a pick axe and filled in the snow pit Tony and I dug last Saturday. The trench was for the Teflon cable carrying the data from the device. The device was in the pit. I covered it. It was three hours of heavy lifting. Shoveling snow and chopping through blue ice. I got the afternoon free as a result. Now I should be napping, but instead I’m freezing and reading about the men in a woman’s life. Fiction. So they’re not even real. They’re imagined relationships. Tiny fires started all over New York city that flare like burning rags on the sidewalk and go out in a puff of luminescent smoke in the rain. It can’t be that simple. Real life doesn’t work like novels that are created by editors and authors. Real life isn’t entertainment for the population. Real life is full of cries for morphine and trips to the burn unit. Skin grafts.
All men start fires. All women burn.
‘What have I done with my life?” The song comes through my headphones.“Worlds Collide” by Inspiral Carpets. I think of those lyrics every time I get into one of these situations where I’m a million miles away from home and depending on mountaineering gear for comfort. This happens more often to me than normal people. Lots of things happen, and some I do on purpose.
I could talk to you about starting fires to keep warm. I know how to light a whisper-lite stove. I know how to dig a sleeping trench and build an igloo. I know how to detect the signs of hypothermia and the best ways to stave it off. I can start fires almost anywhere.
When the tips of my fingers go numb I get out the beige long underwear I carry but never wear every time I go to Antarctica. Now I know a use for it. I cram it into the air vent in the ceiling. It’s really not doing any good as a cold air dam, but I feel better having committed an act of defiance against the federal government. I know at NSF HQ in Washington someone looked at a table of numbers and decided they could save a few extra bucks by letting us freeze in our rooms. After all, we’re each decked out with extreme cold weather gear. We’ve all been trained in cold weather survival. We should enjoy our 56 degrees positive. Fire is dangerous on the ice. Better to live without it.
It’s almost a hundred degrees colder outside.
A few more pages. The chapter relates the narrator’s affair with a man almost three times her age entitled, “My Old Man”. I thought it was going to be about her father, and I’m almost finished with it when the call goes out over the station P.A. that the freshies for the winterovers have arrived and all hands are called to the upper deck to form a bucket brigade chain to help with the unload. It takes an hour. I get to chat with some of my acquaintances who ask me how I’m enjoying my time at pole, and they joke around that I’d better like it because I could wind up being here a long time.
“At least we’re not eating the ponies,” one says to me. We unload about six-hundred pounds of potatoes. A couple hundred dozen eggs. Onions. Apples. Ginger. I saw carrots and pears go by.
Another – “They tell us winterovers when we sign up that they never want to hear us complain about three things -- the cold, the dark, or the furniture.” The speaker is the lab tech for the icecube project. I was in awe their project was so well appointed. They all had the latest, highest-end Dell computers. Satellite phones. Their area in the communal lab was outfitted with thousand-dollar apiece Hermann Miller Aeron chairs while the rest of us were sitting on unpadded metal stools.
“Damn, we’re sitting on old airplane parts and you guys have dot-com chairs,” I say.
“The furniture –“ he repeats, and holds an upright index finger across his lips.
On my desk is a thermos travel mug I bought at the South Pole store. On it is a line drawing of the pole station and the words, “South Pole Station, Antarctica.” I’ve always thought it was a bit self-referential to use logo items when you’re at the place the logo comes from. Kind of kitsch. Like wearing mouse ears at Disneyland. Trouble is, most of us here are painfully free of the standard resources we have at home, so if I want a nice hot cup of anything here in my room that’s about as warm and cozy as the Crystal Cave in Kutztown, Pa., then I have to use what I can find. So now I have tea steaming beside me in a travel mug I’ll use when I get back home, that no one will see or comment upon. Tea to warm the cold in my bones, to compliment the endless fire drills.
Four-thirty AM. The P.A. "A fire has been detected in the main station. Please stand by for further instructions."
I kick my feet over the edge of my bed. I'm in a stupor. It usually takes me 15 minutes to get dressed for -40. In that time I’ll either burn or freeze to death when I’m forced outside in my sleeping clothes. Which will it be?
The PA: “A fire alarm has sounded in Summer Camp.” A guy in a Scott airpack walks briskly past my window. All men are boys are pyromaniacs. A woman goes by in Carhartts, holding a hatchet, quite possibly the only implement that can be used to stop a polar fire. "Stand down from the main station fire alarm. Stand down."
I can't go back to sleep. Neither can anyone else.
They’re using curry on everything we eat now. At eleven-thousand feet you can’t taste things as well as you can at lower altitudes, so almost everything is spiced to the hilt. So hot you sweat. Today for lunch I had Thai coconut milk soup, a pork tamale, and Mexican steak, all of which is now doing lighting my gut to match the blaze I set in my throat. But more interestingly it makes all of us smell the same.
We’re only allowed two, two-minute showers per week at pole. That means that at any point in time someone is smelling unwashed and lately that smell is pretty much the same as the Carrot Satay soup we had last night, which is what I’m smelling like.
Not only do we smell the same, but it equalizes our bathroom habits. I’ve also heard that the cycles of all the women on station synchronize. That makes everything easy. Everyone PMSes at once. Work can be scheduled around it. It turns out that 90% of cargo operations at the south pole is handled by women. They drive all the heavy machinery and move all the heavy stuff. The reason for this, as explained to me by a high ranking polar official, is that statistically speaking a woman is 80% less likely to drive her forklift into the side of a moving aircraft than a man. She’s less likely to drop things because she’s driving her front-end loader too fast. And men, who make up 90% of the served science population here at pole, are less likely to become viciously aggressive toward a woman who climbs from the seat of a payloader to ask what the problem is. Women don’t cause the chaos men do.
I walk down the hallway and there’s a group of firemen standing at the foot of the stairs to the galley. One of them is on the ground feigning injury. The fire alarms have been going off all over the station. All of them are drills or false alarms, which is a good thing because fire is the number one danger here – not cold. We are all reminded that a couple years ago the base at Rothera burned to the ground in its entirety. The air is dry and cold. Almost everything is made of wood and water doesn’t work well as an extinguisher because it either freezes or vaporizes before it can get to the source.
The fireman on the ground smiles and yields to me. I tell him not to bother. I can climb over. He gets up, smiles, and says, “You’re next,” the sort of comic, latent, indirect threat everyone makes around here. People don’t even know they’re doing it.
I am – I think – I was. It’s too late.
The Herc takes off, headed north to McMurdo station. Now all I can hear is the distant rumble of Caterpillar D9s and the drone of the generators. Thursday I will get on a Herc for home. Today, though, I watch them go.
At lunch the two science techs helping with our project started talking about their homes and the winter ahead. They’re both w/o’s and neither of them had ever been to Antarctica before signing the one-year commitment. They reminded me that even though the temps are going down and the flights are all overbooked, not one person has ever been forced to winter-over because of delayed flights or weather.
“Good,” I say. “You guys are probably happy to have all of us gone so you can get on with your winter fun. Well, this summer when I’m out in my shorts and t-shirt I’ll be thinking about you guys down here in the minus 100.”
They both looked at the table. Pushed food around their plates with forks.
“Come on. You’re in for a great adventure. And then in November you go home.” That was me, saying that.
“It’s February,” says Neil, the younger of the two techs. He went back to staring at the table. Bob made some comments about being happy to be away from New Jersey. Great place to be from.
Neil says, “Log onto a machine in the computer lab. You go to the communal storage disk -- you’ll see a program called ‘The Doughnut of Misery’. What you do is plug in your deployment and redeployment dates, and it makes all sorts of colorful charts letting you know how much time you have left down here. Nice colorful charts.”
“Kind of soon for you to be thinking about redeployment,” I say. “I mean, you knew what you were getting into when you signed up…”
“They told us it was going to be cold and dark and lonely,” Bob says, “and I’m ready for it. I really am. But you know, when you’re home you’re thinking, ‘Pole. Way cool.’ Then you get here and all you’re doing is digging holes in the ice...”
Neil says, “Yeah. All I do is move holes from one place to another.”
“Not to mention the furniture—“ says me, trying to be funny and getting exactly no laughs.
Right away I’m thinking that these guys have to get past our springtime, our summer, fourth of July fireworks, fall pumpkin season. It’s a long time to be in the cold and the dark. I don’t say it, though.
“Nine days till station close,” says Neal, and I calculate I’ll be gone in three. Now I feel like I’m retreating like a coward from the battlefield.
“My BP…they probably wouldn’t let me winter,” I say. I can’t get my eyes off the table.
This morning when I woke up I dreamed the last plane had left and I was stuck here for nine more months. The sunshine that is my lifeline was going to dim, flicker, and then go out for a long time. This very room will be illuminated only by the overhead lamps. Outside it will be cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide. No planes will land. No supplies will come in.
Nobody’s ever involuntarily wintered at pole. I told myself that a couple times but it didn’t sink in. I had e-mails from the north that reminded me I had to get up there. I have issues to resolve. Love forestalled. Contracts to break and others to sign. Taxes to do. Torn between islands of ice and islands of sun. Forward is somewhere. A path I must get onto. Down here I’m just rotting meat, barely warm, trying to keep a tiny fire lit inside my chest against all odds, trying stay fresh until the next plane in.
A long-time polie once told me that during the winter relationships between polies are highly discouraged for the simple fact that they tend to be ephemeral and when the couple realizes it wasn’t love they were in, but rather, some form of unstable lust, the breakup reverberates throughout the community. And “I never want to see you again,” can’t be realized. Because you have to see whomever again until you redeploy. Once that fire is started, there’s not enough foam or powder on station to put it out. Fire is the enemy of all polar inhabitants.
But we are human and not ice. Life is something warm, and we’ll do anything to preserve the flame.
Being love-lost on the ice is a horrible, hollow living death, like being sentenced to ride the rollercoaster at Disney World, chained to the seat from one birthday to the next. Anything force-fed becomes poison. It’s clear to me the only respite to the man on ice is a smoldering heart. And unfortunately, to fight the infinite cold, you have to start a pretty big fire there. Real life is not a page-turner. You have to look closely to see it happening and then things burn until they’re hopeless and there is no alternative to warming yourself at the fireside. We start fires, and sometimes they grow till they’re not ours anymore and an entire brigade has to be called out to dig firebreaks.
Every polie gets fire training. But enemy of the polar explorer is the salvation of the soul. We burn everything. Sometimes we don't realize we're doing it.
I brush my teeth in the men’s room. Step up to the urinal. Beside me is a fireman. His face is red and dry from cold and he smells like snow. He's wearing a bright yellow reflective harness and a helmet with the face shield tipped up.
“Were any of those alarms real?” I say, because we accidentally made eye contact.
“All of um,” he zipps. “All the time. All real. Whole fucking place is a bomb waiting to go off. You wouldn't believe how many times we've kept it from going up. Matter of time. ” He leaves without washing his hands, and I wash mine, watching him in my mirror gather his air tank and walking out the door.
Look into my own eyes. You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror when you’re on fire. As much as it scares me, I let myself think it.
Sooner or later we'll burn down Antarctica, and there'll be nowhere left on earth for us.
South Pole Station - Feb 7, 2006