Call me “CARGO”
I am writing this from the cargo hold of a Kiwi “camouflage-painted” Hercules transport plane, as we fly north, to New Zealand. Traditional camouflage paint jobs, it should be noted, only work well in places that have earth-tones, and shades of green. Sitting out on the sea-ice runway, our plane was a sitting duck — really, we spotted all it as soon as it arrived.
It arrived yesterday, carrying several Distinguished Visitors from the National Science Foundation and the National Science Board. Actually, it was the only plane out there: all other airplanes, buildings and equipment have been moved to Williams Field, south of McMurdo on the Ross Ice Shelf, where the runways are not susceptible to tidal heaving/cracking and thawing as the Austral summer season warms.
We (passengers, called PAX) did our bag-drag last night — an over-heated crush of people and luggage and carry-on bags in the small lobby of the MPC building, all needing to be weighed precisely. Our checked bags were surrendered at bag drag, to be stowed onboard the aircraft during the evening (along with other payload items). No inflight movie, or complimentary refreshments.
Our “transport time” was 7:30 AM. A few oversized vehicles nicknamed the “air-porters” brought us down to the ice runway. We all climbed out, then were all told to climb back in (just to remind us we were still in Antarctica), then after waiting a bit longer, we were allowed to climb out for real, and begin boarding. Anyone who has moved cattle knows the value of keeping them in a small chute, where their only option is moving forward. Once inside, the load-master drove us into place, packing PAX to PAX to PAX, so tightly that he needed to secure most of our seatbelts himself. That was morning. Currently it is 1:30 PM, and we are still 3 hours from New Zealand. Somewhere at the back right side of the plane, there is a toilet hidden behind a giant green tarp, strung from the roof of the plane like a shower curtain; we visit it only as we must, as this involves crawling over an awful lot of other PAX. Some of us are standing in place, reading books or magazines, to keep from getting too stiff.
Our seats are long, like communal cots or bench, made of red sail-cloth stretched open between iron pipes. Not the most comfy sitting-invention ever, but of course no one expects a military transport ride to be comfortable. The backs of the seats are red webbing, stretched from our butts to a bar clamped to the plane wall, about 5 feet up. It would be comfy, I think, but the load master pushed some of the carry-on bags behind the red webbing. I’ve got someone’s water-bottle lodged in a bag somewhere near my spine, I think, but I am counting my blessings, since my own bag was stowed on the floor close enough that I could reach it.
In the rear of the plane loom 10-ft high plastic-wrapped pallets of luggage and boxes, strapped down on all sides with heavy utility straps, filling 50% of the plane, front to back, and 95% of the plane, side to side. On top of this payload, a few lucky PAX have climbed their way to privacy, and now they are sleeping, stretched out in various degrees of horizontal comfort (with boxes for pillows in some cases). Half of the Kiwi crew is sleeping in canvas “bunkbeds” they popped down from the walls of the plane – the top bunk is about 9 feet off the ground. The rest of us are wedged into the remainder of the plane: we sit facing each other, wearing our bunny boots and Emergency Cold Weather bibs and our parka jackets (which most of us have come to fondly call “Big Red”). Big Red is overkill, right now — the plane is warm and stuffy, but occasionally vents open, and cold air pours in here and there. Big Red is a sort of sleeping bag, which provides a little cocoon into which we withdraw to snooze, sitting upright.
The interior of the plane is largely olive-drab, with every surface/pipe/conduit/vent/motor/equipment panel covered in khaki. I believe they are insulated blankets. Perhaps this is done to protect the gear from accidental damage by cargo (us, and our luggage). Some of the blankets are snapped into place, or pop-riveted, and covered with complicated diagrams and instructions for repair. “REMOVE BLANKET FOR ACCESS TO MLG TORQUE SHAFT” is stenciled on a blanket opposite me, in black spraypaint. Others read CLUTCH BOX – MLG MANUAL EXTERNAL ENGAGE – DANGER – PROPELLER. Every hour, a member of the crew crawls over us, walking on the seats and between our boots, pointing a flashlight into gear boxes and valves and pressure gauges around the plane. I’ve got one such box just above my head, emitting a high-pitched whine. The quilt next to it is blazed with red arrows pointing in every possible direction. Among the mess off arrows, text reads “UNLOCK/LOCK” but I would be hard-pressed to know which arrow meant which action. Rows of green first-aid bags are bolted to the ceiling, marked with red crosses. The cabin is loud with engine noise, and so we all are wearing earplugs. Communication is impossible, unless you are close enough to shout directly into someone’s ear. Everyone is reading now, or asleep.
Before loading, the loadmaster gave us a brief, humorous orientation. In the event of an emergency, we should follow the crew as they ran out, or so he explained.
I’m being silly, describing the plane, to keep myself in good spirits. Really, I’m a bit down. Already, I feel exiled from Antarctica. Just a couple weeks ago, standing at the edge of the Erebus Ice Tongue pressure ridge, looking into the open crack of sea-green water, I saw a great bubble of exhaled seal-breath rise like a sigh — in slow-motion, through the half-frozen slush. I am trying not to be sad, but one thought keeps rising in me, like an exhalation: will I return? will I ever experience Antarctic again?
A friend (Ann) just handed me a water bottle, which turned out to contain a large gin and tonic she’d brought, for purposes of sharing. Such nice folks you meet in Antarctica!
My friend Bill gave me a compilation soundrack – “Music for leaving Antarctica” – and now I am trying to listen to it through my computer, on tiny ear-bud headphones, through my earplugs. A post-Antarctic experience. Currently listening to “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” an odd little pop song with the refrain:
“Let’s pretend we don’t exist.
Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica.”
Alas, I am afraid it will be Antarctica that will cease to exist. I have been warned to expect sensory overload, upon return to Christchurch — those who work the full season for Raytheon – 6 months – report being moved to tears by the smell of rain, dumbstruck in produce markets, suprised by the voices of children (Antarctica is pretty much kid-free — the youngest person I met was 19). Colors – smells – textures – tastes – I am sure I will deeply relish this re-awakening.
At the same time, I am afraid that lush New Zealand will push out my thoughts of Antarctica, push the Ice down into a deeper place. What happens to my memory of ice? Already, it feels a bit like a dream.
Look for next week’s issue of The Antarctic Sun, as it should include a write-up of my project (penned by my friend Bill Jirsa). The Sun is available online, downloadable as a PDF file. Watch for it here:
Posting this from the Windsor B & B, back in NZ. I’m off to meet friends from the flight for a beer, now — real beer, the sort that gushes from a tap and smells like bread and flowers! — then dinner (hopefully something spicy….).