Today I woke with Big Thoughts.
The past month or so, my Polar T3 (that’s what I’m blaming it on, anyway) has caused very intense thoughts when I wake, things that almost startle me awake with their clarity. They’ve ranged from the random (“The name of Jodie Foster’s character in The Silence of the Lambs was Clarice Starling!” Uhm…okay…) to topical and hilarious (the day after Paul Ryan was named Romney’s running mate, I woke to find my T3-addled brain singing a new version of the “Hokey Pokey”: “You put your right hand in/You throw my rights right out/You keep your right hand in and you throw your weight about/You do the G-O-Pokey and you throw Roe Wade right out/That’s what you’re all about.” Ha! That one’s pretty dang clever!)
Until this morning, my favorite T3 waking thought was one from a couple weeks ago: “You know, none of the people I respect and admire think I’m a bitch. Huh.”
This morning’s thought was a little more profound: “We are mortal. Because we are mortal, we die a little every day. We have no choice in that. What we can choose, however, is whether we live every day.”
I guess that’s my typically wordy recast of my favorite line from Braveheart: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”
That thought was still in my mind as I stumbled out of bed and into a new experience.
During my 20 months on the Ice, I never had a Sunday off. I’m not complaining. It’s just a fact that anyone who works in food service can understand. I’ve always been a baker or an AM shift cook down here, and Sunday Brunch, on the day off for most of the rest of the community, is a big deal. I never minded it. In fact, I liked having a day off when the rest of the community was working, in part because it was easier to get an open washer in the laundry room.
Today, however, the last Sunday of the winter season, I had off. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I got out of bed at 0547–normally, at that hour on a Sunday, the continental breakfast line should be set, coffee should be made, the levels of our milk dispensers should be checked, the day’s production list should be written…and here I was, rolling into the galley in my pajamas, uncaffeinated, wondering how to spend the next 18 or so hours before I could reasonably decide to go back to bed.
I wandered around the galley, getting coffee and talking to a few early risers. I confided my uncertainty about just how one does Sunday to one of them, George, one of my favorite people on the continent.
“Well,” he said, “Would you like to ride out with me to the runway? I need to check on it.”
Free ride to the runway (about 14 miles out of town)? You don’t have to ask me twice! Hells. Yeah.
So, an hour later, I was suited up and in a nicely heated pickup, rolling down the road to Pegasus, our airfield, named after a plane that crashed in the vicinity several years ago.
You know, most airports are named after aviation heroes, or statesmen, celebrities or important natural landmarks. But not in Antarctica. Nope, here we name stuff after disasters.
Hey. It’s a harsh continent.
I’ve mentioned it in earlier posts, too, but it bears repeating: Pegasus is a “white ice” runway, which means it’s made of compressed snow, and is on the Ross Ice Shelf. So when a plane lands, it doesn’t really “land” on, you know, land. It would be more accurate to say it “ices.”
When we set out on the road, it was still pitch black. Blowing snow swung in curtains across the headlights.
George was optimistic but guarded about the chances of tomorrow’s flight actually landing as scheduled. Me, I sense that I’ll be spending a day or two more down here, and I’m okay with that, but I’ve been enjoying the wild rumors circulating regarding the weather and how it might impact the first flight of WinFly.
(WinFly, for those of you just joining us, is short for Winter Flights, a brief 10-day window at the end of winter when we get a handful of cargo and passenger flights in. WinFly marks the first scheduled flights to the continent since early March and, once it’s over, there is another month without flights until MainBody begins in early October).
After George checked to make sure the generators were running so the various buildings wouldn’t freeze, we got to drive up and down the length of the 8,000 foot runway itself to check that the lights and other navigational aids had been positioned properly and were working.
George got out a few times to check the runway’s surface, but even then, despite a wind chill of about minus 50F and winds around 15 knots, I stayed toasty warm and comfy. Now this is what I call a boondoggle.
Even better, George was happy to share his knowledge of the runway, so I got to learn all about PAPIs and RILs (Precision Approach Path Indicators and Runway Intersection Lights, respectively). It was a cheap thrill just to be driving on a runway, especially an ice runway, but to “see” it from a pilot’s perspective was particularly cool. I thought the PAPIs were especially neat. Each PAPI has a beam of light that is red on the bottom and white on the top. Typically four PAPIs are set up at intervals with the beams at different angles. A pilot making an approach to land correctly will see an equal amount of red and white from the PAPIs. If the pilot sees more red than white, it means the plane is beneath the correct “glidepath.” Too much white, and the plane is above the glidepath.
I love learning stuff like that.
I also got to see the night navigation cones were set up and ready. All the WinFly flights right now are night flights, which means the pilots will land using night vision. To avoid, oh, I dunno, blinding the NVG-wearing crew as the plane makes its final approach, they dim the runway lights and the pilots land using the reflective cones to guide them in.
After George finished all his checks, we headed back to town where I found myself, once again, faced with the dilemma of how to spend this thing called Sunday.
I went to brunch and wandered around until our station manager Harry offered to make me a waffle. After I’ve made him eggs for six months, I felt it was a fair deal. So I had my first McMurdo waffle. Then I decided to take some photos of things I’ve found funny around here for 20 months or so:
As you can imagine, our Lost and Found bulletin board is a frequent target for the station smartasses, whether their shenanigans are wholly self-generated:
Apparently I am the only one who noticed, or cared about, the logo on our egg product. Because whenever I’ve pointed out to people how sad the chickens looking down at their unborn young seem to be, I get the same reaction: “Uhm. Yeah. I never noticed that. You…uh…you passed your psych eval, right?”
This is one of the photos hanging in our galley taken by a lucky grantee who got to come down and make pretty images and then go back home. I can’t read the photographer’s signature and therefore can’t give proper credit, but I will say that I have always loved this close-up of a Weddell Seal.
So, now, well, I guess I’m going to putter about doing some final packing until dinner because, I dunno, what else does one do on a Sunday when blowing snow and ice crystals make going for a walk a less than appealing proposition?
Though this song does keep running through my head. If the weather cooperates, in 24 hours I’ll be getting ready to head to Pegasus again, this time with a one-way ticket.