My Antarctic Adventure – Part VI

Into the Dark  –  Copyright 1999 Jack W. Cummings

Before we moved to the Northwest in 1974, I had not thought much about the length of days and nights as we moved through the seasons. Since I left the Antarctic, I had been stationed in latitudes closer to the equator where the difference between night and day are not too different. We moved here in the June and I thought, gee, how nice it is to have such long days, almost 16 hours long. But then it got closer to winter and wow! I was leaving home to go to work in the dark and getting home in the dark. It started to remind me of the Antarctic.

Although I do noSummer Dayt recall the exact day the sun left us, it was somewhere during the middle of May. Sure we would have twilight for a few minutes each “night” until August, it was not something we went outside and made a big deal about. Besides, who was going to get up at midnight to see it? Two events associated with the sun are to be celebrated next: the “mid-winters night” party, and the first appearance of the sun in August.

Why celebrate “mid-winter”? For those wintering over it marks the halfway point to our return home. We had a cook at Palmer Station in 1965 that had his own way of marking time; the first day of the month meant that that month was almost over and we could now look forward to the next.

Mid-winter’s celebrations, as far as I know, date back to much earlier expeditions. Small crews dictated long workdays and in some cases  7-day workweeks. So by the time mid-winter arrived, everyone was ready for a party. Dress was as kooky as one could come up with, and yes there was plenty of food, refreshments and dancing. Lacking any females on the crew, we reluctantly danced with each other. We must have been a sight! On some stations, this celebration usually meant it was time for some “harmless” fun. With three Kiwis on board, the pranks got very innovative.

The major prank that evening went so far as to convince the station Officer in Charge, that there was a mutiny afoot. Several “hooligans” had locked him in his quarters and cut the power to his lights for the better part of the night. When he “escaped” in the morning, he immediately sent a message to his superiors in McMurdo advising them of “Mutinous action at Hallett Station”. In the message he accused one of the crew who had somehow broken his leg dancing early in the evening, passed out and was carried to his bed to sleep it off, hardly a likely candidate to have participated in the evenings tomfoolery. Later in the day, during a voice conference, the McMurdo Commander managed to diffuse the situation for what it was, a mid-winter’s night prank. To my knowledge, the “hooligans” were never caught and brought to justice.

The next time the O-in-C “feared for his life” was on the 4th of July. Knowing how the Americans loved to celebrate the 4th with fireworks, one of the Kiwis whose specialty was in explosives “fired” off the next round. Using a weather balloon and a shape charge (dynamite used for opening holes in the winter ice), he was able to calculate the rate of ascent in relation to the amount of fuse needed so the charge would go off at a safe altitude over the station. To me it sounded like it went off at about ten feet above the radio shack, where I was on watch. Needless to say it brought everyone out of the building they were in, including the O-in-C, who cleared his quarters faster than anyone. This was to be the last of the major pranks.

There was a rash of “local” booby traps that were occasionally set. These were in the form of small “bombs” made up of match heads stuffed into a small container and then detonated when a door was opened or the “bomb” was tossed in the air and made contact with the floor, usually along side a sleeping person. The effect of the explosion was made more dramatic if the match heads were mixed with chad. Chad is the little paper circles that are punched out, in the preparation of Teletype tape, somewhat like confetti. Of course there were times when these bombs did not go off, and fell into the “victims” hands. This usually resulted in a few sleepless nights until the device was returned to its maker, fully operational. Rarely in those instances did the firing mechanism fail a second time!

Some sleeping quarters had doors that opened into the main room of the building. One of the meteorologists came home from the nightly movie to find a completely filled weather balloon occupying his room. I’ll let you figure out he resolved that issue.

One of the sailors in the crew was especially fond of the opera “Aida” and we often wondered why, as we would all have pegged him as more of a country and western fan. One night, when we were all getting to the point to where we could tolerate Aida, we found out where his fondness came from; a lady, who had subsequently dumped him. Right in the middle of one of our favorite passages, there came the horrible sound of the needle being viscously raked back and forth across the record. Our crewman had been drowning his sorrows and had obviously had enough memories of the lady, and Aida! To this day I can not listen to that opera without thinking of that scene.

“Ham” radio played a big part in our morale. It was the only way we could receive news from home, whether it was good or bad. One especially loyal friend was Walt Nettles, (W0AJL) out of Denver, Colorado. Walt owned and operated a radio parts store in downtown Denver, and when I returned home, I made a special trip to Denver to visit him. There are amateur radio operators throughout our nation who have made an avocation out of providing those vital links between the Antarctic stations and home. Their expenses come out of their own pockets, and they are so very loyal. Walt would go so far as to take letters that my parents sent to him, have them “cut” into a Teletype tape and would then transmit them to me on our next schedule. Just the other day I received a monthly letter from a member of the winter—over crew at Palmer station. In his letter he related that in the works for next summer was the upgrade of their satellite link that would permit full time access to the Internet, email, telephone and television. In a way, for me, this is sad, because the attraction of the “ice” was, in part, the isolation, the getting away from the troubles of the world.

In the early days of exploration of the Antarctic, amateur radio operators throughout the world coveted the “QSL” card, confirming contact with an Antarctic Station. Most were content just to receive one card that confirmed voice contact. As a radioman whose bread and butter was Morse code, I would occasionally bring a transmitter up on a frequency not normally used for these Antarctic transmissions. This would be akin to fishing at a fish hatchery. One hook in the water and you had twenty strikes! I would usually send out a “CQ” (general call) using a speed key at about 28 words per minute. To receive a confirmation of a contact of this type was like gold to most amateurs. Of course they all usually responded by asking me to “QRS” SLOW DOWN!

I would be remiss if I did not mention that almost everyone drank a little too much beer. It was cheap, available, and its consumption was not heavily regulated. The radio shack seemed to be a favorite “alternate” location for this activity. After a while, nature would call, and not wanting to walk to the “head” in the dark of night or depth of a storm, this call was usually answered by opening the back door (which opened inward) and using the snow bank that had drifted up against the door and which was about waist high. It never dawned on me and the other radioman that someday this accumulation might melt and become a problem! I will never forget that one of my last duties as the junior radioman was to remove the “yellow glacier”, with a pick and shovel, before the spring melt started.

Finally, the morning arrived that the sun was to return. This was a big deal, and not something that was to be missed. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and we were soon bathed in that beautiful glow for a few minutes before the sun slipped below the horizon. The light this first sunrise cast on the new icebergs that had come in during the winter was spectacular and added to the moment. Other phenomena we were to witness with the return of the sun were the mirages, beautiful icebergs floating above the horizon.

With more hours of sunlight we were able to move around the station with greater freedom. The winter wind and snow had covered all the rough edges left by the summer melt, giving the station a pristine look. Mother Nature had covered the dark side of civilization. I took advantage of the good days and the benevolence of our command and took one of the “weasels” out for a drive on the frozen ice of the bay. The weasels were left over from the W.W.II amphibious operations. These tracked vehicles were about the size of a jeep and had been modified for deep winter use. The convertible tops provided little protection from the cold, and the heater was useless, but they were fun to drive and were quite reliable.

Several icebergs were grounded in the bay and I headed straight for them. What I discovered were ice caves at the waterline. These caves had been carved out by open water waves splashing up into, and opening up existing cracks in the bergs. Some went back inside the berg for quite a ways. They usually narrowed down to a few inches wide and high, with the ceilings being covered with delicate hoarfrost, contrasting the beautiful deep blue colors of the walls. In one, the cave was shallow but very high and wide. Along the walls were layers of gravel and I wondered how many years that gravel had been imprisoned on its journey to the sea and it’s travels around the continent.

By the beginning of October the sun has returned in full force and was basking the station for up to 16 hours a day. Part of our crew had spent many hours out on the bay ice, preparing a landing strip for the abbreviated flying season. The first planes had already begun flying into McMurdo, and there are rumors of flights into Hallett with mail, fresh food, and our reliefs. With more joy than sadness, we prepared to leave this place. This place, which had tested our endurance, our friendships, and our sanity. We are glad to have come out the other end of the dark, in one piece.

Then, that long awaited day arrives! The first plane of the season arrives bringing the fruits of civilization. It is hard to express the joy of your first bite into a fresh vegetable, the shear pleasure of plunging a metal dipper into a five gallon can of fresh New Zealand milk, and being able to savor that which you have been deprived of for so long. We are disappointed when the first plane did not bring all our reliefs and we had to wait for the next flight. This delay only made the anticipation sweeter. The next plane to arrive is one of the newly assigned Ski-130 turboprop aircraft. What a beautiful sight! Once the cargo was offloaded, we were cleared to leave. What a thrill to ride in one of these craft. We taxied down to the end of the ice runway, made a 180 degree turn, and I swear that aircraft seamed to leap into the air. What a way to depart! What excitement! We were on our way home at last.

I would like to add one footnote about winter-over relationships.  With a couple of exceptions, once your time is complete and the last farewells have been said, those people you have been in isolation with are never seen or heard from again. I do belong to an association of “Old Antarctic Explorers” AKA OAEs and I do occasionally peruse the membership list, however none of the w/o parties for my two Antarctic experiences have joined that association.

Next – Part VI Addendum – “The Sun Returns”

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