22nd August 2005

191 Days in Fredericksburg

So when we last spoke, I had recently arrived on the scene in Fredericksburg. For many of you, who thought I was going to a wee isle off Scotland to mind a hostel for a few months, this came as a surprise. For me too. I had little desire to go back to flying right then, and even less desire to go back to Virginia. But there was a need. I felt compelled in ways that few people could really understand at the time. And lets be honest, I had student loans to finish paying.

I'm not going to rehash the circumstances that took me there; that has been done enough already. I was thrust right back into the flight role, and it was a relief for me to find that it came back pretty naturally. For me it was great to find that I really knew the work, not just the job. Many things were different than MedSTAR, and in many ways better, but I picked up on them pretty quickly. I was elated, and maybe a bit surprised, at the way I was welcomed into the LifeEvac family.

The people I shortly came to know there are an amazing bunch of people, and I'm going to take a small aside and address them directly. You had all just been through our collective worst nightmare, and how many of you were able to even stand up in the morning completely escapes me. I'm not sure that I would have been able to do it. But you did it because there was work to be done and a legacy to honor and so many much more personal reasons that some of you revealed to me but that I can never hope truly to understand.

I think that many assumed that I knew Nicki and that that was what motivated me to come back, but that's not the case. I never had the pleasure of knowing her as you did. Taking on her work came pretty naturally to me; she did everything exactly the way I would have, only she did it better. There were so many things that I wondered, so many questions that I never felt comfortable asking, but in a way perhaps that is just as well. From your stories I know that she was an amazing person, and in the end perhaps that's all that really matters.

I am honored that I was able to spend that short time with you, and hope that the work I did played at least a small part in making things right again. There are few times that a person gets to meet their hero, but I would give that title to every one of you. It was a privilege flying with you.

End the aside.

I'll put in an early request for Christmas presents, for anyone whose list my name may appear on. I don't really need anything this year (in 3 more paragraphs you'll understand better why exactly this is), and as much as gifts of cash are appreciated I think that they end up being kind of anticlimactic for both of us. There was an account set up after the accident in the memory of Nicki and Joe to provide scholarships for paramedic and medical students. Please consider contributing whatever you would have spent on me to that worthwhile cause. Donations can be sent to:

Nicole Kielar and Joe Schaefer Memorial Fund
c/o Bank of America
1481 Carl D Silver Parkway
Fredericksburg, VA 22401

The tax ID number is 13-4291860.

The Deerslayer
It wasn't all work though. There were so many things that I wanted to do that never happened. I wanted to see some of the old DC friends more than I got to. I wanted to find someone to speak Spanish with, it would have been really easy to do. I would have liked to get out hiking and camping more.

But there are some pretty great things that happened in those 191 days. I got to drive the world's most awesome automobile, The Deerslayer, which Sarah's family was generous enough to rent/loan to me for most of the time I was there. (Deerslayer is a 1989 Toyota Tercel, brown in color and musty in smell, lacking heat, vent, air conditioning and radio but chock full of character. Also, it single-handedly slaughtered several deer before it came to my hands, hence the name.) In May my friend Laura of Chapter 1 fame stopped by for a few days' visit on her way to Chicago. July took my friend and I to Burlington, Vermont, just for the hell of it, since I had a couple of round trip airline passes to burn. And in those 191 days that passed more quickly than I could imagine I came to make some great friends, some of which will certainly figure into future chapters.

In the meantime, let's get back to the affairs at hand…

Welcome to McMurdo
22nd August 2005
Day Length: 1h 3m 57s
Length of Twilight: 8h 23m 39s
Length of my Shadow: 67.3m / 221 ft

"If you are looking for hard-core adventure, this is the place to go."
-From a Career Supplement in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, in 1999
The Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear everyone is issued in Christchurch.

Naturally, the response I heard from most people when I told them I was coming to Antarctica had something to do with the cold: "Are you crazy? How cold is it there?" I never bothered to ask how cold it was going to be and no one ever really said, because I never thought it would be much of an issue. There is always plenty that can be done about the cold: another layer, another log on the fire, curl up with a penguin (1). I knew that I would be issued plenty of cold weather clothing before I got here. The insides of the buildings are as warm and comfortable as buildings at lower latitudes. They just have more coat racks.

So we won't talk about the cold just yet, because it really doesn't matter that much. It's the things that aren't so obvious, and that aren't mentioned nearly enough in any of the reams of material they send to prepare you for deployment, that make life here so different from anywhere else.
My dormitory

The dryness, for one. Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest, emptiest continent. The complete lack of any moisture in the atmosphere outside (duh, it would freeze) translates into an equal lack of humidity inside. Clothes hung up after washing can be completely dry inside of an hour. In a warm room wet hair is almost dry before you can even put a shirt on. One breath and the nose screams for mercy. Any exposed flesh quickly dries and cracks and bleeds incessantly, despite six or eight slatherings a day of Vaseline Intensive Care.

Dryness is not an only child; static electricity is its hideously ugly stepbrother. It is almost possible to shuffle across a tile floor barefoot and still electrocute yourself on the doorknob. I heard a rumor that station management is planning on building a large generator apparatus around my bed to harness some of the static I create while tossing and turning in order to heat another building or two. I'm happy to pitch in in any way I can.
The Royal Society Range.

McMurdo Station is situated on Ross Island, a volcanic formation about 40 miles across in each direction. Its volcano, 13,500-foot (3,794 metre) Mount Erebus, is the southernmost active volcano on Earth. It has been known to eject lava bombs up to 8 metres in diameter over 1000 metres in the air. Fortunately, it's a little ways outside of town.

Mactown is at the southern end of Ross Island. The Royal Society Mountains stare back at us from the Antarctic mainland across McMurdo Sound. Scott Station, the New Zealand station, is about a mile and a half away. McMurdo is the population center of Antarctica: home to three international airports, a seaport, and a heliport; the only shopping for 2,400 miles; and nearly 1200 people during the summer season. It exists to serve the supply and logistical needs for the South Pole station and numerous research posts in the continent's interior.

Mass Transit, Antarctic style
Mactown has all the comforts of home…almost. There's no Starbucks, but we have the coffee house which is way better because it serves wine. No McDonalds either (Antarctica is the only continent without one), but there's the burger counter at one of our two bars. The galley churns out four meals a day during the summer. There are three gymnasiums, a chapel and a gas station that serves up diesel, gasoline and JP-8.

And there is a 42-member fire department. Much of the construction here is wood, and we already talked about the dryness that causes such a fire hazard. The constant heavy jet traffic requires extra vigilance. That's why I'm here. We don't do much in the way of emergency response, and if we do our other duties (continuous inspections and community education) we shouldn't have to. There are ninety-some-odd buildings on station. They are numbered like a military post, which is to say they are numbered in no particular order. And since everything is housed wherever space can be found, most of them have more than one name. Perhaps the most daunting task for fire department members is to memorize the numbers, names and locations of all of them. I think I'm about halfway there.

My Roommate (not my photo)
Times of year here are named by the transportation most recently arrived. This time of year is Winfly, short for Winter Fly-in. In six weeks there will be mainbody, when another 800 or so research and support people will arrive. That will last until the end of January, when the annual cargo resupply vessel arrives with food for the next year, which will mark the beginning of a short period called, aptly enough, 'vessel.' In mid-February 1000 people, myself included, will head back north, leaving about 200 hearty winter-overs until the next Winfly.

I think that the travelogues for this journey are going to take a slightly different turn, since the scenery won't be changing too much. Before I came down here, I had a hard time finding details about ordinary day-to-day life here. So my plan is to write about people around town, the jobs they do and what goes on after hours, of course accompanied by pictures. We'll see how well that actually works out. My plan for the time being is to post articles to the website as regularly as I can, but I probably won't send out e-mails about them unless there's something in particular I want to tell about.

So until then, check back occasionally for new posts, which I will try to put up regularly. Once October and Mainbody arrive, the newspaper will be available weekly on-line at www.polar.org/antsun/index.htm. And until then, try not to complain about the weather where you are too much. I assure you, it's more hospitable where you are…

Oh yes, the temperature. The high on 22 August, the day I arrived, was -12F/-24C, -50F/-45C with the windchill. The low was -33F/-36C, -72F/-58C with the windchill.


1. It turns out that cuddling with penguins is against more than a handful of international laws and treaties. Also, penguins are very needy and have sharp beaks.

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