The Ice - Page 2
Neil Young and Crazy Horse blasted at a deafening volume from the speaker behind me...
while I traded out the green plastic scrubby for a metal spatula and commenced scraping away the charred remains of what I believed to be pork loin from the bottom of the roasting pan. I was convinced that the pan and the blackened meat had coalesced on a molecular level but I continued scraping since I was enjoying my music and needed to fill the last 40 minutes of my shift.
Chef Brown governed over his kitchen with a modus operandi of accountability, which meant that if one of his cooks burned a dish they were expected to clean it themselves. I could have asked Quenton to clean the roasting pan, as he was surely the culprit but it was mid-December, I had been washing dishes 10 hours a day, six days a week for two months, and was admittedly a little bored. I had learned to seize upon these occasions to break up the monotony of my simple but tedious job. I embraced the burn victims with fervor and invited the challenge of making them new again.
Just past the sinks, a large open window connected the dish pit to a hallway that led to the galley and the rest of the station. A pair of standard-issue heavy leather mittens appeared on the stainless steel ledge of the window before me. Coded letters and numbers were written in marker on the back of the gloves. The hands inside belonged to Jeremy Collins, an Air-Force-trained meteorologist with a pale face that was mostly hidden behind a sunset-red beard. His job at the South Pole included interpreting numbers that predict the weather. Several times a day, from the rooftop, Jeremy would measure line-of-sight visibility to flags around the station that corresponded to distances written on his mittens.
“What did that use to be?”
“It was pork,” I replied, “and will be dinner.”
Jeremy moved as fast as his job required, which provided him with no less than 10 excursions to the galley throughout the course of the day. He took great interest in my job and my music and pretty much anything that would stall him for a few more minutes before going back to work.
“You been running?” he asked.
“I’ve been gettin’ out.”
Scuffed grey steel was beginning to appear beneath the black char. I rinsed the crud from the pan and continued scrapping furiously.
“Why’d you come here, anyway?” he asked with an abruptness that could have only been learned in the armed forces.
I stopped scrubbing for a moment. I pulled my hands out of the heavy rubber gloves. They wafted a gangrene stench and I quickly sheathed them again. In a land where the relative humidity doesn’t even reach a single percent, hand maintenance is a constant struggle. When they weren’t shriveled and rotting, as they were then, they were like dry-cracked mud.
“I guess I’ve always wanted to wash dishes.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Well,” he said without hesitation, “I wanted to see what was beneath the brass plate.”
“The brass plate?”
“In school, you remember? The globe in geography class spun around and around.” He dialed his glove about, first toward the ground and then toward the ceiling. “And hiding the axle and converging lines on the bottom was always that brass plate.” He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “I wanted to know what was under it.” He folded his wrist, glanced at his watch and walked away.
It seemed to be the single common thread among the eclectic gathering at the South Pole—a magnetic draw to slip beneath the brass plate on the bottom of the globe.
I walked a quarter mile from the station to an insulated, canvas Quonset hut, called a Jamesway, which contained my 35-square-foot address—J13, Room 3.
Over a dozen Jamesways subdivided into rooms not much bigger than utility closets made up Summer Camp, where half the station’s population of 250 lived during the crowded summer months. Think M*A*S*H on ice. The two plywood walls and two canvas walls that separated me from my nine hut-mates served as a barrier for little more than the hallway light. Snores, farts and squeaking beds permeated past the canvas barrier on a nightly basis.
I settled into my room, shedding layers of clothes that had gotten me to my Jamesway without frostbite and prepared for some miles out on the plateau.
Getting dressed to run in that temperature was, at minimum, a 15-minute process. There were tights on top of tights, three layers of shirts, followed by a thick Gore-Tex shell. There was the neck gaiter, balaclava, hat, goggles and earmuffs. Ski gloves stuffed with hand warmers, wool socks and running shoes with screws inserted into the bottom for traction. And, finally, a mouthful of Jameson slugged straight from the bottle, which warmed me from the inside in a way that no layer of clothing could. The method kept me warm for an hour of running.
I stepped out of J13 and set off at an easy clip through Summer Camp while several “red parkas” hurried about their tasks. The standard-issue jackets that had initially provided a level of anonymity faded as the season carried on, and the subtleties of one’s posture, form and gait became their identifying features. The head-down, slow shuffle was Rachel. The Manhattan business march was Jason. The pep-step, swagger was Ron. Like a marshlands birdwatcher, by my second month at the South Pole, I could properly identify the forward motion of nearly 80 Big Reds.
I ran out past the half-mile-long berms that stored everything from 10-year-old lobster (as frozen as the day it arrived) to spare tractor parts and after 10 minutes of running I arrived at the Edge of the World, where several decades of plowed and packed snow stepped down to the ever-changing surface of the Antarctic Plateau. Two giant golf balls containing within them the satellites that were our four-hour-a-day thread to the real world stood there like sentries, as though to protect us from the vast expanse of nothingness just beyond.
I paused there with the station at my back. A wave of anxiety—claustrophobia’s opposite—passed through me. I let it pass and stepped out into the Rothko painting where things didn’t get bigger or smaller, where one step didn’t seem to bring me any closer to the horizon than did a thousand.
When English explorer Robert F. Scott arrived at the South Pole 99 years earlier, after having already traversed several hundred miles upon the same scene, he paused and scribbled only a single sentence in his meticulously kept journal, “Great God, this in an awful place!” Within a month Scott and his four companions would be dead from a combination of starvation, hypothermia and scurvy.
I ran until I could no longer hear the hum of the station. I ran until the individual Big Reds recessed back into anonymity. I ran past tracks of the two others on station that also sought solace in the vastness that surrounded me. I ran to the point where three dimensions dissolved into two and the pure and brutal immensity of the Antarctic Plateau consumed me. Then I stopped.