My First Antarctic Winter/Over, McMurdo, AQ


Ross Island Dependency    Letters from Antarctica      page...9

 Feeling better these days; I have been imbibing some of Keith's vitamins: 5000% RDA/MDR of several B complex, 10,000 IU of C and E not to mention lesser amounts of A, D, F'n G... overdoses of Iron and Selenium and Magnesium; I feel like an amorphous photovoltaic array. Can't hardly wait for the sun and the hole in the ozone.

Another day of lousy comms at MARS now complicated by the loss of the tape reader that transmits the messages. We can still receive them, when an operator is available stateside, but cannot transmit. Several people are working to circumvent the Navy red tape and get something rigged to get us back on the air. The equipment in use now is a Teletype model 40 and it uses cassette tape for mass storage. Something in the tape decks burns up and the Navy shop is out of parts and out of spares. We are going to try to use a PC but the first problem is that none of the communications routines in the PCs here will go slow enough for the TTY equipment the rest of the MARS operators use. There are several other complications on top of that but with the number of people working on it we should have something working buy the time the spare parts for the Mod 40 arrive in October.

Deep Freeze CrestI am a Hero of the Antarctic Night. I have a medal to prove it. Last night, Wednesday the thirteenth, Keith, wearing his National Science Foundation Senior Representative hat, presented the Antarctic Service Medals with due Pomp and Circumstance. The medallion looks to be gold; on the obverse, in bas-relief, is a properly attired heroic figure standing upon a desolate icy plain and on the reverse, the bold words COURAGE SACRIFICE DEVOTION overlay and mostly obscure an outline map of this southernmost continent surrounded by a hint of seals and fishes and wiggly lines. A brass bar on the ribbon is graved with the words WINTERED OVER.

Actually, not much of a hero; everyone here got one. Even the Summer Support get the medal but only the Winter Overs get the Winter Over bar. If you Winter Twice you get a Gold Bar, three times gets you a Silver Bar. I haven't quite figured out why that more is silver. You might expect the greater the service the greater the implicit value of the bar. My first impression of this dichotomy was if you Winter Over twice you must be extraordinary; three times and your a fool.

Antarctic Service MedalKeith said the medal was not a reward for the loneliness, homesick, hardworking people, nor a reminder of the long, dark, cold night, the spectral beauty of aurora australis, the bonding of love for one another that develops in times of stress and common cause; but rather for the courage to eat the summer-camp food, the sacrifice of going without summer and the devotion of tolerating politically inspired leadership. Not quite as much wind at Black Island the past few days; the Wind Charger has let the battery down to 89% and if it doesn't start to blow out there soon I may have to make the dreaded "Winter Traverse". I would look forward to such an adventure but most of the couch-potatoes in town would rather stay close by their VCRs.

Well wouldn't you know it. The wind is blowing and the charger is working. So much for that crisis.

On the Call-In-Your-Questions-To-The-Boss-From-The-Anonimity-Of-Your-Telephone Radio Show the continuing argument continued this week. The overriding problems of American society boil to the surface rapidly in such a small and isolated community as this.

If McMurdo has such a drinking problem and in the screening process to come here so much is made of the potential problem that one might have, why is alcohol so freely available here? That's a good question. The answer is not so straight forward.

It has to do with Choice.

So if I choose to not drink beer why is there not more soda? How come we ration the soda? Again, a good question. There was some grumbling in the soda queue last night... "I can't wait to get home so I won't have to stand in line out in the cold just to buy a damn soda..." There is not enough soda because it takes the ships store several years to recognise the trend away from beer and order enough soda to take us through the winter.

We just completed the construction of two new clubs (read bars; dark, smoky, noisome places where Americans typically like to "drink") replacing two old building with expanded facilities; with all the emphasis on physical fitness why don't we have a proper gymnasium with a pool? Probably the best question of the evening and it evoked the least satisfactory but most typical and likely answer. It takes years to plan, contract, and construct a facility here. There is a plan for a gym, but other things are more important.

The nitty-gritty of the problem of the winter-over isn't alcohol, though alcohol is one of the major factors when the problem is brought into focus, it is segregation. Not the segregation of the sexes, nor that of the races; those issues pale to insignificance when overshadowed by the greater problem of Green vs. Red. And that has nothing to do with Greenpeace and the Russians at Vostok station.

Red is the colour of the ANS issue parka. ANS is the contractor, a part of ITT, working for the National Science Foundation to build buildings, provide for the scientist, administer the research....Green is the Navy. NSFA. NAVSUPPFORANTARCTICA. Naval Support Force Antarctica (the Navy likes acronyms, they have acronyms for acronyms here, they like acronyms almost as much as they like doing everything in the most inefficient, most labour intensive way possible. Nothing like keeping everyone busy standing in line...)

Red/ANS, The Company, Civilian, Contractor, has a party fund. Entertainment money. When the company has a party or a picnic (not unlike the company picnic or the Christmas party your company has) the company buys the beer; the station manager mixes the drinks.

Green/Navy, Support Force, Military, still in a sense a contractor for the National Science Foundation, but not the lowest bidder to be sure, has no party fund. The Navy is not permitted to buy the beer. (Interesting aside here: they are permitted to accept gifts of several tens of cases of beer and distribute it as they see fit.)

The net result here is that there is an Obstacle in the way of any party/picnic that is to involve the Entire Community. Certainly a community wide good time is a desirable thing but if the Red were to use up all its party fund buying beer for the Navy there would be nothing for the next party. And the Navy is not allowed to buy the beer.

What is this fixation with alcohol anyhow?

It's not just beer. There's the Galley. In the kitchen, the Navy contracts with Fisher Catering, a Kiwi company, to do some of the cooking and cleaning up. As an observer on the other side of the food line I am not always sure what "some" means. There are also Navy people back there. I believe the Kiwis are doing their best and the Navy people, as individuals, are likewise doing their best. What we are mostly dealing with here are matters of taste and there is no accounting for that. But the persistent rumor, occasionally substantiated by tantalising tidbits you see going by in the local gossip factory, that there is better food in the storage locker but we cannot get at it because the summer support went over budget...

I have had worse at Scout Camp so I'm not hurting. Personally, I'd rather have my beer at lunch rather than in the dim noisy club. But that too is a matter of taste.

I think the real problem is in the dinning room anyhow. In the winter we all eat together; the Greens and the Reds mix to some degree here more than anywhere else in the station. But in the summer, there is the "E" side and the "O" side for the Greens whilst the Reds can use either side. I tried them both, being of the privileged Reds; I consistently found the coffee better on the "E" side but somehow I just liked to sit and eat on the "O" side. I don't know if it was the colour scheme or the lighting, the smaller size of the room; both sides were just as smoky, for all the good "NO SMOKING SECTION" does. Sometimes even the food was better on the "E" side. Or there was a greater range of choices. I found I was not the only one who would eat on the "O" side but get my coffee from the "E" side. I don't understand it but I am happy to be able to make that choice.

Then there is the problem of the hole in the dump fence. First, let me add that there didn't use to be a fence around the dump until this summer. Plastic bags of whatever piled up until they were burned once a week just like at home. You were reminded it was Saturday cause you could smell the dump burning. Now there is a hole in the fence. Itís a hole big enough to drive a truck through.

I'm not gonna fix it, it's not my job. I'm not gonna fix it, I don't have the time. I'm not gonna fix it, cause in six or eight weeks I won't be here and it will be someone elseís problem. Besides I'm too busy washing the floor to get ready for inspection to be bothered about all the garbage blowing out of the dump across the island to get frozen into the ice. It'll give the environmentalists something to complain about.

Or, from another point of view: We can't fix it, it's not in the budget. Or, The Navy has the manpower, the heavy equipment, and the responsibility but the Contractor, ANS, won't release the material. And then NSF wonders why Greenpeace is such an antagonist.

Red has the material. Green does the work. Depending on one thing or another, sometimes it's the other way round. But it's a stupid way to run a business.

We're all in this together folks, and we have our priorities screwed up! Again. As usual. Still.

22 July... well! The sky is getting positively hasty about sunrise! Brighter all the time. You can see by where the new moon points about where the sun is below the horizon. Less than a month till sunrise and Winfly then we all get colds with the next batch of mail and all the germs that will land. I think we're expecting a hundred people, all with noses running in different directions.

Tuesday last I did a reading of some of my favourite poems from the book of Robert Service. By popular demand, they wouldn't let me out of the hall until I complied, I read a few of mine too. Good thing I had them all typed and ready to go, eh. It was fun once I got started. Getting started was the hard part, I'd never done a thing like that. I had a glass of wine on the podium just in case I got a dry throat with all that reading. I had the rest of the bottle under the podium in case the audience didn't know enough to applaud.

Now that I have spent my entire vacation allowance of eleven hundred dollars on the EMAIL experiment NSF is going to contract with the INMARSAT for a leased line. Next year it will cost only a dollar a minute. I must learn to be patient...

Something I missed telling about in all the excitement... Back in the middle of July we had an Art Show. I entered several string figures stuck onto some painted cardboard. I gave my work third prise after first went to Joe's McNopoly and second to Kevin's stick figure cartoons.

The real work, the work I get paid for, has been pretty slow the past couple of weeks but the pace begins to quicken as we move closer to Winfly. Each day is lighter and some folk are counting days; I'm still counting months.

Here is the best info I can find about the winter over 88 population of Antarctica:

                                                 W/O 88
                               COUNTRY          POPULATION
SOUTH POLE STATION                US                19
PALMER STATION                    US                19
MCMURDO STATION                   US               192
BASE SAN MARTIN                   ARGENTINA         15
BASE ESPERANZA                    ARGENTINA         29
BASE JUBANY                       ARGENTINA         11
CASEY STATION                     AUS               32
DAVIS STATION                     AUS               24
MAWSON STATION                    AUS               28
COMMANDANTE FERRAZ                BRAZIL            12
BASE CAPITAN ARTURO PRAT          CHILE              8
DAKSIN GANGOTRI                   INDIA             15
SYOWA STATION                     JAPAN             29
ASUKA STATION                     JAPAN              8
SCOTT BASE                         NZ               12
GREAT WALL                        CHINA             15
SANAE STATION                     SOUTH AFRICA      15
MIRNYY STATION                    RUSSIA            67
MOLODEZHNAYA STATION              RUSSIA           129
VOSTOK STATION                    RUSSIA            29
BELLINGSHAUSEN STATION            RUSSIA            25
LENINGRADSKAYA STATION            RUSSIA            18
RUSSKAYA STATION                  RUSSIA            12
ROTHERA STATION                   BRITIAN           12
HALLEY STATION                    BRITIAN           19
SIGNY ISLAND STATION              BRITIAN           12
FARADAY STATION                   BRITIAN           12
CAMPBELL                           NZ                6
MACQUARIE                         AUS               20
CAPE EVENS                         G.P.              4


Well, that's enough for July. Now it is August and time to start the next letter from Antarctica...

Love, Thole


This letter is COPYRIGHT by Alfred J. Oxton, 1988-2009, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.

No portion may be reproduced by any means without my express written permission.

 A.J.Oxton, OA, OO, OAE,  k1oIq

Evil Al The Network NARC

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