Tales From the Ice
It didn’t matter whether you had a story to tell or just wanted to sit back and listen to somebody else’s tale of wonder and woe over a shot of bad whiskey: Summer Camp Lounge was the place to go for stories. “Summer Camp” was a story in itself, a laudably evocative euphemism for the scattered Jamesways that served as overflow housing for the station. It always felt like a little like the Wild West out there, an outpost of relative lawlessness a quarter mile downwind of the station proper. Management only tolerated it within the rigor of the Program because it seemed to help keep “bad” behavior concentrated into one easily-contained location, and as such, they made a point of not venturing out uninvited. If pressed, Carter would simply espouse the unofficial view that it was best for everyone if what happened in Summer Camp stayed there.
The Lounge was just another dismal Jamesway — a diesel-heated canvas tent left over from the Korean War — set in the middle of the pack and filled with old furniture discarded from God knows where. At its center, like an altar, stood a cracked and stained wood veneer portable bar that must have come down during the bad old days as a “morale expense.”
Most nights you could be pretty sure of finding Heller at the pulpit there, holding church for Team Testosterone. No, they weren’t all ex-Navy, but enough of the guys had come through the service to create a sense of common culture.
“You know,” Heller would proclaim while dispensing a shot of whiskey from some dubious bottle of leftovers, “Back when I was on the sub, people understood that there were expectations.” “Here, here!” we’d all cry, though I suspect most of us had no idea what he was talking about.
“I mean, when a guy came aboard, it was understood that he’d bring a dozen issues with him. Penthouse or Hustler or whatever, to pay his way. He’d hand them off to you and you’d give him all your old shit that you just couldn’t stand to look at any more.”
He’d pause for dramatic effect, and we’d wait breathlessly. Heller wasn’t a particularly big man, but he was squarely built and had the preacher’s gift for appearing larger than life when delivering fire and brimstone.
“These days, though?” He peered at the choir and picked out a victim. “Ross — what did you bring?”
We all liked Ross. That Iowa farmboy haircut betrayed him as within spitting distance of his teens, but he was an earnest kid, eager to learn, and quick to pitch in. And while, like me, he’d never been in the service, he was just as happy as anyone to be embraced by the fraternity.
“Nothing. I brought nothing, Heller.” He raised his hands in mock surrender. “Hey, nobody ever told me!”
Heller passed judgment with a slam of his whiskey bottle gavel.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about: a breakdown in the social order!”
And we’d all cheer, and Heller would pour Ross another shot, and Captain Bob would start in on the story about last summer, when someone started leaving brown paper bags with old copies of Playboy in people’s mailslots, signing himself the “Skua Santa.”
“Hey, I don’t mind a little fresh porn. It was just unnerving to be sitting there in the galley talking to Carter or Melinda, wondering if they were the one who just slipped you a spank mag….”
It was a gentle, affectionate hazing. Hell, we all remembered how hard it was being the FINGY, the fucking new guy, when you didn’t know anyone, didn’t know anything. It took a while to learn how things were done down here. It took a while to learn all the names, all the faces. It took damned near forever to learn all the stories.
Two years ago that had been me, wide-eyed and wondrous, gawking like I’d been dropped off on another planet and someone had forgotten to tell me the rules. They just let me wander around the South Freakin Pole — of the world, for god’s sake — when I wasn’t working on the diesels. Like it was an ordinary place, a place on earth, rather than, well, I don’t really know what.
Sure, the wondrous things became ordinary after a little while, but somehow there were always more wondrous things to take their place. The way ice rainbows hung inverted and the sun slid counterclockwise around a blue-gray sky. The way the snow creaked like Styrofoam beneath your boots, and your breath, on a clear day, made a little whooshing sound as it froze. Even deep within the Season of Pain, when we were all just counting the hours until we got to slog our bag out to the runway, out to the churning, throbbing Herc that would carry us home from this godforsaken moonbase. Even when our sleep was filled with dreams of forgotten places where the air was thick and sweet, where the earth itself was lush and green and alive. Even then I could step out into the waning sunlight of Antarctic dusk and lose myself in the wonder of it all.
Yeah, I was a lifer. Carter says you find out pretty quick, and I knew right away. Even before I’d finished my first season. Even before I knew that Audrey was gone. Maybe Audrey knew, too. Maybe that was why she left.
The Pole was still wondrous three years in. But I know we all had our moments, moments in the quiet lull, moments in the still-luminous small hours of the night when the pain snuck through. Carter sat down with me one afternoon, early in that first season, while I was perched out on the deck at Alpha. Just sat down next to me without any words and looked out across the blowing snow with those ancient pale blue eyes. We watched for a minute or so before he spoke.
“You know, Taylor, being out on the ice will make you feel more liberated than you’ve ever felt in your life.” He shook his head, slowly. “Also more lonely.” Three years in, I still don’t know if he meant that as comfort or a prediction.
I think it hits all of us at some point, and when it does, you have a couple of choices. Some folks like to throw on their bunny boots and parka and stroll out to the End of the World. Standing there at the edge of this insignificant fleck of humanity, gazing downwind across a thousand miles of breathless ice desert is always a good reminder of just where your stupid little misery stands in the grand scheme of things.
The End of the World is a fine place for perspective, but sometimes the clarity of its message is a little too severe. Sometimes you need softer medicine, and when you do, you head to Summer Camp Lounge. You head there to minister to your wounds with alcohol and camaraderie. To seek solace and sympathy from your fellow misfits. You head there to hear stories, stories that remind you that yes, you are an irrelevant speck floating in the cosmos, but for now, at least, you have company along for the ride.
Today had been one of those days, and I knew what I needed as I pushed my way in through the door, plunging from eternal, incandescent glare into the warm, smoky comfort of the ancient canvas womb. Company. Escape. Oblivion. Or maybe just another story, like the one about when Storm’s tractor fell through the ice into the old, buried station, 40 feet down. And how they lost another tractor trying to pull it out before just deciding that the whole damned area was off limits.
But there were different voices coming from the bar tonight; not Heller, but four, no, three women, hunkered around a clatter of bottles. Alex, Maura, and another voice, husky and familiar. I squinted down the darkened half-pipe of the Lounge and tried to make out faces.
Alex saw me first. “Taylor? Sweetie! Come on over and join us for a drink.”
Maybe the End of the World would have been a better bet. Alex called everybody “sweetie,” but it was still enough to pull at your heart a little. Precisely the kind of pull I didn’t need tonight. Yeah, Alex was that all-American girl we’d grown up dreaming about: beautiful, blonde, busty. Not that she abused her gifts; if anything, they seemed to fill her with some sense of obligation to share. And somehow she managed to make everyone feel special, grateful for that wink across the galley, or that brief tousle of hair as she passed in the corridor.
But no, not tonight — I didn’t think I could handle those kinds of endearments. I balked and turned back to the door. Someone, years ago, had hung a sign there proclaiming the tent “Nate’s Fight Club.” I’d been meaning to get the story behind that. Like I said, there are a hell of a lot of stories down here.
The third voice bellowed out at me. “Oh come on, you wanker. I’m flying out in the morning. Least you can do is send me off.”
Kathy. Right. One of the electricians, probably a dozen years my senior, with close-cut, gray speckled hair and eyes the color of a winter sky. She looked like she was born wearing Carhartts and a tool belt. Usually played the strong, silent type, but I’d seen her hold court too, quietly taking in kids who couldn’t stomach the Navy crowd.
I surrendered my prospect of escape and advanced down the halfpipe. “Your contract’s up already?”
“Nope.” There was a trace of self-satisfaction in her voice. “Got a better offer up in Fairbanks.”
“So you’re just leaving us?”
She tucked her thumbs smugly into the bib of her Carhartts and leaned back, Farmer John feigning modesty over his prize-winning pumpkin. “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
I knew that, technically, we could quit any time. But I’d never known anyone to actually just do it. At least, not without serious cause. Like their kid back home got sick, or they couldn’t hack the cold. Or their wife… I let the thought escape, unpursued.
But Kathy didn’t see any problem. She’d told her sup when the offer came in and said she’d like to give notice. Electricians were always in demand on the ice, so he asked if she’d be willing to wait until he could get a replacement on site. She said yes, and they worked out a deal where he signed her off as contract complete for staying on a couple more weeks. Even got her a quarter of her end-of-season bonus.
“For bailing on your contract?”
“Hey, you work with them, they’ll work with you. Especially if you’re bailing on your contract.” She gave a little snort and snatched up the bottle of Jameson’s, flourishing it like a saber before topping off the half-full tumbler on the counter at her hip. “They’re legally obligated to get your sorry ass back home no matter how you quit. But you’d be surprised how much latitude they have in how they do it.” She snorted again. “And what counts as home.”
Turns out they’d even had people quit mid-winter, when no one could get in or out for nine months.
“Henry was your year, right, Maura?” Kathy threw the name down like a wager.
Maura was tucked over the bar, clasping an oversized plastic Power Rangers mug to her chest. She rolled her eyes, as if even the thought of Henry made her dizzy. “Hellllllll, yeah. First week in July. Fine one day, full-on toasty the next.”
She saw me doing the math in my head and saved me the trouble.
“Four fucking months. Four fucking months until the first flights came in and we could get his ass out of here. Four fucking months watching him wander around the station like a ghost. He’d show up at mealtimes, grab a plate of food and disappear back into his room. If you ran into him in the hall, he’d look right through you — walk around you like you were a stack of boxes someone had left out.
Now, Maura was everyone’s favorite carp, and it was hard to imagine anyone getting on her bad side. She was unfailingly, even relentlessly cheerful, and her pigtails had led more than one newcomer to take her for a misplaced fifth-grader. No one was quite sure whether her obsession with My Little Pony was intended to be ironic or not.
But Henry managed to get on her bad side, and in a big way.
“Picking up his slack wasn’t a big deal; there weren’t a lot of winter projects that year. What pissed me off was knowing how much he was getting paid for taking up space.”
I hadn’t thought about that. Contract said that when you left the program, you were entitled to TDY pay until they returned you to the US. And if they couldn’t get you home until November…
“This joker was earning $15 an hour, seven days a week for playing Major Tom all winter while the rest of us were busting our asses to keep the station going.”
“And you didn’t just chuck him and all his gear out on the Cargo berms?” Alex might be a sweetheart, but her sense of frontier justice was uncompromising.
“No, you tend to feel sorry for the guys who go toasty. At least at the start. It’s sort of a ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ thing. And you congratulate yourself for having held it together so much better than him.” She paused. “Of course, by the time September rolls around, you’re just as low on T3 as he is, and duct-taping his room shut from the outside seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.”
“You duct-taped him into his room?”
“Well, not me. I think one of the UTs did the actual job. I just signed off on the work order.”
An approving smile blossomed on Alex’s lips. “That’s the spirit, girl.”
“But hey — he was a carp. He just pulled the hinge pins and cut the tape into strips to make himself a little curtain. Left the door out in the hallway until Ben hauled it off as a fire hazard.”
The change, Maura said, came in October, when they were starting to open the station up. The sun was back, sort of, slinking low around the horizon and the first flights in were only a couple of weeks away.
“So one morning Henry shows up in the galley wearing Wayfarers and a Hawaiian shirt, grinning like he’s our long-lost bud and we’ve just rescued him from Gilligan’s Island. He’s all ‘Dudes — we made it!’ It was like he’d just woken up and thought the past six months were all a bad dream.”
“And that’s when…?”
“That’s when we bermed him.”
She gave us two beats.
“No, not really. By then we were all so toasty I don’t think any of us were more pissed at him than at anyone else. By October, you’ve all been on the ice almost a year, and you break down into uncontrollable fits of sobbing if someone’s left a tray where you normally sit. Because It’s. Your. Seat. So really, there wasn’t any more screaming at him than at anyone else at that point.
But Denver didn’t forget. Maura liked to think the folks back at HQ had a whiteboard dedicated to Henry, covered in PostIts detailing the latest, most excruciating plans for retaliating against getting stuck with the bill for his little polar vacation.
“And the winner was?” Alex gave the countertop a drum roll.
“Well, remember: contract says they return you to US soil. So I think he got dumped in Guam, after half a dozen eight-hour layovers in unpleasant places. And rumor has it that someone slipped the loadies in Christchurch a twenty to make sure his gear ended up somewhere else.
Kathy raised her glass approvingly. “Don’t fuck with the program.” And we all drank.
“But,” she said, “you treat them with respect, and they’ll do the same for you.” Her ticket home included a week in Japan, then five days in Hawaii to catch up with friends before depositing her in Anchorage for the next gig.
“And a quarter of your bonus, you bitch.”
Kathy cocked her head with a victorious smile. “Don’t fuck with the program.” And we all drank again.
I’ve heard that the length of time men can drink together in silence is a function of how long they’ve known each other; watching Kathy swirl her glass, I wondered if the same was true for women. I knew Maura and Alex pretty well — hell, I wished I knew Alex better, but didn’t every guy on station?
We let a good minute pass. Maura seemed far away, just a trace of mischief perched on the corner of her lips, while Kathy mused contently over the amber in her glass. She’d poured me a healthy shot from the bottle purporting to be Jameson’s, but it didn’t even taste like whiskey. No doubt someone had thought they were doing everyone a favor by consolidating a few bottles to get rid of some empties. I set the glass down and dug at my pockets, strangely unsure of what to do with my hands when I was in the Lounge and not holding a drink.
It was hard being the rookie here. Three years in, and I still had nothing that these women hadn’t already heard, or seen for themselves. Sure, I had stories from back home, but there was a time and place for stories from back home, and that time was not now. For some folks here, that time was never. For some, there was no such thing as “back home” anymore, and for some, that was the way they liked it.
I’d learned, one quiet morning during a storm, that for Maura, “back home” was a 1987 Westfalia in long-term storage at the Canterbury Airpark. When she wasn’t wintering over, she’d spend the New Zealand autumn as a kayak guide at Milford or Nelson, or wherever there was work. And when she was tired of that, well, you didn’t have a lot of expenses down here, so there was money to let the whim carry you where it would until the ice called your name again. For a kid her age, she had a hell of a lot of stories from places that for me were just jumbled letters I couldn’t even pronounce, let alone put on a map: Kalimantan, Tuvalu, Ulaanbatur.
The Ice had called all of us in different ways. You didn’t just drift down to the bottom of the map and fall off the edge by accident. You jumped. You heard the call and you jumped. But I don’t think any of us could explain it, any more than a moth could tell you why it’s drawn to the flame.
For me, it was that cab ride back in Chicago, that storm in January when the city shut down for five days. There was an old USAP tag on his rear-view mirror. “You think this is bad?” He laughed. And once he started talking about it, he couldn’t stop. He said its name in capital letters — The Ice — like you’d say the name of God, or the Devil. Like it was a living thing. He said its name like it was a woman who’d left him.
Seven years, he said. Seven years at Pole, pushing snow in an old D7 before a slipped disk one summer left him NPQ — not physically qualified. And sometimes, he said, sometimes when he first woke in the flat light of a winter morning, he still wasn’t sure which was the dream, and which was his real life.
There was a bitterness behind the sadness in his eyes, but also a lingering wonder, an ember smoldering among the ash. It was there in the way he paused between words. Magnificent. Desolation. I couldn’t tell if that was one sentence or two, but it woke some yearning in me that I’d never known I had.
He shook his head, said most folks had no idea what the hell he was talking about. But the ones that did — oh, somehow they knew.
Audrey thought I was joking at first. “Well, you always did want to be an astronaut.”
Her smile lasted about five seconds, just long enough for the worried silence to draw her gaze away from the southbound commuter traffic. Just long enough for her eyes to meet mine, and it was like she’d seen a ghost. I didn’t have to say anything.
“Seriously? You’d really do it?”
I remember: her voice was different then. It was the voice you’d use when your doctor told you that your tests had come back and, well, there was something he needed to tell you.
I didn’t know how to answer. Yes, I’d do it? If I could? The best I could manage was a nod. Yes, if I could. Seriously.
She bit her lip — there were calculations going on a mile a minute behind that impassive, thoughtful gaze out the window.
“How long would you be gone?”
And I remember that voice too. I remember the deadness and surrender in the way she said it: she said it exactly the way you’d say, “Doctor — how long do I have?”
Alex must have been watching me fidget; she pursed her lips, slid me a sympathetic, “sad puppy” frown, then lobbed a conversational log onto the fire.
“What about Flake?”
Maura shook her head — oh don’t get me started. But Kathy was game. “Yeah? What about Flake?”
“Oh come on. If you want to talk about fucking with the program…”
Apparently everyone but me knew about Flake. Like I said, it takes damned near forever to hear all the stories, and it’s not like anyone keeps a list.
No one could seem to remember his real name. That’s the way it is on the ice: you get yourself anointed for some brilliant — or more likely boneheaded — act of derring do, and the name your parents gave you slips away into the drifts. I could think of a dozen Polies offhand — Storm, Froggy, Dog — so firmly ingrained in my mind that it never occurred to me anyone had ever called them anything else.
“So — Flake?”
Alex said he was about five years ago. Came on as a GA, a general assistant for the summer, shoveling snow and hauling crap for whoever he’d been assigned to that day.
“You’d think he’d never seen snow before. He was always, ‘This is so freakin cool, man! Do you realize we’re at the freakin’ bottom of the freakin’ world, man? The spinny part!’” Her SoCal surfer dude impression was unnerving.
So everyone pegged Flake as a prime candidate for early burnout. There was even a pool in the galley for how long he’d last. Money was on one month — two months, max. But he kept going, like the Energizer Bunny, like every day was Christmas morning. Folks would come in and say “Hey, you see the Flake Channel this morning? He was out doing snow angels in the sastrugi.”
Even in January, when everyone else was slogging through the Season of Pain, Flake was Little Miss Sunshine. Started getting on people’s nerves a little, but at the same time, folks sort of envied his enthusiasm.
But everyone was surprised when, a couple of weeks prior to redeploy, he announced that he wanted to winter over.
“A little late, wasn’t it?”
“A little. Even if there’d been a position for him, we were all headed home. And to winter, he’d need to pass Psych.”
“You think he would have passed?”
There was a shrug of consensus. Hell, Henry passed. And there were plenty of stories about how people gamed the psych eval. It was, as Kathy reminded us, still based on an old Navy test designed to weed out homosexuals.
There were also perfectly innocent things that could get you knocked out of the running. “Like, when they ask how much you drink? Right answer is one or two drinks a day.”
“What if you don’t actually drink?”
“They’ll think you’re lying.” Alex peered at me as if over schoolmarm glasses, then down at the putative whiskey in my hand. “And they don’t like people who lie.”
But yeah, she said, Flake probably could have passed Psych; he was just a little too late in the game for that year. But he started asking around, asking everybody if there was any way he could stay, asking like he’d be happy to blow Carter if it meant he didn’t have to redeploy.
She let the image sink in, relishing the squeamish look on my face.
“No, I don’t think he was Carter’s type, but Dave’s a good guy and managed to get him a late flight out, something like two days before station close. Bought him an extra week or two.”
Sounded like all anyone could do, right? But then, a day before his flight, Flake disappeared.
“Yeah, gone — just like that. Carter organized a search, but we all assumed he was just hiding somewhere, hoping to miss the last flight out.”
It turned out that the last person to see him had been some grad school beaker on his way to muster for redeployment. Flake had told him that the flight boomeranged, returned to MacTown with some mechanical issue. So the kid went back to his bunk to sleep off last night’s going away party.
“Don’t tell me.”
“Ahyup. Flight came in. Flight left. On time, and with everyone on manifest aboard.”
Wait — don’t they check names before letting you board?
“Well yeah, but, the only guys who really care about the manifest are the loadies who come in with the plane. And they’re just reading tags off parkas and matching them to what’s written on their clipboard.”
“So he stole the beaker’s parka?”
Alex rolled her eyes at my naivety. “Didn’t need to. Not all that hard to make yourself a new tag, is it? Label maker’s in the supply closet. Flake probably stuck it on as he walked out to the flight line and pulled it off as soon as the loadie had checked him in. And once he was onboard it was all one big happy, wasn’t it? No one on the Herc would have any idea he wasn’t supposed to be there.”
I was still trying to decide whether I liked this guy. I couldn’t fault his enthusiasm, but there were a lot of missing pieces.
“So he knows he can’t stay at Pole. But what’s he going to do at Mac Town? And wasn’t he going to be flying home through Mac anyway?”
“That he was. But I guess he wanted to do it on his own terms. Maybe give himself a better chance of hiding there.”
“At least better luck hiding out and surviving.”
The only way you could hide at Pole was if you didn’t mind them not finding your body until spring. But McMurdo, out on the edge of the Ross Sea, was damn close to being an entire town. Sure, some Polies liked to disparage it as “barely Antarctica,” but it was still on the ice, and it was the logistical nerve center of the entire program; little came onto or left the continent that didn’t go through Mac Town.
“Carter tried to keep it low-key. He called management at Mac, but they had their hands full with other crap: that was the year the ice pier collapsed, and they were trying to get engineers in to help them figure out how to finish vessel offload before all hell really broke loose.
So they ignored it, figuring that he’d either turn up on his own, or they’d get a note from Tahiti saying Thanks for all the fish.
It was about two weeks later that they did get a note, handwritten and slid under the NSF Rep’s door at the Chalet: said Flake was holed up somewhere in town, and that he was there to stay.
Now, you can imagine how this went over, not only with Denver — they’ll get hissy if someone shits without using the proper form. But Lindbeck was managing at Mac back then. He was ex-Navy, old school, and barely tolerated all the beakers running around messing up his station with their damned science experiments. There was no way he was going to tolerate some candyass pampered GA from Pole dictating terms to him. He called in the marshal and had a warrant issued for Flake’s arrest. Even put up “wanted” posters in Crary, Berg and 155.
“Which, of course, was exactly the wrong thing to do. You know how folks love an outlaw. Especially in a place like Mac Town. I mean, think about it: Mac is a government base. It’s administered by federal bureaucrats half a world away, but kept running by a mix of mellow old hippies and crazy teenagers on their first time off the farm. It’s a miracle the damned place actually works most of the time.
So it was pretty predictable: when Lindbeck put up those posters, he transformed Flake from some goofball into a local hero. For the hippies and the closet rebels, he was “sticking it to the man”; for everyone else, he was just good entertainment at the end of a long, hard season.
“It couldn’t have been that hard to find him.”
“You’d be surprised. You’ve got to remember that even late in the season, Mac’s got what — over a thousand people? All you really need are one or two friends to keep you fed and hidden.”
The marshal offered a reward and set up an anonymous tip line. But that turned into a joke right away: he’d get two or three calls a day saying Flake was on some closed off floor in DV housing, upstairs in the fuel barn, or behind the washing machines in 211. And pretty soon it started spilling over into everything else: if there was some on-the-QT hooch party in Hotel California you didn’t get invited to, you’d bust it by calling in that Flake was there. Or if you were fancying that new Strat in the music room? You’d be amazed at how much missing crap got written off as “Flake must’ve taken it.”
Alex drifted off here for a moment, a wistful smile sneaking its way onto her face.
“But I guess Denver lost patience and decided that getting him off the Ice before station close was more important than saving face, Lindbeck’s ego be damned. They found someone who could get a note to him quietly and asked what it would take to get him to turn himself in. Terms, as they say, were not disclosed.”
So Flake just strolled into Gallagher’s one evening, looking as fresh out of the laundry as the day he arrived. And apparently there were mixed feelings when he did: some folks slapped him on the back and shook his hand for having beaten the system; others seemed more…reserved. Maybe his little escapade had screwed up their R and R. Or maybe he’d just gotten away with something they never could.
Flake told everyone he was going to spend some time on the South Island when he got off the ice. Maybe he’d head to Thailand after that; maybe he’d hike the Napali Trail. You got the idea that, whatever they settled with him, the terms didn’t suck.
“But you know they’ll make damned sure he’ll never be back. And I’d bet a twenty that Lindbeck had his bag sent to Guam.”
Kathy swirled the last of the whiskey in her glass, drained it, then set it down on the bar with an air of finality. We let the silence sink in again.
“How’s that, sweetie?”
“Nothing, sorry.” I hadn’t realized the word had come out aloud; hadn’t wanted it to. But Flake had thrown it all away. Question wasn’t whether you had to go — time comes, we all have to go. Question was whether you left yourself any way of getting back. I said it again, this time only in my head: Idiot.
“You think you’ll ever come back?”
Kathy contemplated an answer through her empty glass and swirled it again meditatively, more through force of habit than any interest in its former contents.
“I guess it depends.”
“On a lot of things. On the money, for sure. On the timing, too. Things change fast in my line of work. Who knows where I’ll be when they put the call out for next season.”
She wasn’t done, though — you could tell there was still something on her mind. We waited.
“Mostly I guess it depends how long it takes before I run out of stories.”
A low hum rose somewhere out on the ramp. Out in the frozen everlasting sunlight, beyond the warm, dark cocoon of the Summer Camp Lounge, it grew to a whine as the Herc’s engines reached takeoff power and the ponderous steel bird gathered speed. It was airborne by the time it passed us, doppler-shifting away, northbound, the only direction there was down here.
Onboard that midnight flight? Probably some old pallets of hardware getting retro’ed to Mac Town. Packages and love letters home. Probably a few beakers, too, wide-eyed and wondrous from their two weeks Doing Science at the Bottom of the World. Clutching their precious data, yes, but holding closer to something more valuable, something they would carry with them long after the march of science made their little ones and zeros irrelevant. Something that would be with them forever, whether or not they ever came back. Something that we, down here, tossed around like fool’s gold and traded for a turn at the bottle in the Summer Camp Lounge. Go on, pour me another shot of whatever crap you’re drinking. Go on, and I’ll tell you another one.
DISCLAIMER: ALL OF THIS IS MADE UP.* It’s a work of fiction. None of the people (with the exception of Storm, Froggy and Dog — hi guys!) are real, and none of this ever happened. Especially not the part about Denver, and Lindbeck — program management is much better than that, and I love them all dearly. Please don’t make any inferences about life in Antarctica based on anything in this story.
*Except for the bit about Storm and Old Pole. I couldn’t have made up that sort of thing.
Author’s Note: This is actually an old set of sketches that I pulled together last year. I went through countless unsatisfying iterations before Marilyn (my wise and beloved editor) asked me point blank:
M: “You do know what this story is about, don’t you?”
P: “Uh, people hanging out in Summer Camp Lounge swapping tales?”
M: (Shakes head patiently.) “It’s about leaving. It’s about knowing you have to leave, and making a decision about what that exit is going to look like. You did know that, didn’t you?”
P: (Glazed look signals that I had no clue what I was writing about.)
M: (Shakes head patiently.) “Now give it another try.”
So I did. I hope you enjoyed the result.