One Man’s Trash

David Pablo Cohn
Sep 19, 2017 · 11 min read

The third-generation CODAR weather stations were designed to come apart easily. Only when you wanted them to, of course. This far down the peninsula didn’t get the sort of rock-scouring, equipment-destroying Southern Ocean storms you got out on Cape Shirreff. But the stations still had to survive and operate on their own for a couple of years on some godforsaken Antarctic island with no human intervention, so they had to be simple.

And they had to be simple to put in and take out, too: aligning the vagaries of the ice with the two-year planning horizon of the Program meant that you often didn’t have much of a window to make landfall, get the gear to or from the summit, and get the job done.

We had five days allotted for the Joubin station. It still had some life left in it, but apparently someone’s grant had run out, so the station had to come down. Management decided we should fit it in on the way to support some oceanography research down in Wilkins Sound, so that if the ice and weather didn’t cooperate, we could try it again on the way back.

As I said, these things were designed to be simple: three square platforms, four legs apiece, each secured to the ground by eight-inch stainless-steel masonry bolts drilled and driven into the stone summit of the island. Shore party was two Zodiacs, each carrying a couple of Marine Techs, an Electronics Tech and a handful of grantees from the oceanography mission. Not that we needed the grantees, but oceanography folks don’t often get to come ashore, so it was a perk of sorts for them. Besides, I said those stations were simple, but I didn’t say they were light. It was nice to have some extra muscle to haul things down the hillside.

The fates cut us a break this time around, and we came in under clear skies on the lee of a storm that had blown the sea ice well clear of our landing site. The sun was warm, the bay mirror flat, and the air filled with giant petrels barking at each other in a frenzied Rite of Spring. Half a dozen curious Gentoos waddled back and forth on the shore as a sort of ambivalent, tuxedoed welcoming committee. It was one of those days when we just had to stop and look at each other and say, “Can you believe we get paid to do this shit?”

So we took our time. Probably made a few more Zodiac trips than were strictly necessary, just to give everyone who wanted a chance to go ashore. Tromped down the leeward side of the island for iceberg photo ops and penguin watching while the grantees mopped up the last of put-away. And we were still done and southbound two days ahead of schedule.

Of course, simply getting a piece of gear taken apart and stowed onboard was only the first step in the long and convoluted “retro” process of getting it back home. Chilean Customs, US Customs, the Antarctic Treaty and our own federal funding agency demand that each and every damned piece of hardware be identified, accounted for, documented and disposed of according to their own overlapping and often contradictory regulations. Quarter inch coaxial cable (“five segments, 3.5 meters each”), two-inch hose clamps (“28 pc, #3 Phillips head adjustment”), duct tape (“black, half-inch; used — miscellaneous lengths totaling appx. 2 meters”) — you get the idea: everything.

The responsibility for checking off, bagging and boxing all the pieces fell on Roger; he was doubling as a Marine Tech on this cruise, but his main gig, back on the ice, was as a Wastie — a station waste disposal specialist — so he could do this sort of job in his sleep.

I was avoiding work, making coffee and small talk in Janie’s office when Roger rounded the corner and held up a five-inch rusted iron figure-eight between his fingers as Exhibit A.

“Uh, Janie? I think we may have a problem.”

Roger had the height and build of an All-American Olympic swimmer, so his basso proclamations, even if they were just about the quality of this morning’s scrambled eggs, always seemed to carry inordinate weight. “We have a problem,” was not a phrase you wanted to hear from Roger.

Janie was our MPC — Marine Projects Coordinator — a fancy name for the support team’s den mother. She made sure we got done whatever we were supposed to, and that we played well with each and the science team while we did it. And when shit hit the fan, it was Janie’s job to be first on the scene with a mop.

She set her coffee down and peered up at Roger over the Granny-style reading glasses she favored, perhaps to remind us of her own, less physically-imposing form of gravitas.

“What’s up?”

Roger twirled the artifact between his thumb and forefinger. “Either of you recognize this?”

She shook her head. I shrugged.

“Came aboard with the Joubins CODAR retro.”

Janie swore under her breath; Roger nodded gravely.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

I’ve found that, when I don’t know what’s going on, a good rule of thumb is to shut the hell up and stay out of the way. I backed into the corner.

Roger set the object on her desk, slid in and planted himself on the couch up against the aft bulkhead. Janie swiveled her chair around to follow him, planting her elbows on the desk and perching her chin in her open palms as if to say “Okay, I need to think about this.” Roger didn’t look like he was going to rush her.

She took a full minute, coming up for a couple of wordless false starts before speaking.

“Any idea who found it?”

Roger shook his head. I didn’t remember seeing anything like that while we were ashore, either.

“But Joubins?” She sounded exasperated.

“I know. I know.”

I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. “Know what?”

One of Janie’s many skills, hard-won over years of patiently cat-herding science and support teams, was the ability to answer even the stupidest questions with a tone that sounded like she was genuinely glad you’d asked. This, of course, rendered those of us who knew her well eternally unsure whether what we were asking was, in fact, a contender for the most ridiculous thing she’d heard all day.

She turned to me slowly, gathering words. “The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”


“It’s a federal offense to disturb or remove historic artifacts in land governed by the Antarctic Treaty.”

“That thing?” I pointed in Roger’s direction. “You think that’s historic?”

“Doesn’t matter what I think. We didn’t put it in, and we’re the only folks who’ve been on Joubin since the whalers. If there were ever whalers this far south. But the law says we treat any unknown object as a potentially historic artifact: we document it, report it, and we leave it right the hell where we found it. Which, apparently, we or one of our grantees have failed to do.”

Now, I’m all for preserving Antarctic history, and for following rules — when they make sense. But that chunk of metal was not, in any way I could imagine, historic. The whole issue could be resolved by simply throwing it in the recycling bin, or easier yet, just chucking it over the side.

I ventured that opinion out loud, and both Roger and Janie gaped at me as though I’d suggested shooting the pope. Okay, okay, maybe I’d underestimated the seriousness of the situation. But I’m an Electronics Tech, not a historian.

Janie sent email to her manager, who wrote to his manager, and things apparently went all the way up the chain of command, turned sideways and made a few loops through Washington’s favorite three-letter agencies before coming back down to the ship in the form of marching orders: we were to isolate the artifact from human contact by wrapping it in plastic, sealing it in a nitrogen atmosphere and storing it at minus forty in the Bio Lab freezer until we received further instructions. We were also to conduct a ship-wide slideshow and lecture on the importance of understanding and abiding by all aspects of Antarctic Treaty law.

That was about the end of things until we were back in port, offloading the last of the science gear and clearing the back deck for the next outbound cruise. I was below, puttering in the wood shop, when Janie rounded the corner and braced herself on the hatch.

“Kyle? I think we may have a problem.”

Janie’s five-foot-four stature and granny glasses cut a much less imposing figure than Roger’s, but the severity of her voice more than made up for any physical differences: she had my full attention.

“What’s up?”

“You know the, uh, artifact?” She shot a sideways look up and forward to where, through the deck and a couple of bulkheads, the Bio Lab refrigerator lay.

“Yeah.” I hadn’t actually thought much about it since the lecture and slideshow.

“You wouldn’t have happened to have um, moved it anywhere, would you?”

“Why would I?” Then, “You mean it’s not in the fridge?” In retrospect, the second question was unnecessary, and she ignored it in favor of the first. But she seemed to be looking for a way to answer tactfully.

“Well, you do recall that you were the one who advocated chucking it over the side, don’t you?”

It was my turn to swear under my breath.

She took that as answer enough. “I didn’t think so. But, you understand that I had to ask.”

I did.

Short story was that, well, the troublesome chunk of rusted metal was gone, and for all the grief its unwelcome appearance had precipitated, its unexpected disappearance was going to bring down a whole new world of pain on everyone whose path it crossed on its brief stay with us.

Janie had, of course, checked with the oceanographers. None of those who had gone ashore on Joubins admitted to having brought the artifact aboard, and none admitted to having touched it once its unfortunate origin had been discovered.

To be fair, Janie hadn’t made a big thing about where we’d stored it; she didn’t want to draw undue attention to the problem. One grad student volunteered that he had, in fact, kept some sample jars in that fridge, but also swore he’d removed only his samples and didn’t recall noticing one way or the other whether there was anything else there when he did.

The entire science team had already disembarked by then, but Janie — no doubt prodded by menacing invocations of Treaty protocol from back home — cajoled the lot of them back down to the pier to disassemble, re-examine, then re-pack all five cases of gear they’d brought off the ship to verify that no one had “inadvertently” picked up our errant relic.

Of course, they found nothing.

But our nominal port call was four days and Janie, as the outgoing Coordinator, was supposed to be spending those days neck-deep in turnover logistics, bringing the next cruise’s gear on board and bringing their MPC and science team up to speed. Not playing treasure hunt for a fist-sized metal scrap of dubious provenance. I found her, head in hands on the couch, the morning of the third day.

“You look like shit. In case you were wondering.”

I’d meant it to cheer her up, but I don’t think she even heard me. Her head came up slowly with a faraway gaze, as if still unable to wake up from a bad dream.

“They want me to go through the trash. Through all the fucking trash we generated on the entire cruise.”

“Wait — what?”

“The God-damned Joubins Thing. Program thinks someone might have thrown it out, and they want me to go through the trash to look for it.”

“Why you?”

“Because they can. You’re contract, right?”

I was.

“So’s Roger, and everyone else on support. You guys can walk any time, and they know it. I’m the only one they’ve got by shorts.”

And as MPC, they could justify pinning responsibility on Janie — all this happened on her watch. But it didn’t seem right.

I found Roger aft, hauling crates for the oncoming Marine Techs, and pulled him aside. He’d heard about Janie’s orders, too. Clearly, we were as much for Antarctic preservation as anybody, but this was bullshit. There was debris from old whaling ships strewn across half the harbors along the north end of the peninsula — what could anyone hope to gain by retrieving one more lousy scrap of rusted metal?

“So, all anyone back home knows is that we’ve got — or had — an old, corroded figure-eight, right? About yay big.” He held his thumb and forefinger out.

I nodded gravely, conspiratorially. I had a good sense of where he was going with this. Roger looked down the pier toward town. “A lot of old boats tied up out here, aren’t there?”

There were.

“I’ll look around a bit.” Nothing more needed to be said.

I did put in a couple of hours online trying to look up what happened to the piece we handed off to Janie, all but unidentifiable in its double-wrapped protective plastic sheath. I guess I was curious whether it was actually going to get examined by an Antarctic historian, and if so, whether they’d give it enough attention to flag our obvious fake.

The thing was, the report was there, but it didn’t look like the artifact itself had ever been received. Maybe it was still sitting on somebody’s desk somewhere. Or maybe it disappeared down the same rabbit hole our original had.

I couldn’t see any good coming from finding out either way, but about a year later I was telling the story over drinks downstairs at the Shackleton. We were getting ready to deploy out to the South Shetlands and we had a couple of Marine Techs from the previous cruise around the table along with a handful of their grantees — the ones who knew that Marine Techs always had the best stories.

I left things a little vague about what happened in the hours leading up to the point where Roger handed Janie the “rediscovered” artifact, but when I got to the end, a weatherbeaten Aussie in the corner raised an inquiring hand.

“That figure-eight of yours — it was a pair of round jobbers like this?” He made two loops with his fingers, “With a flat hasp about so long?”

I nodded. A wicked smile bloomed on his lips.

“If you’re really keen on it, I can tell you where to find three more like the one you lost.”

He let me stew on that for minute as he gauged the rest of the table for the right time to let the other shoe drop.

“Sorry — McLaine. Tony McLaine. Melbourne, formerly Rutgers.” He reached his hand out to shake mine by way of introduction. “You did say Joubins, didn’t you?”

I told him I was pleased to make his acquaintance, but…

“The first MET station on Joubins went in back in ’95. Piece of crap installation. No rock drills, so we tried to hold it down with packing straps. You’ll know the UV did those in right off. By the time we got back two years later, the box was on its side halfway down the slope. Managed to get most of the pieces, but with weather like that, we were lucky to find what we could. Had to fudge the inventory, of course — you know how the Program feels about loose ends…”

He trailed off as if distracted by a new thought. “…And you had blue skies?”

[Based on a fragment of an anecdote I picked up downstairs at the Shackleton after a deployment, about a rusted iron spearhead that got picked up — with explicit permission, I should add. Recently got the full story on that from Ken Vicknair, who was involved in the actual dumpster diving, and it’s so much stranger (and more hilarious) than what I made up that I may have to rewrite this someday.]

David Pablo Cohn

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I write stories that explore how our lives intersect with those of others and with the world around us. For more, follow me at