Thursday, July 07, 2005

Chapter 13 - Just Another Austral Summer in Paradise

27 November 1989

You were asking me about what my responsibilities are here.

Over the summer months my title is (and has been) technically Comms Tech. Al Oxton who is my supervisor again this year is a much better repair person. Al is also a "whiz" with computers. I have learned more working with him than any class could teach me over the last year him. A lot of the job concentrates on supporting the science groups here in one way or another.

We run the base station for our radios (channels 6 and 16 in particular) when the scientists go out in the Zodiac boats to study islands in the vicinity. We also maintain a watch on the radio frequencies 11553 Mhz for McMurdo on the other side of the continent, 5583 Mhz for the Chilean Base at Marsh on King George Island, and 4125 Mhz which is the general calling frequency for all ships and stations in the world. Normally we meet a party up on 4125 then switch over to another working frequency since business isn't to be conducted on 4125 since it is to be used as a calling frequency only.

We keep a daily schedule with the Polar Duke whenever they are not in port in Punta Arenas or at Palmer at 1630 local. We also have daily scheds with Faraday Station in the Argentine Islands (only about 25 miles as the crow flies) to pass weather conditions three times daily. Unscheduled radio ops occur when we have planes fly overhead such as unplanned Argentine planes in to check out the sunken Bahia Paraiso. We have had the Canadian Twin Otter airplanes stop in and land on the Glacier behind Palmer three times. It is a funny sound to hear planes overhead when you haven't heard that sound in awhile.

At the moment I am trying to learn dBase III to straighten out my inventory. I have picked up some of it, but does take time. I had to reorganize things this winter in our shop and update the inventory. I am also working on a help folder on "how to" do comms here. There were no help files or operations plans written up when Al and I got here last year. So much of the operations side has changed and modernized that any old plans are not functional. So the past month I have spent a lot of time on the PC putting in drawings of equipment set ups, writing instructions-help files on how to do telex, facsimile, conduct weather observations, inventory, radio operations, making a current listing of frequencies used, a once-a-month file for maintenance of the batch files which use month names to operate in our PC files and that type of stuff.

Al is a night owl, staying up late in the shop and I am usually up by 0530. This actually works out well since I have been working out in the morning and start work at 0800. With the boating parties out at 0800-0830 someone needs to be here to answer the radio. This gives me the chance to get something done on the PC when he isn't here.

Al has been revolutionizing our methods of doing traffic on the ATS-3 satellite as of late. He is creating programs that cut down on the human interface time with the computer. He is all about reducing the number of key strokes to do anything on the computer. So now it is more often that you only press a couple of buttons and everything else is "automajic." (This is a little joke and also a play on words around here. Al is known by his initials of “ajo” which in Spanish means garlic!) The only glitch in the system is that noise on the satellite can put a real crimp into the transmission of data. He has been working on a bunch of batch files to take lines off the top of the messages sent out and coming in to copy information to our logs instead of physically writing in message number, time sent, subject, who-for etc.

It's hard to sum up everything that happens in a day. One day I ended up entering and sending about five telex messages and three fax messages and other days involve only sitting in front of the computer and answering radios. Over a period of about a week I dug out the pathway to the weather shack and the pump house. The pathway had a bunch of ice and snow about three feet deep covering the area and with the meltdown; it was easier to dig and melt off a bit at a time.

I am going to find it hard to endure a full two day weekend once I get back. Here we work through most of Saturday with the end of the afternoon spent doing a station cleanup. Everyone is assigned a specific detail on a rotating basis. My personal favorite “house mouse” chore would be either; cleaning of the guys bathroom or vacuuming, sweeping and mopping of the berthing hallways in Biolab. I say the cleaning the bathroom, because with so many people using the shower, I like to know that it is really being scrubbed down at least once a week!

My least favorite job has been Trash n’ Mash. Trash and Mash is the nasty duty of hauling the garbage down on the lift from the galley to the staging area where the masher/compactor is. You fit a trash bag into the holder and then fill the holder with all kinds of trash and hit the compactor button. If you’re having a bad day, the galley mess will squirt something out at you and cover you with something particularly disgusting! There is never a good day when assigned Trash n’ Mash detail.

But I must say that there is a certain amount of camaraderie between the crew here. That is probably increased since we live and work in the same buildings. Even on the worst details, everyone pulls together and participates.

We had a great party this last weekend. Bob Taylor the cook who got his Mohawk the same time I shaved my head, set up six whipped cream pies for peoples faces. It looked like a scene out of the three stooges or keystone cops. People who were hit were pulling the pies off their faces and hitting others too. Then later in the night around 3 am one of the beakers (a common term for scientists) wanted a Palmer Station Mohawk haircut. He wanted and received his Mohawk the day before he was leaving for home. As his head was being shaven, he had this big old smile on his face. He looked like he was in bliss and getting a massage or something! His wife isn't probably too happy with it! Life isn't that bad here as you can see. Normally ordinary gatherings playing pool or bs-ing at the bar can turn into events.

We have had visits by the Greenpeace ship Gondwana and just this last weekend by the British Antarctic Survey ship RRS John Bisco. Usually these visits include ship tours, refreshments, exchanges of beer and/or food and having the chance to purchase or trade T-shirts, patches, pins and other things from the ship. Once the tourist visits start in January there are invites to go out for dinner and drinking too. The tourists always have a million silly-ass questions for us, but it is a lot of fun.

Guess I haven't said too much about my family, but that's because I don't always hear much from them. Most of my friends from the States have stopped writing once I started my second year. Guess the novelty has worn off for them. I still am keeping good contacts with all of my Dutch and German friends, so that keeps me out of trouble.

29 Nov 89

Just got news that I'll probably be employed longer than I had expected. Looks like I won't leave here on the SAAM flight in late March like I thought. I'm pretty sure at this point that I will be staying until the summer season end/station close on the 6th of April. Let's see...4 days to cross the Drake Passage and get to Punta Arenas, one day in P.A, two days in Puerto Montt, one day trip to Santiago and a day waiting in Santiago, one week in Easter Island and 1-1/2 days transit back to Chicago comes up to about the middle to the end of April. I'm not too upset actually. It means another three weeks of pay too. I will also get my on Ice bonus around June sometime.

The weather this morning was cool and rainy. Temp was around 40 F but cloudy. The C-130 out of Pope AFB, NC that is to carry all the DV's (Distinguished Visitors) from Punta Arenas to Marsh Base, broke down in Barbados (well, isn't that convenient) so they will be about four days late getting here. How it works is the Polar Duke goes up to King George Island where the Chilean base is and the planes fly into Marsh Base. Then the Duke shuttles the people down to Palmer on a trip that takes about 22 hours. It is nice when the weather is agreeable, but not too dependable as far as a schedule is concerned.

In the meantime, the Ambassadors of Chile, Argentina, the head weenie of the National Science Foundation, the New Deputy Director of Peninsula Affairs from our new contractor, Holmes and Narver and a small multitude (if it is possible to have a small multitude) of assorted workers and scientists are sitting in Punta Arenas visiting and drinking at the ever distinguished Mama Theresa's (no she isn't exactly a nurse, but she will take good care of you) and drinking and eating good at some of the better eateries.

I really feel sorry for the poor people on the Polar Duke sitting in the harbor (kinda like a buoy in a bathtub) at King George Island and waiting to catch the flight going back north. They thought they would get out early (ha!). The weather can throw things off even if the plane arrives in P.A. today. The weather has to be good at both ends for the plane to get off the ground at P.A. to begin with. Then when things get stacked up it is a matter of waiting your turn until the backlogged flights are out.

So here we wait with high hopes that the DV's schedule back home will chase them back to the States before they get down here. Other than that, all's well. I'll close for now and get back to you later.

01 Dec 89

Well, it's already December! The SAAM flight will arrive at Marsh sometime around five pm or so, so we should see them around tomorrow evening or Sunday morning. The DV's are to stay only about two hours (most of that time going out to the Bahia wreck which will probably be mostly submerged by high tide). Sounds like a prudent way to spend our tax dollars if you ask me!! The whole idea of them even bothering to come for two hours is a real circle jerk anyway--complete waste of my tax dollars. Kind of like driving out to Denver for the weekend from Chicago.

I'm gonna close this letter now, but hope you do have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

06 December 89

Sorry I've been so slow to respond to letters. I got all of my letters out for Christmas and was burnt out on writing over the past week. The Polar Duke won't be returning now until next week. They were supposed to be making two trips back to P.A. and Palmer, but with the cancellation of the SAAM flights to King George, we will only see them once. I am hoping to get some mail this time around, but don't have my hopes all that high!

I have been watching the temps on your end of the globe and I see that we are having better weather now than you. The days are long and the temps have been staying between 32 and 40 F degrees lately. Haven't had too much rain lately, but the past couple of days have been overcast.

The time here is really screaming along. It is hard for me to believe it is already December. I am anxious to travel again. That trip to Puerto Montt was a lot of fun.

07 December 89

I can't say there isn't enough going on around here as a reason for not writing! The Polar Duke just left late last week for Punta Arenas, finally. The SAAM military flights from the U.S. got cancelled enough times that they didn't run down to King George Island, so the Duke came back to pick up everything and everyone that needed to go north and made the trip across the Drake. I have been busy the last two weeks writing letters and cards for the holidays. Didn't get through everything, but got through the necessary ones.

I have been working out and keeping a pretty good sched. I have missed a few days here or there, but overall, it is nice to be back into a regular routine. I have been pulling myself out of bed between 5-5:30 a.m. every morning. I seem to have more energy when I first get out of bed than later in the day.

I don't remember how much about my vacation in Chile I told you about, but it was a great time. It seems now like years behind me since I was up there! Here it is already December. Next month the tourists start to come and visit enmasse. That will make the time go by quickly too. I have been learning Dbase III over the past few weeks. It can be tough to force myself to sit down with the book and practice, but I'm coming along with that.

To put last season and this one in a comparison, this one has been a little slower. But I think part of that is because Al and I are already set into our patterns and have a grasp on the job here. Both of us are more relaxed about things too. I'm glad that he is pacing himself; he has to make it through the winter season yet!

The weather here is getting better. It has been staying between 32 and 40 degrees F. Haven't had as much rain as last year at this time, but still have some bouts of snow without accumulation. The days are continuous now. The sun comes up around 4 a.m. or so and goes down around 1 a.m. We have a kind of perpetual dusk in between those hours. Probably won't see dark again until around late February or so. The penguins, cormorants, skuas, gulls and petrels are all nesting now. Yesterday, we saw a couple of whales off the pier about 500 yards. Seems somewhat early compared to last year for whales, but they're always welcome!

Hate to break it to you, but the "Men of Antarctica" calendar was only a winter project with a very limited number of copies available (probably too many if you ask me) following the Wincruise III. Actually, we did it, then only sent out copies to those few female scientists who were down over that winter season. It was quite the scene and I'm sure they roared when they saw it.

Our cook, Dick, never lived down his picture. That's what he gets for trying to cover everything up with an eggbeater and a knife!! He tried to use a frying pan to cover things up better in a reshoot, but the editors didn’t approve of that reshoot and ended up just using a magic marker to cover uncompromised parts on the first picture since it was a better shot! (The editors being Marcia, the only woman winter-over this year and Pat, who was the brain-child of the project).

08 December 89

Everything here is going well. The weather is great here too, just not quite as warm as by you. We have had many more sunny days this summer than last. Yesterday it was about 41 degrees and sunny. It's about the same today. We have had some bouts of snow flurries, but overall, the weather is beautiful. Finally, the snow and ice is melting off and more of the rocks are visible--not that they are anything spectacular to look at. Looks like it has been warmer here all week than in Chicago. This last winter here didn't even get as cold as it is in Chicago now!

I know how difficult it can be to speak over the HAM connection, but you seem to do better than many others. It takes some getting used to, but by now I say "over" without thinking. It will be strange to go back to a normal telephone again.

Had a great Thanksgiving here. Holidays are always nice. Everyone is kind of like a family here. We live, work and eat in the same two buildings, so it keeps us pretty close. The camaraderie is about the same as it was in the military, maybe closer at times. I'm sure Christmas dinner will be good too. Last night Bob, our cook made up rabbit. He baked it up in two different sauces. One was with tomatoes and onions and the other was a cream and sherry sauce with mushrooms. The rabbit was real tender and practically fell off the bones.