MacTown not your normal small town

by wonderfullyrich on October 31, 2005

First, I have a request for regular reports of the weather.  It’s about 20 degrees as a high with a 5-10 knot wind and mostly sunny these days (22 hours or so).  .  The sun is doing a good job of making a sun watcher dizzy by just going around the sky all the time.  The low is about 0-5 degrees depending giving a wind chill of about 0 degrees I think.

Second, is that I’m heading to happy camper school today so I’ll be gone for about 36 hours and out of contact.  They stick your butt out on the ice to give you the skills and confidence to be able to survive contact with Extreme Cold Weather in case of a helo crash, or your stuck somewhere during condition 1, or etc.  No problem, I’ll be back soon. 🙂

Now that that’s done, here’s the good stuff.  In MacTown (otherwise known as McMurdo) we’ve got something that obviously a fair number of 1100 summer residents seem to enjoy and return to every year.  Even more there’s obviously some appeal to the coldest, driest, windiest, and perhaps the craziest place to live for all the 3000 US yearly transients of Antarctica, but it’s not the weather, nor perhaps the accommodations, or the food.  Some might say it’s the view, but for those of us who work at a station job most of the day (rather then or who were paid to come and do paintings) we really don’t see as much of it as we’d like, nor do we have that much time.  Nine hours of work a day plus sleep, eating, and sundries doesn’t allow you ever enough time hike, bike, snowboard, ski, or rock climb, but they all can be done.  What then is the appeal of a place like McMurdo or Antarctica?

My guess is the community that’s here.  It’s just different here.  In most small towns (Let’s say Walden, Colorado) you have a small town at the center of a larger rural area.  We do something similar, but it’s slightly different because we are all drawn here and put up with a fair amount of crap to get here and stay for a year or less at a time.  This place is constantly filled with new faces or returnees from years past.  It’s an addiction that doesn’t entirely let go for many people.  In some ways it’s very much like high school or college in a good way.  You are forced to meet new people and you constantly interact with them for a long period of time learning foibles and fact, helping those who need it, and building a new sense of community.  At the same time your walking into a place with it’s own history that transcends your presence. 

Some come here for the paycheck, but most come for the sense of adventure or the pride of knowing they are supporting multiple scientific endeavors.  Along the way those people have left an indelible mark on a this place, some tangible objects, like a troll under a bridge, or a sculpture outside of town, or being the first trebuchet to have been built and used on Antarctica.  Others have left stories behind, like that of the old fart who’s returned to the station back when it open 50 years ago as a US Naval Base.

So unlike when you go to work everyday and run into a person who’s not happy with their job, their boss, their lack of a girl/boyfriend, a house, a computer, or whatever, people here are generally happier (or at least more content) with their life here on station or in Antarctica because of the fact that they had the choice to come here and the choice to come back.  This isn’t to say that there’s aren’t miserable people here or people who don’t hate what they do–how would you like to be a Dining Assistant for 4 months or a full year–but most of those I know make the most of it and are loving the experience and friends they’ve made.  I have found it’s amazing the number of people in the lowest paid positions have Bachelors degrees in things like Environmental Engineering, or Philosophy, Culinary Arts, or Physics, etc.  We’ve got a smart bunch down here of a variety of political leanings and values.  Not everyone gets along, but the job gets done and we seem to have fun or enjoy ourselves. 

We have the size of a small town, but it’s probably much like a small company town.  We have the feeling of purpose in science support, the adventure of being on a frontier, the politics of the old west (hating the government yet sometimes being paid to do it’s ventures), a community of survival and safety, and the day to day challenge of making do with not quite everything on an island of the harshest continent in the world.  (McMurdo is on the southern tip of Ross Island off the coast of Antarctica.  We are here because it’s the most southern place you can get a ship in the world.)

There’s something more that I think is great about this place and I think I can illustrate it best by a good friend, Mr. "Billam" Scott (my inspiration for coming down here).  He came down to MacTown two years ago as an Administrative Assistant to the on ice head of Fire, Electrical, Mechanical, and Construction department (a rather large and crucial part of making this place work).  It was just a summer gig and he did he’s 4 months then took off, only to return again (at the outcry of many like me who demand his presence more often!), but this time he did it for a year.  The first 4 months was as an admin assistant again, but this time he found an over austral winter contract as a Fire Technician Helper.  Now, that’s a bit of a digression from keeping people in line a the boss’s orders.  You get to crawl around in odd places and blow out fire sensors in air ducts or troubleshoot dumb bloody alarm systems that decide they want to be caressed a bit.  What’s fun about this is that Bill’s gone back to the US and learned an entirely new skill, picked up some great contacts in that area, and is now contemplating a real career in the fire protection industry.

Within this lot of 1000+ people here at MacTown, we have Electricians, Plumbers, Air Force Pilots, Helicopter Pilots, Twin Otter Pilots, Fuelies (most everything is diesel powered down here, i.e. water heaters, and not much has a direct line from our fuel tanks), Lab Technicians, a Dentist, Nurses, Cargo specialist, mechanics, heavy mechanics, cooks, professional recreation organizers, carpenters, meteorologist, scientist and science support staff of all sorts, communication specialist (radio, network, extra terrestrial, etc), and on, and on.  It takes a lot for the US to build and maintain the only permanent year round permanent stations in Antarctica.  (Most of the other nations come up for the austral summer then and shut down, and many come through us first to start up.)  This is truly a unique place where you can meet people your totally unlike to meet in the states, and find a new passion or develop an existing one beyond your normal ability at home. 

I am in fact on my way to getting licensed to use an Amateur Radio by several of the HAM radio enthusiasts down here.  I’ve ordered a handheld radio and will someday soon have a callsign to add to my signature lines.  These are the strange events and happy things that have happened to many people down here.  Some find jobs, some find new passions, some find a new person that they can fall in love with, and for others, they can re-define earthly beauty. 

I can honestly say that I have not been this happy in years.  I spent today realizing that I walk around and find reasons to giggle or flat out laugh more often here then I probably have in the last 6 months.  After I caught the fish, Wendy Simmons (the current FEMC Administrative Assistant) caught me giggling at random intervals for the rest of the day as I thought about how unlikely and luck I am to have caught a fish here in Antarctica.  Not to mention that I love my job, and it’s walking around, interacting with people etc.  (I hate the politics, but they get left out of most of my life, and I’m more vested in life then in making and improving this place "MY" goal in life.)  I come into the office and hum right along with the songs in my head, smile at random intervals, and let the world come to me as it will.

I the big city and I’ll be back (both home and here), but it’s just a different community that we live in down here.  Maybe, just maybe, I have given you something else to see about it.


P.S.  I should have some 2005 McMurdo Halloween pictures in the next week or so.

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