Travels With Oso con Migo

Is There Life After Antarctica?

OAE On The Road Again, New Zealand

November 15, 1996, last letter October 16, 1996

Gentle Readers,

News from the front now back behind me--

Galley operations and Power/Water have been contracted out. Lots of jobs changing. Helo Operations have been contracted out to some Louisiana oil rig outfit. No more Navy flight crews carrying us around as PAX; this new company is flying single engine craft with one pilot, no loadmaster-crew chief--we are now expected to play that role, weigh in and pack cargo, discuss flight with pilot, know how to direct a landing and where the locations of all the emergency shut- offs are, and when to shut them off.

Here is a bit of news that I left out of my last On The Road Again letter, in part cos it was still more rumor than news then, partly cos I wanted time to gather some firsthand information. This report is the result of input from a number of contributors:

"Going postal" is a phrase that has recently entered the vernacular as postal workers succumb to the insanity that plagues their work. Now that insanity has invaded McMurdo.

In early October the W/O Omelette cook went postal. You know Glenn, smiling Good Mornings over the grill on Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday as he concocted his famous Egg McMurdo, for here or to go. Just after breky he went and borrowed a hammer from Chuck, to fix something in his room so the storey goes. Then he went out around and in the back door of the galley and proceeded to hammer on the head of Tony of the Galley, the galley master, supervisor or some-such. A newly arrived person took a few hits as well when he tried to intercede. Everyone else scattered. Glen returned the hammer to Chuck at the Housing Office before he was accosted.

Tony received twenty-some stitches and the other guy has a not a few for his trouble. Glenn does not remember anything. He had only eight days remaining in his contract a few days ago when he suddenly quit; now he is "in restraint" in Hut10 with a guard at the door.

Sheriff Micky Finn, a.k.a. NSF Station Manager, arrested him and three FBI agents will come all the way to McMurdo to escort the perpetrator back to Hawaii for arraignment.

He must have really flipped over something to quit with only a week to contract completion. Needless to say gossip is having a field day.

I went to Hut10 and sat with Glenn--to ask him how he felt, to listen to his storey first hand, to let him know he is not the only one. Glenn is really sorry about this whole affair and we had a good discussion about it; somewhat for my benefit to learn that I was not the only one with feelings of such frustration over the way this place is being run both on a corporate level and on a personal level. I am sorry that Glenn was the one to go over the edge but I truly feel this is a community and a corporate problem. We all have our shortcomings but I feel it is shortsighted of NSF and ASA to believe that the ones most likely to blow up can be weeded out by any sort of evaluation programme nor can this sort of problem be circumvented by limiting liquor sales or bar hours.

There are some fundamental problems with the way labour and management relate here and for the most part it is only that the greater part of the community is intrinsically stronger that we have not had more problems go to this extent.

The FBI agents will stay for a few days to interview everyone related to the incident before they take Glenn back to Hawaii.

Some here obviously couldn't care less. But I care a lot and therein lies much of my frustration--on the one hand, directly with the affairs as they impinge upon me and, on the other, with those others for whom I care but they themselves don't. --How can you not care? I have asked a few. How can you ignore what is truly a community problem? --Not my job, they reply, I ain't getting paid to think and if I spoke my mind I wouldn't have a job.

So there you go. Is this the direction Glenn went too. With only a week to go in his contract he quit. Someone in Personnel (a.k.a. Human Services) offered, somewhat in good faith, to give him a day off if he would come back to work-- Finish up your contract so you don't loose your bonus.

--Do I have to work in the same place? he asked --with the same supervisor and the same conditions? Personnel said yes and Glenn said that it was not worth the bonus to return to those same conditions he'd just quit. The next morning, in what might be called a calm rage, if that's an acceptable oxymoron, he came in with the hammer.

This type of incident, though not nearly so dramatic, has happened from time to time in the past; with the greater use of telephones and email that we have now such news is more easily disseminated.

The publicity over this event may force an honest self examination of policy and law. In SMITH v. UNITED STATES certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit No. 91-1538. Argued December 7, 1992-Decided March 8, 1993:

"After her husband was killed in Antarctica-a sovereignless region without civil tort law of its own-while he was working for a private firm under contract to a federal agency, petitioner filed this wrongful death action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The District Court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, holding that the claim was barred by the FTCA's foreign-country exception, which states that the statute's waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to ``[a]N.Y. claim arising in a foreign country,'' 28 U. S. C. 2680(k). The Court of Appeals affirmed."

We are all watching this.

In another incident just the other day a guy fell out of the back of a pickup as the truck was stopping to let him off. He slipped under the wheel which rolled up over his leg, torso, and off his shoulder. He was un-hurt but for a few scratches and bruises caused more by the pointy rocks than the wide, high-floatation tyre and joked about the whole affair with the doctor as he was examined in the dispensary. But as a result of this we now have yet another rule--No riding in the backs of open trucks! Management makes no comment about increasing the availability of vans or putting more trucks in service.

A week later the rule was emended and expanded with a great deal of detail describing situations when people would be permitted to ride in the backs of open trucks with the bottom line being that no matter who does what in the back of the truck the driver will be held responsible. And a Taxi Service has been initiated.

I had a great winter personally--learnt a lot of new things--but I think the company-NSF-programme had a not so good winter, maybe even a bad winter. There is quite an under current of unrest, dis- satisfaction, frustration, sometimes erupting into anger, over the blatantly stupid management policies of ASA, the directives from NSF and the micro-management from both. Granted some of this is a not unreasonable response to budget cuts however in a large part there is a typical knee-jerk reaction (the key word is jerk) of management playing politics to keep itself entrenched whilst cutting the labour force which is actually getting the job done; then they stand back and scratch their heads in bewilderment when the goals are not met and hire more managers and engineers to study why.

What is really amazing but in some sense bodes well for the programme is that an independent blue ribbon committee think tank study group has recommended to NSF (as the contract comes near to its time for re-bid) that if the company, ASA, is doing so well that it is scoring ninety plus percent in NSF's review process then NSF could save a lot of needed cash by not putting the contract out for bid.

How the company can be scoring so high when there is so much wrong is beyond me. Maybe that is what is meant by Total Quality Management; its all window dressing and NSF sees what it wants to see and hears what it wants to hear.

October 29, 1996, Tuesday, Moving and Packing

Last week I went for helo training. The first thing we learnt is that the machines are called heli not helo. This outfit is out to change the pronunciation from one side of the Mason-Dixon Line to the other. Heli-Ops books flights from the heli-port. --So, ahh, when do we get to fly on the helOs... ;->

Their little A-stars are made in France like the machines the Coast Guard flies here. (So how come if these guys, not to mention the United States Coast Guard, can fly helicopters made in France why is the National Science Foundation constrained to tolerate the inefficient and dysfunctional service provided by American flag carriers when it comes to contracting for vessels in support of the programme?) There is one Huey and four A-stars. The Huey is the same as the model VXE-6 flew, but with more seats. The A-stars are smaller, there is only one pilot position, one engine, less payload. There is also a flock of new rules. A new rule that makes one of the biggest impacts is that no PAX are permitted on flights with sling loads; in many cases this will mean two flights to put in a science party where before one flight would do.

Today I flew to Black Island for my last boon&doggle and the first operational flight of the Huey. Me and Kim the cook and a thousand pounds of groceries going in to feed a summer season of construction. The riggers will be in Thursday by truck and I will leave then.

2nd November 1996 Flying Rats and Bed Slugs

The flying rats have returned to McMurdo and so have I for the last few days of my winter. We first tried on Friday, the day after the riggers drove out in two pickups. They had just barely made it through drifts of soft new snow so we decided not to go right back that same day. On Friday the drifts were bigger but a little more settled, still they were too soft and we bogged down several times before turning back to the island. That night the road crew came out and drag'd the surface so on Saturday morning we had a fast trip back to town. When the road is freshly drag'd fifty mph is easy and what takes six hours by Spryte is only an hour and a half in the sixpac.

Flying rats is our term of endearment for the skuas who come by here in the summer. They are the local scavengers and songbirds in one. Just as the weather is getting warm enough to have a picnic this bird makes eating outside hazardous to your health. Skuas are about the size of seagulls, brown not white, smarter, like crows, which they also sound like. They have been observed to work in pairs to steal penguin eggs and to pass their technique along to others of their kind.

My room is more bare than ever; even most of the tupperware is gone. I have taken apart my little kitchen, which was made up of the head, foot, and side boards of the other bed in my room, and set the two beds up as bunkbeds. To do that I had to look for some bed slugs. There are two kinds of bed slugs. One kind is closely related to couch potatoes. The other is more akin to drift pins and sit in holes at the top and bottom of a matched set of head and foot boards to make bunks. Its a pretty tacky system. The upper sways enough during certain nocturnal activities as to engender seasickness in its occupant while the occupant of the lower is in mortal danger of being crushed. Tony help'd me work out a better system of clamping the upper and lower together and then bracing the whole assembly into the corner with a two by four wedged between the end of the bunk and the washstand. Now the only thing we need is a ladder; in the meantime my new roomie will have to make his ascent with aid from the refrigerator.

11th November 1996 Cargo in the system. Bags ready to drag.

Even as they sub-contract out the galley and the powerplant ASA is taking over the operation of many of the functions formerly handled by the Navy including the shipstore. Except that the company has not the money to buy up the stock. Neither does NSF have the money to buy the stock from the Navy's store operator. So NSF asked the store operator, known by the acronym WMR, to loan NSF the cash to buy the store. Then NSF would in turn grant the money to the company, ASA, to buy the store. Sort of like a home owner taking back a second mortgage so you can buy their house. Well in order for MWR to have the cash to loan to NSF so ASA can buy the store stock from MWR, they, MWR, had more wine flown in on the first flights of station opening, some 8000 pounds, than was delivered during vessel cargo offload back in January--all to be sold during this summer so the loan-purchase can be effected. But while the Wine Bar will operate all summer, and last year it didn't--it was a winter only operation last year--there is still a ration limit of two bottles of wine per person per week in the store. Go figure...

Saturday I placed two aluminium trunks that have been following me around between McMurdo and Palmer for several years now into the U- SA(r)P cargo system. They were accompanied by two wooden boxes (formerly known as Explosives Crates) for a total weight of 294 pounds. Seventy-nine pounds of that was books. When and if I return to the ice I'll start over collecting more junk and books, for now all this stuff can find its way back to the North Country to join the stuff that has been sitting for the past nine years in a Conway storage shed. Big yard sale coming up.

Today was bag-drag. That's when you deliver everything you're checking and carrying, and your self as well (all fitted out in your ECW togs), to be tag'd and weighed in. Can you imagine how long the lines at a commercial carrier's check-in desk would be if they undertook to weigh not only all your check'd luggage but all the people and their hand-carry as well? Passports are inspected and ear plugs issued--there is no soundproofing in the c-130 aircraft (and some would say there are no seats either). Some lucky few will get to stretch out on the piles of orange bags and survival kits during the eight hour flight but the rest of us will have to do our stretching by standing and sitting in place.

November 12, 1996, Tuesday, Lunch in a Brown Bag

Flight KCH001 took off late; they said it was a training mission, just incidental that there were 54 passengers. On each side of the aircraft we sit in two facing rows, knees and toes touching, in so- called seats made of nylon and webbing--no foot rests, no reclining backs, no cabin attendants, no lunch service--there is not room between our knees for a body to get aft to the urinal by the cargo hatch. The best way to deal with that eventuality is to leave your boots on your seat so your neighbors don't take advantage of your absence to flop over sideways and then pirouette between the seat rails, back to the cargo area, where you squeeze between the pallet of checked luggage and the urination station behind a curtain by the port paratroop door. My old yellow van had a funnel just like this stuck through the curb-side rear wheel well. You stood on your knees and held on to an overhead strap. In the c-130 you stand on the slant of the rear cargo hatch and hope that whatever you're hanging on to isn't the Hatch Open handle.

With all the budget cuts in the United States Antarctic (research) Programme the flight lunches have been getting smaller and cheaper over the past couple of years. And I do mean cheaper, not just less expensive. They could be made smaller still from the looks of how much waste there is but then it may be that some folks would go hungry rather than eat what is passed off for a bag lunch these days:

--One PB&J - The PB spread so thin on a slice of stale white bread that dragging a finger nail across it barely collected a taste. The jelly, what little there was of it the night before when the sandwich was made by the under-paid-under-staffed off-shore galley contractor, had soaked into a slice of off colour whole wheat bread to produce a sodden pulp that stuck to the plastic wrapping. In the old days there use to be two sandwiches, one PB&J and one meat and cheese and there was always a little squeeze pack each of mustard and mayo. This time my neighbor, tied up in the next seatbelt aft, had the meat mate to my PB&J. His sandwich consisted of several slabs of dubious animal product mostly piled, they weren't even tastefully arranged, on the upper half of a slice of bread and topped with a slice of typical American single serving cheese product. Let me say right here that the cello wrapper had in fact been removed from the cheese product, a fact not immediately discernible from the taste thereof. Too bad about the animal the meat came from--I mean its not that either one of us was all that much of an out of the closet vegie, just that the meat was so yucky. And there was no mustard or mayo to disguise it with.

--One "juice drink" - One of those mostly water and added sweetener concoctions with trace amounts of several juice concentrates and 100% vitamin C - A Very Low Sodium Food. (Food?) Cran-Raspberry was the product's name but raspberry juice (from concentrate, is higher on the list of ingredients than cranberry juice or cranberry from concentrate. And why is that concentrate moniker so important?

--Box of raisins - ingredients: raisins! The best part of the whole kit! The only item really fit to eat. Sometimes it surprises me that the Great American (processed) Way has not invented a raisin product.

--Container of "pudding" - mostly skim milk with the added indignity of water being the second item but with enough starch, artificial colour and artificial flavour to hold it all together. Plastic packed in plastic to be eaten with a plastic spoon--included.

--One Mounds Bar - Some folks got a small bag of M&M's. Used to be we got a large bar, all of five ounces, of Cadbury's Mint or Cadbury's Almond (now that I've brought up that matter I'm going to have to stop and have a nibble off the last one I've been saving for a couple of years...) but now its this cheap kid-stuff chocolate hardly worthy of the name. I use to like mounds bars, especially almond joy, but that was before I knew any better.

--One commercially prepared package containing two, count 'em 1 - 2, squares of graham cracker--not even any filling between. In the old lunches we'd get a sixpack of Oreos or three oatmeal cookies.

--One package of chips dated 8Jan95 - 14 grams. I could see that this sack originally contained three genuine potato chips that had, over the year and a half since they were dated, been smashed and smooshed into something resembling instant potato flakes. I think this was the only item in the lunch bearing any resemblance to a vegetable.

In the old days there was always an apple, sometimes an orange. I suppose, considering all the starving children in Africa (as my Mum use to say) I was given more than sufficient sustenance for an eight hour flight. I think I'd have to be about that starving to eat it. In point of fact I did survive on the raisins, the chips, half the mounds and two bites from the PB&J--hey, I had to sample a few of the items so I'd know what I was writing about.

So the budget cuts continue--but in all the wrong places.

November 13, 1996, Wednesday, Grass and Trees.

As the plane descended below the scattered cumulus into what I think might be termed the biosphere you could tell right away who among the passengers were returning from a winter, all the Winter-Overs woke up, as if from a nightmare, sniffing the air--was that smoke? No, its _H_U_M_I_D_I_T_Y_! ! !

Outside the terminal, after immigration and customs, I knelt in the first little traffic island and petted the grass and smelled some flowers. Nearby was a tree--I hugged it. A couple of cops coming off duty walked past --Must have just come off the ice, one said to the other.

Actually this winter was not all that bad with the greenhouse being functional the whole time. There was ample opportunity to breathe the humidity and smell the lettuce, even eat the lettuce a few times a week. That is one thing that is a far cry better than my first winter when I wrote ...

         Three Bean Salad- One.
         It means the freshies are all done.
         Soon, with the passing of the sun,
         We'll Three Bean Salad all the way
         'Til by its light the planes find day
         To bring us lettuce for our pay.
         Of Three Bean Salad there is more,
         It's getting to be such a bore;
         One bean two bean three bean
         Mung bean string bean fling bean!
         They're piled in the corner, and
         Strewn upon the mess hall floor,
         Hanging tapestry from the I beam
         My night-mares are three bean dreams.
         Quoth the skua even: "No more!"



Stay Gold, bcnu, Love, me

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