Inches

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.

Thanksgiving IS it

Leading up to the long Thanksgiving weekend (remember, here two days is a long weekend), there’d been a lot of talk by folks who have been here before about how Thanksgiving is the first time people really do let loose here. Judging by the lack of excitement on Friday night, when Sarah and I were pretty sure it would start, I wasn’t too hopeful for Saturday’s dinner and post-dinner “extravaganzas.”

Let’s start at the beginning though. Friday night is the night I work in the station store for the hour it is open (6 Pm to 7 Pm). The crew is me and my friend from home, Matt. For those of you who know Matt, you can imagine the one-upmanship that is going on behind the counter. Pretty girls, old, grizzled tradesmen, they all get it equally (though differently) from both of us and it’s almost like a mini pre-func in there. Well, this last Friday was gonna be a huge day and we actually had to stay open half an hour late because of the line out the door. When it was all said and done, we sold close to $3000 worth of goods, most of it made up of the new shipment of alcohol that came in that day.

You’d think some of it would have been drunk and parties would have raged that night.

By the time 8 rolled around, I was good and ready to leave the station and head out to summer camp where folks were drinking in the lounge and watching Dazed and Confused. A good enough time, I thought, considering the main theme in that movie is the first day of summer circa 1978. That should get us appropriately riled. The movie ended, the whiskey was passed around and then someone put in an episode of The Simpsons.

Uh-huh, I thought. No way, no how is this gonna get a party started. Sarah (my fellow troublemaker here) and I considered our options and decided some music was needed. IPod came out and more people showed up. Still though, no dancing, no kissing. What gives? Personally, I think it was the light. In a place with 24 hour sunlight, it’s hard for people to get used to the time of day and definitely hard for them to feel comfortable cutting loose and being crazy, even when drunk.

summercamp.jpg
When the swing shift carps showed up for their weekly Safety Meeting (why they have it in there is beyond me), I gave up and went to bed.

Saturday at the station was quiet. A normal lazy Sunday-type day. I got to brunch late after a long and wonderful phone call with ‘Lex and no one was around. Some of the guys from the night before were watching Pulp Fiction and I figured that I could do worse with a Saturday afternoon. It really was nice to laze about on a Saturday and to know that the next day was a day off to. Gosh, we all should always have two days off… Oh, wait, in the real world, you do. What the fuck AM I doing here anyway?

As the afternoon dragged, I went home for my twice-weekly shower and to change for dinner. When I got back to the New Station, I was suddenly thrust into an uncomfortable work party with everyone looking spic and span, glowing from their showers, painted with makeup and wearing oddly clean clothes. Apparently, one of the people I’ve known since Denver didn’t even recognize me when I walked by.

Great. This is gonna get us all to cut loose? Hardly.

After an uncomfortable half hour in the hallway where the Apps were served, we all filed into dinner to see a Galley transformed. Christmas lights and candles on the tables. Tablecloths and even music playing. The sun was actually blocked out and man was it nice. We all sat, the free wine started to flow and things started to look up.

galley.jpg
The meal was really amazing. Fresh, roasted veggies, the obligatory cranberry sauce, marshmallow sweet potatoes, stuffing and three kinds of turkey (roasted, smoked and deep fried). Three pies for dessert and did I mention the free wine?

When we were hustled out after an hour or so so that third seating could have their meal, a lot of us went down to the B1 Lounge to start the party. This lounge is where the games live and the more drunk of us soon, and inadvisably, picked up the Ping Pong paddles for some full-contact Ping-Pong. A poker game got going in another corner and then car bombs were drunk (take a Guinness, pour it into a glass. Poor a shot of Baileys, drop the shot glass into the Guinness. Chug). More Whiskey, an IPod and Tequila. There was still no real dancing (Tim doesn’t count, though he’s fun to watch. So is Jason.) but people were getting more and more loose and plenty of gossip fodder was around for Sarah and I to chew on. Who would R end up with? E or C? Could we do anything for S? Dam! J was looking hot and seems that a few people are noticing THAT.

Of course, the chance to see a Turkey shaved into someone’s chest hair was pretty worthy.

But after awhile, it got old not dancing and we left, in search of something more. What’s this? The Galley has changed again. The tables were pushed back, the music was pumping and a full-on dance party was raging! At last, things were taking off. It seemed the Tequila, the wine, the whiskey, the beer, the whatever had taken hold through the layers of Turkey and stuffing and we had found the party.

Of course, this being the south pole and not a place where people are meant to party, the sound system eventually started to crap out and the music was cutting in and out. I thought that this might kill the buzz all too soon and was trying to find a way to keep the music going when word started to spread.

“We’re going down to the skanky bar. There’s dancing down there.”

Sure enough, a walk down the unheated Beer Can (five stories) to the subterranean (and yes, heated) old gym/new smoking bar found us an honest to god rager. Without windows to let in the evil, evil sun (sorry Seattleites, but contrary to what you think, there is such a thing as too much sun, even in November), the poker in the corner had a seedy feel to it and the dancing in the center had a sexy feel to it. The couches were full of cuddling and kissing and the bar area replete with flirting, not to mention an actual new couple or two. Thank god. At last. A real party I could happily write home about and describe personal debaucheries from. Jesus. A week or two more without this and I’d’a gone nuts.

I woke up this morning still a bit tipsy I think, and dam that felt good. I’m sick of waking up alone, knowing Alexis is 9,500 miles away, but at least last night we both had a lot of fun, celebrating, in our respective places. We weren’t together physically, but I felt her close all night long.

Now it’s Sunday and brunch is calling. I’ve got to get a few pictures together for you all now though, because after eating, Misty and I are crashing the B1 Lounge movie room and watching the first three episodes of Star Wars all afternoon…. Ah weekends, how I miss thee.

Here are a bunch more pictures.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Morning and Night

Happy Thanksgiving! Well, down here anyway, in the godless, lawless, pilgramless Southern Hemisphere it’s Thanksgiving day and since I know that none of you will be at work and few of you will be reading this blog tomorrow, I thought I’d be sure to wish you Happy thanksfgiving before you go off on your 4-day weekend. In case you’re wondering, we also get a long weekend at the South Pole in order to celebrate the day the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock (which is over 10,000 miles away and happened at a time before anyone even knew this continent existed). Yes, we get two whole days in a row off! It’s only a 5-day work week here and I’ll tell ya, the station is abuzz with excitement and anticipation at such unprecedented amounts of relaxation ahead.

Seriously, we are pretty excited. It’s pretty funny how fast we’ve all gotten used to working 6 days and how short 5 can feel.

But that’s not what this post is about (I’ll write about T-Day at Pole this weekend. We have our dinner on Saturday). Some of you (Sean) have asked for more pictures and I have a few saved up of some freak occurances that will be displayed this weeked as well. But yesterday I was walking to work across the flat plain of the South Pole Plateau and some of the man-made mountains of snow struck me. So I took a few shots for you all so you can see my walk to and from work everyday.

First, we have the morning walk (click on the images to get a full view):

morningone.jpg

This is about half-way between my Jamesway and the Station. The Station is behind the smoke on the right (the smoke is the power plant exhaust). On the left is the cargo office and Do Not Freeze storage (DNF). The “mountains” are piles that get moved constantly.

morningtwo.jpg

This is about the same spot looking to my right. The plywood building is the Met office (weather) and the Cryo Lab (where Nick works freezing Helium). In the center is the dome which is slightly behind the arches you can see. One houses the light shop and the other, the heavy shop.

eveningone.jpg

And now it’s nighttime. These were taken last night at 10 PM. No flash. ISO 80. with an F-stop of 8.0 for the geeks out there. Remember, 10 PM.

eveningtwo.jpg

This is the arches from the other side, not far from the station. The building closest is the top of the new power plant.

eveningthree.jpg

The dome. In the foreground (under the snow) is the power plant and the rest of the arches. I walk under all that everyday to go to the dome.

nightshadow.jpg

Finally, this last picture was taken Saturday night shortly after midnight to demonstrate how bright it still was. This is the shortest my shadow has been here.

domeentrance.jpg

And this is just the entrance to the dome. But I love the way the dome looks. In the background, you can see some of the 47 boxes I had to unpack in a week. Before the new station was built, the dome was fiulled with buildings and people lived there.

Hope you enjoy. If there’s anything else you want to see (*like the pole…. soon I will post those pics), lemme know.

This last Sunday had me thinking again about what it means to be here at the South Pole. I know I’ve written about it before, and I’m sorry if I am being repetitve, but I’m in such an odd polace (geographically) that it comes up again and again when I stop to consider I am living and the things I am doing at the same time.

Is it really the amazing thing to do with one’s life that I was thinking it would be? Or is it just another place to live and work where I have to make something out of it fmyself and not expect the adventure to bring learning or growth?

Sure, life here is good. Yes, I have a ton of funny stories about events during dinner and enough pictures of things that I pass each day to fill a coffee table book. There’s also enough to keep me entertained for four months on my off hours that I never need be bored (and in fact, have yet to be). But aside from the location and the drastic weather and amount of sunlight, what’s so different about my life here from that at home (ok, true, at home I don’t drive giant bulldozers with forklifts attached. That IS a plus of being here). Yes, it is pretty amazing to be here at the pole and I would much rather that I spend 4 months living here than be one of the people who pay $30,000 to fly here and spend, at the most, an hour at the pole. But when it’s all said and done, it seems as if the adventure and amazement of being at the South Pole loses its luster after a few weeks and life really does just become, well, day-to-day life. Albeit at the bottom of the world.

I dunno. Is it cooler to play Bingo or Yahtzee at the Soth Pole than in Seattle? Is it more hip to go to Stitch -N- Bitch at the South Pole than to find a group on Criag’s List in New York? Does it make you advetourous to take part in a chess torunament 300 yards from the bottom of the planet? Or is the attraction of life lived here the fact that it’s just like home without the costs of living and the stricutres of societal pressures?

It’s becoming more and more clear to me that there is not much external challenge to living at the South Pole the way there is when you’re travelling and you never know what’s around the next corner. I guess the continuing life experience here, for me, has to be found within myself and the extermal distractions and entertainments have to exist in my life like they do at home: as an escape from the internal. I promise, I really will try to write about something dfifferent tonight. And post some more pictures.