October 8, 1970 – a US Navy C-121 Constellation took off from Christchurch, NZ on the ten-hour inaugural flight of Operation Deep Freeze. Well past its Point of Safe Return, and only an hour from McMurdo, the weather deteriorated and Pegasus crash landed at McMurdo’s only permanent airfield. Although none of the 80 passengers on board were killed, this airfield would come to bear the name of the plane whose wreckage is still visible only 2000 ft from the current runway. The wreckage sits as a reminder of mans vulnerability on this extreme continent, especially to those of us whose job is to bring these planes, provisions, and people safely to Antarctica.
I, of course, knew none of this when I showed up to the weather office for my first night of training over a year ago. It was shortly before midnight when I arrived, and was then, as we waited inside for the engine of our van to warm, that I first came to notice, and eventually appreciate, the words on the front of my boss’ t-shirt.
I accepted them as only half-truths. Sure, I was expecting, actually looking forward to, being mentored by some of the craziest people this side of 60 S. But I was also pretty familiar with the process of getting here in the first place, and knew that that in it self could drive you crazy well before even stepping foot on this frozen continent. It wasn’t until we pulled away from this rock we call MacTown, that I would start to realize some reasons why this shirt has become so stylish.
“Firehouse Firehouse, 2-1-5”
“Van 215 departing McMurdo. Destination Pegasus. 3 souls on board.”
“All clear 215. Report back upon arrival.”
My experience communicating via CB radio was limited to a few occasions on a small sailboat. But not even in an unknown game of chicken with a barge in the middle of the night, did I ever think to refer to ourselves as souls. I took it as another subtle reminder of the inherent risk in everything we do here, even if it is just the daily commute.
But I was in good hands. My boss and our driver had amassed over 20 seasons of ice time between themselves, and although interested, I could hear little of their conversation over the whine of the engine and whistling of the wind as the mud tires of our raised, 4 wheel drive, red Ford van tromped its way out to Pegasus.
Luckily, the weather was beautiful for my first night of observing on the earth’s windiest continent. “Ten and Clear,” as we would say back at Mobile Regional, or so I thought. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, marked only by red flags atop small bamboo poles that I would come to find out otherwise.
The red of the flags was out-shined only by the reflective glow of silver tape bound to the bamboo’s shaft, but both of these colors blurred as our van sped towards the ever-evading vanishing point in the headlights. Then, just before this monotonous view of the horizon forced a feeling of tedium, everything, suddenly, went black.
At least it seemed to during the eternal seconds it took my eyes to adjust. But finally the flat, vast, empty ice sheet dimly appeared, as the light of the moon slowly compensated for the missing headlights. In this confusion I leaned forward from the back seat, only to hear the word of something I had for so long wanted to see – Auroras
My left cheek quickly glued itself to the frozen window as my lungs held their breath so not to fog my eyes first site of nature’s liquid light show. Unfortunately, what my eyes’ experienced fell well short of my mind’s expectations, and in reacting to this slap in the face, I turned the other cheek as I looked skyward on the opposite side of the van. Still, nothing other than what I thought to be a few high cirrus clouds. Their faint white glow shone high in the sky, and only with an Inspector Gadget-like neck could you see the prize that surely had to be above us. I, however, was never given that chance, as the lights of the van suddenly shrunk my dilated pupils only to re-reveal the smudges of red-flag that continued leading us to Pegasus airfield.
As we piled out of the van, my head went immediately skyward, searching the heavens for any colors other than the bleached white stains that still resided high in the troposphere. My patience was tested while my boss stood her tripod, affixed with a camera much nicer than any I have ever owned. This anticipation seemed perpetual, where, in reality, it was only about 15 seconds – just enough exposure for the camera to capture what for so long had eluded my all too eager eyes.
It was not long before the bitter cold sucked the life out of the defenseless battery, so we hurried inside to view the images before the camera took its last breath. Then, only after this most precarious of commutes, what for so long had evaded this mortal’s eye finally appeared, and although the screen of the camera did little justice to the scope of what presided above, this machine revealed what man could only reverie.
This partial spectrum of color spanned the horizon with a hazy green glow reminiscent of a time I was not fortunate enough to experience. As I returned outside, with only closed eyes could I see through these milky skies, and imagine the hidden psychedelia of color that lied within. It was then, that my mind came to cherish this unassisted jaunt into the night, and produced its own show, so brilliant and bright that even Jerry, would want to see.