I got covered in potato flakes today after being viscerally reminded exactly how close to death we live at every moment here. It was really just a totally typical day at the South Pole.
It was rough morning here in J-12, room 4. I was sleeping heavily when my alarm woke me like a shot at 6:33 which meant that right away I was out of sorts and uncomfortable. You see, my alarm is set for 6 and it had no business waking me as late as it did. I don’t sleep through alarms. I’m a light sleeper even during my heaviest slumbers, and the sound of NPR announcers intoning the news gets me to jump out of my skin without fail. So here, where there is no radio station and I am forced to use the incessant “beep beep beep” that has no volume control, I am scared out of my dreams every day and shocked into reality. It’s actually pretty awful though I am getting used to it. At the time, as confused and sleep addled as I was, all I could think about was how it is pretty impossible that my alarm had been been beeping for half an hour and I slept through it until I shot up all of a sudden at 6:30. I was really confused.
I was also a little annoyed because I like to hit the snooze alarm a few times and, with it as late as it was, I could, but then I wouldn’t have a chance to check email in my room or read the news before the satellite set. So up I got, still feeling weird. I put on coffee and the computer (that combination says something, doesn’t it?) and tried to stretch a bit in what was a very oddly cold room. When the computer finally got going, I couldn’t reach the Internet which gave me no end of frustration. This was turning out to be quite the day.
When I had slugged my way through my coffee — no sense in wasting it — I made my way over to the station where the galley was much fuller than normal and people I know work swing shift were milling around, fully dressed and obviously not on the end of a Monday night bender.
Strange. But whatever. I’d better get my breakfast or this day is really gonna start to suck, I thought.
I began the usual witty banter I have every morning with Joel, the morning production cook who makes eggs to order. Today he had a sign up telling people to ask him how the Chicago Bears had fared yesterday. I couldn’t care less about football, but I know it gets Joel excited so I asked.
“Not too well my friend. Not too well,” he said with a smile.
I guess he was happy about it because he’s a Pats fan and I listened to him gloat for a bit while my eggs fried. Then Carol, the lunch sous chef came over and had that look in her eye that always precedes a sentence that starts with “Charlie, I need…” Before she could get a word out, I told her I needed 10 minutes. It didn’t phase her though.
“I really need my Jasmine rice though Charlie, and I can’t find it, and I’m behind because of the power outage.”
Right, I thought, this is so not my problem. If she can’t find the rice, then it didn’t get ordered and besides, I don’t have to actually work for half an hour. But Carol is incorrigable when she wants some…. wait. Power outage?
I shushed Carol and got my eggs and wandered over to my friends who were gathered in the corner and all much more awake than normal at that time of day. I didn’t even have to ask what was going on. They were happy to regale me with a story that answered all the oddities of my morning.
Apparently, around 5:45, the power generator had quit working and the station lost power. Now, like most power plants, this one has a couple of backup generators just in case such a thing happens, which it does everywhere with more frequency than most people in our energy-addicted culture realize. And this plant being at the South Pole, there are quite a number of back-up generators, for obvious reasons. Apparently, none of them had kicked in automatically and so the entire station and all 240 people on it had been without power for about 45 minutes today.
Wham! Just like that, all my talk of how easy it is to live here went out the window. If we had been without power much longer, everyone on the station would have had to muster in three seperate places (one part of the new building and in two completely different buildings) where emergency generators that are switched on manually in the event of an emergency are located. We would then have had to stay there until either the problem was fixed or planes could get here to take us out. Did I mention that a storm was rolling through and visability was too low for planes to land this morning? In the Jamesways, no one had any idea that any of this was happening because the new station alarms don’t ring out here and someone had decided it was not yet time to wake us and make us all dress in our gear and go muster.
But, the power was already back and everything was fine. We were warm and dry and all was (and still is) right with the bottom of the world. So I got up from breakfast, put my gear back on and went out to the back deck to re-organize the dry goods. There, I encountred an exploded 50-pound bag of potato flakes that quickly got all over me. I spent the rest of the day walking around encrusted in a white paste feeling like one of the heavy shop mechanics whose overalls are always covered in grease; except my grease was white. It was odd enough looking that for most of the day, the second thing people asked me was what I had gotten covered in and how. The first thing was how I felt knowing that there was no backup plan for today’s specific power emergency.
I take it back. Life at Pole is fasicinating.