Life at McMurdo Station – Copyright 1999 – Jack W. Cummings
As we disembarked the VX-6 Super Connie, we were greeted with the winds and blowing snow of the ground storm that had enveloped the ice runway just prior to our landing. We were glad we had not waited till now to change into our cold weather clothing. We made our way to some sort of staging area where we waited for transportation into “Mac Town”. Our transportation arrived and we climbed into the back of a canvas covered “six by”. I had seen many of these Army trucks in World War II movies and documentaries, but had never ridden in one. All I can recall about the ride is that it was long, cold, and bumpy.
Once we were settled into our temporary quarters; a small Quonset hut sparsely equipped with several double bunk beds and mattresses, with a kerosene space heater for heat, we commenced the next waiting period. As I stated before, transportation into and around Antarctica is controlled by the weather. Therefore, flights to the outlying stations are only scheduled when there is sufficient reason to go. And weather can cancel the flight at the last minute, and even after the flight is in the air.
Since we were newcomers, there were not many places around Mack Town where we were really welcomed, besides we knew that it would be just a matter of time until we were flown out to our final destination. My visiting would be limited to; main communications, the mess hall, the chapel/library and occasionally a visit in one of the barracks, with someone whom I had met during our training in Rhode Island. It was also difficult to pass the time sleeping as the sun seemed to hover above the horizon as it circled the station, providing daylight 24 hours a day, about the only time it went out of site was when it was hidden by Mt Erebus. Hanging out at the mess hall was not encouraged as people were being fed at all hours. I can’t remember the food being that great, but there was plenty of it. The population was growing as the summer support personnel and scientists arrived and the station was in transition. I can’t really remember how many days I spent in McMurdo as day and night were seamless. Most of my waking hours were spent in the library listening to their very nice collection of 33 1/3 records. (I recently read that the old vinyl records are being transferred to CD minidisks and then will be destroyed, sounds like their collection goes back to the early days.)
Probably the greatest shock was my introduction to an Antarctic toilet. The main facility was built on a hill overlooking the bay. The first site that greeted you as you arrived from Williams field was the yellow glacier that emanated from this side that faced the shore. I guess the theory was that the glacier that formed over the winter would melt in the summer and flow into the bay. The other part of the facility (number 2) consisted of a wooden seat, with a half of a large fuel drum beneath. Once filled, the drum was hauled out onto the bay ice, to wait for the summer melt, or for the ice to breakup and float out to sea. Anytime anyone entered the facility, especially if the wind was blowing, the change of air pressure created a draft around the toilet seat. Needless to say, not a lot of time was spent there contemplating ones fate. These filled drums were referred to as “honey buckets”. This was the system that was in use all over the Antarctic, and continued for many years. On the outlying stations, everyone got to participate in the “changing of the honey buckets” at least once during their stay.
Because most stations did not have a bar or lounge where one could go and socialize, there seemed to be “unwritten” permission to keep beer in ones quarters, it was usually stored under their bunk, as the cold floor kept the contents pretty close to the right drinking temperature. I imagine that in later years this “policy” changed. Usually work shifts, especially in the summer, were 12 hours long and seven days a week. Not a whole lot of time was left to party.
Sometime in October, all conditions seemed right for the next flight to Hallett Station, and besides there were some VIPs that wanted an excuse to visit the base. The spit of land that jutted out into the bay, which looked like a large comma, was home to one of the largest accessible Adélie penguin populations on the continent (50 to 80 thousand). We were shuttled out to Williams field where we boarded the squadron’s R5D for the nearly 400 mile flight north to Cape Hallett. Our destination would be the ice runway on Moubray Bay. The R5D was very nice inside, as it doubled as the Admiral of Commander Naval Support Forces Antarctica’s flagship. The commercial version of the R5D was the DC-6 airliner. I do not recall if this plane was equipped with skis, it probably was. After dropping us off at Hallett, the R5 soon returned to McMurdo. Planes did not loiter at outlying stations, for obvious reasons. Little did the VIPs that stayed for a longer visit realize that they would soon be the victims of another phenomenon that plagued flight operations on the ice; the ionosphere, or lack of it. But that story will come later. Our transportation, into the station (a mile or two), was provided by a World War II tracked vehicle called a weasel. The VIPs rode inside, with the sailors behind in an open sled, with the luggage. The weather was nice and we had the better view, and I thought this a more appropriate way to end our trip. We arrived just around suppertime, after we ate, we settled in to our quarters to begin our winter-over. (
Next: Part IV – Summer at Cape Hallett)