Will the last one off the continent please turn off the lights?

I’ve debated whether or not to retroactively post what I had been writing in Christchurch first before dealing with the crisis at hand, but I’m not usually keen on ignoring the elephant seal in the room so I’ll follow the example of the NSF and jump right in. It’ll be a long one.

As some of you have no doubt read elsewhere, the summer season for the US Antarctic Program has been canceled. Upon my flight’s arrival at McMurdo’s Pegasus runway, we were loaded into the Kress (the same vehicle which had picked me up upon arrival at the Sea Ice Runway last year) and driven to the Chalet – the building that houses all the administrative offices of McMurdo – for orientation. That’s where we first heard the announcement that had been made to the rest of the station earlier that day. What that actually meant for our jobs no one could tell us for sure. What they could tell us was that all three stations would be going into “caretaker mode” which is basically the station status during winter – keep the buildings from being destroyed by the environment. They could also tell us it would take 120-160 days to resupply and ready all the facilities for this status, that some airlift operations would still be necessary so C17s and Hercs would still be flying to the Pole, and so some staff would, of course, still be needed but the actual numbers were still being negotiated. The bars were closed and all alcohol sales in the store halted immediately. There would be no science. There would also be no cargo vessel.

After dropping that bomb, we then had to sit through about 20 minutes of the regular orientation. For me, the ridiculousness of listening to one of the admins advise us on recreational activities around town and dorm policies kept threatening to bubble up into nervous laughter. I might be out of a job and going home tomorrow – what did it matter that the dorms are meant to be kept quiet or that the Discovery Hut would be closed for restoration for most of the season? I had some not-inconsequential bills that were about to come due and I had been rather counting on this job. And what about my winter contract? Was I going to be sent home only to have to turn around and fly back down for winter? If that was the case, could they send me “home” to Viet Nam rather than Seattle? So so so many questions and I knew there was no point in asking because at this point, no one in the administration would be able to give me concrete answers.

Todd, the Culinary Manager, met the four of us newly arrived culinary staff as the orientation ended and I gave him a big hug…I think more because I needed it than because I was glad to see him, although, of course, I was. He told us cooks who had just arrived to come to his office at 7pm that night for a meeting. I asked him how much I should unpack and he said, “Not very”, which made my stomach contract with anxiety. Off I marched to get my linens and check out my room – I was housed in the uppercase dorms again…not too surprising given how empty the station was at a population of about 400, although some people arriving were still being put into 155. This time I was put on the first floor of 207 which meant I wouldn’t have all the residual heat rising to the third floor, like I did last year in 208. I opened the door and out wafted the gentle odor of slightly stale vomit. Lovely. My only thought was that a firefighter must have lived here previously. Uncharitable, I know, but…. Then my roommate arrived, with Todd in tow – it was Katherine (pronounced like Kai-thlin), our new baker, here for her first season. Criminy, and here I was mentally complaining about what a crappy homecoming I was having. This must have been a terrible first impression for her! Todd left us and I started trying to show her around – I explained how the shared bathroom worked and showed her how to open the door if our neighbors ever forgot to unlock our door after they were finished, then we headed to the galley. Even though I had no appetite, I was craving some familiarity. In the galley kitchen, I found and hugged Mark, who proceeded to tell me of the near disaster of the plane that had arrived the day before ours. We’re already calling it the Flight That Almost Crashed. I’m not kidding – apparently the station had started preparing for what they call a “Mass Casualty Incident” (MCI) as the plane circled for three hours, trying to burn up fuel to lessen the scope of any explosion if they had to belly land. I’ve heard conflicting reports that they were considering a belly landing because either the weather was so bad they couldn’t see the runway or their landing gear wouldn’t come down. Either way, it sounded like a pretty terrifying experience, particularly in comparison to our super smooth landing.

After that, I grabbed a small bowl of food and headed out into the dining area, where I found Andrew, my firefighter friend who had wintered. It was good to see him but in general, everyone had kind of a dazed look, either from wintering or from the news. Katherine and I ate and Alex (formerly Midrat prep cook last season) joined us, all of us talking about not unpacking, if we were going home, etc. Quite a few people seemed to be of the opinion that my winter contract might be my saving grace – after all, they had to keep SOME cooks down here to feed people and it would definitely be cheaper to keep me here until I went to Pole but… things that make sense don’t always come to pass down here. By the time we’d finished dinner, it was time to get our bags so off we trudged up the hill to Building 140 to hunt down our bags. We were able to get “Bellhop Service”, which is to say that some shuttle drivers threw our bags in the backs of pickup trucks and drove them to the door of our dorm. Fortunately, being on the first floor meant no lugging bags up stairs this year! So I dragged all my bags in, dug out what I would need for work the next day, made up my bed, and went to meet Todd in his office. He didn’t have much more to add – there was still too much unknown – but he reiterated that there would still be people to cook for so they would still need cooks, he just didn’t know how many they would be allowed to keep. After our little meeting – and even though I was scheduled to go for a run that night – I went home to sleep, rather uneasily.

For the next five days, my schedule was blissfully simple: work for ten-ish hours, go home and read or nap for a bit to give my legs a break, then go for a run at the gym, stop in the galley for two glasses of Gatorade (“Which they have stocked this time! I can’t believe I shipped some to myself! Oh shit! If I get sent home what about my packages?” is basically how my thought process ran), then back to my room for a shower, a slathering of lotion ALL over, and into bed. Every day I tried to just be thankful that I got to do my job for one more day.

Truth be told, this was actually much harder than it probably sounds, mostly because – as I recently realized – I was coping with a certain amount of what I could only liken to “survivor’s guilt”. Some of my friends I had worked with last year had been in Christchurch with me and were supposed to have followed me down to the Ice on the next flight – some of these people had actually been on my flight to Christchurch so we should have been on the same Ice Flight. But for whatever reason, I had been bumped forward to the flight on the 9th, while they were meant to fly on the 10th. In fact, the four of us from the galley that had arrived on the 9th had been moved to that flight arbitrarily. No one knew why. But now it meant that I still had a job and they didn’t and that made me feel terrible. On top of which, my kitchen companion Sarah – who had preceded me to the Ice by a day and a half – was upset because South Pole’s Exec Chef had approached me for the winter contract and not her, when he had initially hired both of us last season before we got shifted to McMurdo. Again, I don’t know why that was the case but the implication was that I had betrayed her somehow by taking the job. Then I got an email from one of our HR people in Denver that my Pole PQ was not, in fact, completely confirmed as I had been lead to believe, and that I would have to meet with the psychologist again at the end of my summer contract to “check in” before the psychologist would sign off on my Winter PQ. It was just more uncertainty heaped onto the pile of uncertainty with which I was already coping. If this was last season, I would headed straight to Roger’s room for a hug and a beer and a silly movie or maybe a hike. This year, there was no Roger and, for probably the first time since March, I missed his friendship terribly. So I made sure to run instead.

Finally, on Monday, it was announced that the staffing quotas had finally been negotiated and there would be an All Hands Meeting in the galley at 1300, followed by meetings with our supervisors in our work centers to hear who made the cut and who didn’t. At noon, that meeting was pushed back to 1530. I tried to stay focused on my work which is, once again, running the vegetarian entrees for lunch and dinner. At 1530, we crowded into the dining area for the All Hands, which took fifteen minutes – just long enough for our station manager, Steve Dunbar, to announce that these were the final numbers, and reminding us all that no one enjoyed this process and to please be sensitive to our supervisors, for whom this was tremendously difficult, as well as our coworkers who would be losing their jobs. Then he released us to our work centers.

Todd gathered us in the bakery and made the announcement that thanks to Dan Pickett, the head of Gana-A’Yoo Services Corporation here on the Ice, everyone currently on the Ice for GSC would be able to keep their jobs for the time being; at the earliest, a few people would be going home after 6 weeks but most everyone’s departure date was slated for February. Dan had apparently fought hard to keep all of us on as long as possible and it had paid off. The relief was almost tangible. That night, I had one of my best runs to date and then slept deeply. And seeing as Tuesday was the end of my work week, my spirits were climbing as I geared up for my first day off since I got here.

So that’s the deal: I’m staying, probably until January or February, at which point I’m still slated to go to Pole, pending the additional psychologist interview which is likely due to some incidents that happened over this past winter (which I will tell you about later, perhaps when I think my mother isn’t reading). A lot of people are going home, being given less than 24 hours to pack, and feeling untethered, uncertain, angry, and a little confused about what to do now. Some who had originally gotten as far as Christchurch during deployment are going to try and hang around in case the “lights get turned back on”, and perhaps a position will open up for them. It’s also unclear how wide-spread the ramifications of the steps currently being taken will be. No science means a lot of ongoing projects will have gaps in data. No cargo vessel means no resupply for next summer, which will limit the amount of science we can support next summer if there even is a next summer. The NSF remains committed to ensuring the safety of all personnel down here but it doesn’t seem entirely ridiculous that we may eventually have to beg the Kiwis for a lift home if the money runs out, which seems more likely now than ever.

For now, I will continue my little routine of working, reading, running, and sleeping…with brief excursions to the lounges or the bars (if they’re ever reopened) to be social with the dwindling community. I can’t do much about the survivor’s guilt except to try and let it go, although it helps when I feel I can offer some comfort to those whose contracts were terminated and just need someone to listen to them. And today I’m spending my day off trying to get the blog updated, doing laundry, and running some more. We ARE getting mail as I received one of the soft envelopes I sent from Bellingham before I left so that’s encouraging. Hopefully they’ll resume package mail once flights become more regular but today we’re approaching Condition 1 weather so everything is canceled once again. I’ll try and keep the blog going as best I can because, hey, this is a historic event in the life of the USAP.

Love to you all.

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5 responses to “Will the last one off the continent please turn off the lights?

  1. Thanks so much for posting! Always know that we love you and we’re proud of you – no matter how much the government dicks around.

  2. Hi Jessa,
    NPR interviewed one of the female scientists whose work would suffer from the gaps in data because of the shutdown. I knew then that you might be impacted as well. I appreciate hearing that you will still have your job, especially now that the Republicans gave in today (10/16). Thinking about you girl!

  3. Thought about you immediately I heard news of the shutdown, and then about the massive impact on the science programmes. Great to read your blog and to know that you are fine. To quote a British expression at you; “keep your chin up”.

  4. I think your unique skills you demonstrated last season has something to do with you still being there.
    Good luck and keep us up-to-date!

  5. Mother is always reading(especially between the lines). Hoping you will call and give details in person before posting on blog. Although I think I can guess at psych’s agenda with you… Happy to know via brother about Dec.2014 plans. Insh’allah

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