“Grab your ECW,” Kip* barked at me across the floor of the carp shop.
The year was 1999, and I was employed in the carpentry (carp) shop at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, as a general assistant … the bottom rung on the shop’s hierarchy. Kip, being a few levels above me, had every right to order me around.
“ECW” is code for Extreme Cold Weather gear. It’s the set cold-weather clothing issued to every U.S.-associated person on the continent upon deployment. And the rule is that every time you head out of the main station, you must have your ECW with you. You know, in case something bad happens on the road, and you need to stay warm.
So what Kip was saying was, “I need your help on a job outside town.”
I ran back to my room, stuffed my ECW into its orange bag, and headed back to the carp shop to wait for Kip. Two bright-orange Ford F250 trucks were assigned to the carpentry team, and usually one or the other was available for tasks like this. Though what our actual task was … I had no idea. (Incidentally, this is where I learned to drive stick – in a massive orange truck on the back roads of McMurdo.)
Kip met me at the truck and threw a few shovels into the open bed. He tossed his ECW bag in, and I did the same. Of course, Kip got behind the driver’s seat, and I vaulted myself into the passenger side (the trucks were so high off the ground, and the heavy clothing so restrictive, that sometimes getting in was no easy task).
We rode in silence outside McMurdo, past the New Zealand base. Roads in Antarctica are marked by flags; in a storm, there’s no way you can follow tire tracks in the snow. Our route followed the flags until the bases receeded behind us, Kip scanning the scenery … for what, again, I had no idea.
Suddenly he spotted something and made a sharp right turn. Our truck headed for a flag that looked different from the rest. As we pulled up next to it, I read, “SSSI.” Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Kip killed the engine, jumped out, and retrieved the shovels. He handed one to me with a simple command: “Dig.”
So … you aren’t supposed to disturb a Site of Special Scientific Interest. That’s the idea behind the special flag. Stay away. Do not disturb. Do not touch. But who was I to question my boss? On a sheet of sea ice, with no one around?
We both started digging in the show. A few feet deep … nothing. Kip looked at the SSSI flag and picked a new spot. We dug down a few feet again … nothing.
We switched to digging more shallow holes. And finally we found what he was looking for … a patch of snow that was different from the rest. A layer of snow that had clearly been disturbed, melted, and frozen into a layer of ice. We’d found the spot.
With more excitement we were chipping our way through the ice, working with our shovels to break up the thick layer, sweating in our heavy clothing … until finally … *thunk*. A hollow plastic-y sound. We worked our way around the object to reveal … a plastic trunk. About four feet square, by maybe a foot or two deep.
Kip put down his shovel. And stepped into the hole. Of course, he would get the honor of opening the trunk. I stood back, quietly watching as he unlatched the icy clasp. The hinges squeaked, and the lid opened, to reveal ….
Meat. Slabs of frozen meat. Meat smuggled on a plane and flown in from New Zealand. Meat brought out to the sea ice plains, and burried in the snow, frozen for who-knows-how-long. And now, meat that would be, as became plainly obvious to me in an instant, thawed, barbecued, and served to feed hungry crowds at legendary carp shop Saturday night party coming up over the weekend.
We paused for a few hero shots, tossed the meat into the bed of the truck, and drove back to town.
* Fifteen years have faded my memory, so Kip may or may not be the correct name. I think it is, though.
** I was so certain that this meat was for the big carp shop shindig. But looking at the date on the photo … perhaps it was for the 12/31/1999 Y2K party?