When we think about Antarctica we tend to think about vast tracts of frozen wastes, of desperate men whipping dogs toward lonely deaths or international glory, of Kurt Russell taking a flamethrower to shape-shifting aliens.
What we don’t think about are bacchanalian orgies and non-stop drinking. Which proves how badly we’ve been misled, because that’s precisely what’s going on. Not only is there plenty to drink, there’s plenty of reason to drink, as the following interview with a resident of the southernmost point of the world reveals.
(Editor’s Note: To ward off possible retaliation by the Federal Government, the interviewee will be addressed by the pseudonym F. Scott Robert.)
Modern Drunkard Magazine: How long have you been stationed in what you refer to as The Big Dead Place?
F. Scott Robert: Since 1998 I’ve spent a little over three years total in Antarctica, but this is my first winter at the Pole itself, where I’m going on month nine.
MDM: What in God’s name are you doing down there?
FSR: Our main purpose is as caretakers of an expensive American facility, just like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but with more geopolitical significance and fewer axe murders. Our sub-purposes split off from there: some are building a new station, some are doing science, and almost everyone else keeps the place running.
MDM: Naturally under such circumstances, you’re expected to get loaded on a regular basis, true?
MDM: Do you throw a lot of parties?
FSR: There are lots of parties in the summer, fewer in the winter.
MDM: And what, pray tell, can be expected at these parties?
FSR: A few weeks ago we had a party where someone took a big block of ice and carved little “ski trails” in it down which kamikazes were poured into the eager mouths of those wearing ski goggles and holding ski poles. This was called Liquor Mountain. Women gave prizes to any man who showed up in a dress, so there was much cross-dressing. Myself, I wore a nasty leopard-print number with the nipples cut out, drank one too many kamikazes and barfed up corn dogs in the snow.
MDM: Great God! Is that a typical soiree?
FSR: Not really. Your basic Antarctic party either includes meat and beer and standing around, or meat and beer and dancing to the Greatest Hits of the ‘80s while wearing disco clothes. For some reason, people can’t get enough of disco clothes here. They are a source of infinite delight.
MDM: I assumed it would be decadent, but this goes quite beyond the pale.
FSR: Sometimes the Air National Guard guys have a keg-tossing contest outside the bar at McMurdo Station. One time some folks held an exorcism for one of the machines that kept breaking down, where they drank whiskey and played songs for the machine. And this one guy came up with the idea to have a bunch of Depends adult diapers sent down so that everyone could stand around drinking beer and pissing themselves. I didn’t make it to that party, but a friend of mine did. He hooked up with this amazing woman after the party. He picked up a chick while wearing a diaper!
MDM: So there are women about. I imagined it was a manner of never-ending stag party with little hope of relief.
FSR: It changes each season, but there are always more men than women. This leads to lots of the aforementioned “Disco Nights” and dubious “theme” parties that find men in drag more frequently as the season lumbers on. There are usually enough women around so that in the darkest of winters one can soak up the elusive mysteries of the female through conversations and such, but the odds are against he who simultaneously demands sex and employment. On the other hand, since few women expect long-term integrity from any of us wandering hooligans, the stations during the short summer seasons can be like Roman rabbit hutches.
MDM: I should imagine. Is there a bar of sorts on hand?
FSR: Certainly. The present bar has been around since about 1975. It has a decent wooden top with brass foot rail, an electric cooler for chilling cases of beer, and a much smaller cubby on the perimeter wall that (because it’s usually colder than –80F outside) will chill a beer or a bottle in no time flat. There’s a poker table and an entertainment center, which includes a Beta video player. A sign on the wall says, “Hippies Use Side Door,” and there is a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. It’s also one of the few, if only, places on the station that has a proper wood floor.
The bar is atypical in that drinks are not sold there. The bartender is whoever feels like tending bar at the moment, and if no one does, you go behind the bar and help yourself. All the stock is BYOB and, in a fashion, communal, though those who don’t bring their fair share to restock the bar are mocked and humiliated.
MDM: I should hope. Does anyone ever pass out in the snow?
FSR: A while ago this guy got so loaded he was trying to just “lie down for a little while” in the snow on the way back from some boozefest. It was about –80F out and he would surely have died were it not for his irritated fellows who dragged him the quarter mile or so back to the station. This is nothing new, however: such incidents have been happening since the 1950s. We live in a tight, caring community of polar fellowship which understands that an irresponsible co-worker who can occasionally carry his own weight is preferable to a frozen corpse that can’t.
MDM: Very sporting of you. Have you any signature cocktails of your own making?
FSR: The earliest record I’ve found of a native Antarctic cocktail is from the Antarctica Lonely Planet Guide, where they claim a U.S. Navy man in the ‘50s or ‘60s infused a pack of multi-colored Lifesavers in a bottle of bourbon. In more recent days, I’ve discovered that hoarded red wine frozen for over a year in a utility tunnel is some of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, though one must watch the sediment.
Also, in the bar recently some gentlemen were cleaning house and concocted a drink made of all the liquor they wanted to get rid of. It was a mixture of root beer schnapps, peppermint schnapps, Kahlua, tequila, port wine, egg nog, and a splash of lime juice to make it curdle. They named this drink “The Ten Dollar Whore.”
MDM: Naturally. Do you ever run out of liquor?
FSR: I have yet to hear of a winter when alcohol ran out altogether. But since it’s too cold for planes to deliver spirits from February to October, each year is a harrowing fight for survival in regards to booze-hoarding. One winter they ran out of beer, so people were drinking shots of whiskey with red-wine chasers. Another winter all the wine was kept in a shack that somehow had the power cut, so all the wine froze and management let people have it for free. This winter so far we have run out of Maker’s Mark, Bushmill’s, Crown Royal, Wild Turkey, tequila, rum, and all bottled beer. The horror!
MDM: Indeed. Do you find the occasion to go on drinking sprees in New Zealand or Argentina?
FSR: There is one bar in Christchurch, N.Z. called Bailey’s that is the central hub for ice people to congregate. The owners of this bar have been very good to us, and occasionally even send down kegs of beer in the summer for special parties. There is a plaque on the wall with the names of those who’ve drunk one hundred pints of Guinness and the time it took them to do it. I think the record was set by some huge Samoan guy from McMurdo who did it in three days.
MDM: I should like to have a crack at that title. You sent me a photo of a clown at the South Pole. Is there an active clown population at the Pole?
FSR: That’s Boozy the Clown, one of the most notorious personalities on this frozen rock. The worker who invented Boozy is very mild-mannered and pleasant, but when he dons the face paint and wig and rainbow clown shirt, he is displaced by a cruel and malicious drunken clown who knows no honor. When people see Boozy they become frightened. He drinks their booze, steals their women, and ruthlessly humiliates the shy and timid. In typical Antarctic fashion, where one can never escape in work or play a familiarity with one’s fellows, people don’t confuse the actions of Boozy with those of the mild-mannered worker and may comment the next day that Boozy, not the worker, was a vicious hellion the previous night.
MDM: I think most people’s ideas about life at the South Pole comes from watching The Thing starring the inimitable Kurt Russell. Homicidal aliens aside, how does the movie compare to real-life in Antarctica?
FSR: It’s almost entirely accurate except for five things:
1.) There are no aliens here.
2.) We are not issued flamethrowers.
3.) There are no guns or dogs.
4.) We don’t store explosives in the main building.
5.) There are fewer cowboy-hat wearing helo pilots than there are syrupy Human Resources Representatives and Administrative Coordinators.
Other than that, it’s kind of like an impressionistic documentary. The station manager is usually a nincompoop, the doctor is usually nuts, and if our station burned down there would be nothing for it but to get drunk and die.
MDM: Do staff members try to make up for the lack of rampaging aliens by occasionally running amok themselves?
FSR: Of course. Two winters ago in McMurdo this guy we’ll call “D” crept into another guy’s room and began punching him in the head while he was sleeping. They had an issue over some woman. The recipient of the blows awoke promptly, and after escaping further punishment, talked D down and gave him some more beer. Though sent out on the first flight, D was told by Raytheon, our savvy employer, that he could return to his indispensable position upon taking an “anger management” class.
MDM: I’ve heard tales of a gentleman running amok with a hammer.
FSR: The gentleman in question was known to drink a bottle of Crown Royal just to get primed for further drinking. One day, so inspired, he walked into the galley and smashed his boss in the head with a hammer while he was eating. His task complete, he wandered the halls singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” until he was tackled by a group of firefighters and detained in one of the local apartments, for which the carpenters were instructed to make wooden bars for the windows. Eventually the FBI came down to snap some penguin photos and hero shots before escorting the assailant back to Hawaii, where he was eventually imprisoned.
MDM: Does everyone drink at the Pole?
FSR: No. I’ve heard from credible sources that some people knit or listen to Christian music. I can’t confirm these elusive reports.
MDM: What is the preferred libation of Antarticans?
FSR: We tend to prefer anything that becomes scarce. Presently, Crown Royal is revered as some sacred ambrosia tapped from the center of the earth, and he who brings a bottle into public at this late point in the winter will meet with the dual receptions of hearty backslaps in that there is probably enough for everyone to get a shot, yet secret ruminations of pushing the gentleman down the stairs once the bottle has been procured, with the justification that the fiend has been hoarding such a commodity against the greater good of the station.
At the beginning of the winter, the station manager made known to us that a limited supply of Sierra Nevada and Corona bottled beers was available, and that we could purchase one case of each. Despite that Corona is one of the most unremarkable beers on this planet, we descended on them like a pack of rabid rats on a lost toddler.
One alcohol that I rarely see in the States but which is certainly a staple here is Bailey’s Irish Cream. If there’s one drink that typifies the Antarctic experience, it’s Bailey’s and coffee. People drink it at the stations, people drink it at the field camps, people drink it in dorm rooms, people drink it in laboratories. When you see those live-from-Antarctica type feeds at museums, the scientists are usually at some field camp, and they usually have some time off because otherwise they wouldn’t be wasting it on a bunch of North-lubbers stumbling around a museum. I’ll give you ten to one that any scientist you’re talking to under such circumstances is by 9 a.m. ripped on Bailey’s and has coffee tremors. I make of Bailey’s popularity here that it is both a cold-weather drink and that because it is not really seen as a “hard liquor”, on their days off folks can drink it in the morning more respectably than if they attacked a bottle of Cuervo Gold.
A recent fad sweeping the stations the last couple seasons is the horrifying practice of snorting gin or vodka up one’s nose. I have no idea what to make of this.
MDM: Possibly it’s a means of bypassing the liver and thus protecting it from injury. I’ve read that hangovers are especially brutal down there.
FSR: Just so. Barometrically, we are at an altitude of approximately 10,000 feet and temperately Antarctica is classified as a desert. It’s very high and very dry, so while one’s terrible thirst drives one to the conclusion that half of each beer is being lost to evaporation before it can be consumed, this is not really the case, thus two beers are conscripted where one might suffice. In addition, after one drinks two times as much as necessary to feel pleasant and warm in one’s otherwise empty bed, the dry air suddenly attacks in the night and robs one of all moisture whatsoever. The victim, now with a nose full of dangerous and dagger-like boogers, wakes the next morning to suspect that the room has been humidified by one’s own saliva.
MDM: Do you possess the secret of an especially effective hangover cure?
FSR: Though it takes time to work, I have always found suffering to be a sure remedy.
MDM: Is there a police presence in Antarctica? Has a DUI ever been issued?
FSR: There are no police officers here, so every rascal with a bit of authority attempts to fill that void with petty power plays and snooping Hoovery. In any given season, the Safety Coordinator is one of the first to start meddling in our affairs, and is also the one who would be called to task should we all start driving around loaded. As far as I know, there has never been the equivalent of a DUI. The worst punishment for almost any unpopular action here is to be fired and thus exiled from Antarctica.
MDM: One of the main benefits of living there, as far as I can see, is you’ll never run out of ice for your cocktails. Do you find the thousands-of-years-old ice superior to the “new ice” we Northerners have to make do with?
FSR: During the summer there are scientists at the Clean Air Observatory who host “slushy parties”. The snow upwind of the laboratory is quantifiably the cleanest in the world, and thus suitable for a variety of margarita-like cocktails. The drawback, of course, is that once one has had a few, one needs to walk a good distance outside to have a cigarette, as it is quite unfashionable to light up in the Clean Air Sector. That said, I’m convinced that any difference in taste between the superior Antarctic ice and rancid varieties of common ice is a discernment furthered purely for the entertainment of the locals.
MDM: Would you say your stay at the South Pole has reinforced your drinking habits?
FSR: I would prefer to say, “When in Rome…”
MDM: Right you are. Do you happen to subscribe to John Cleves Symmes’ theory that the earth has holes at the poles that lead to a secret interior world quite possibly populated by dinosaurs/Atlanteans/Nazi flying saucers?
FSR: It’s a little known fact that Symmes was the initial motivating force behind the United States Exploring Expedition led by Charles Wilkes, namesake of the massive geographic area called “Wilkes Land” on the frozen continent. I don’t ascribe to Symmes’ theories, but I find him much more interesting than Charles Wilkes: creative insanity vs. regimented insanity.
MDM: I’ve read that Wilkes was something of a brute. During his three-year expedition to the Pole they only packed 800 gallons of rum for 48 men, which is roughly 2 oz per man per day providing there weren’t any teetotalers in the bunch. Isn’t it a wonder they didn’t all go mad?
FSR: They were all mad to begin with.
MDM: Ah. And what of the seminal 1820 book entitled “Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery,” written by the remarkable Captain Adam Seaborn? He swore he actually visited the hollow earth and, seeing how he was a sailor, undoubtedly got fantastically legless there.
FSR: The only hole at the South Pole is the cavern we drilled in the ice in which to deposit our yearly tons of feces that shall remain there until the day Antarctica melts.
MDM: But shouldn’t we mount an expedition to be certain? Please take a moment to consider all the strange and magnificent Atlantean cocktails we might discover.
FSR: I for one want nothing to do with any cocktail from said subterranean region, nor any voyage of discovery within.
MDM: Pity. As you may well know, wild monkeys and elephants have been known to raid breweries and bars in Borneo and Africa. Is there a similar problem with the penguins there?
FSR: Good god, man, I’ve never heard of such a thing as the lower beasts having booze riots. Don’t frighten me so in the middle of winter.
MDM: Be on guard, sir! Only a matter of time before the beasts realize what they’ve been missing and take action. My research tells me that some stations ration the booze, allowing only one bottle of liquor, two bottles of wine or one case of beer per person per week.
FSR: What you’ve read is an obsolete practice from the days when the Navy ran the Antarctic stations. In these days of the profitable Company Store that practice has been abandoned. To keep up appearances, rations are as you stated, but only per visit to the store rather than per week.
MDM: Do you ever drink with the Norwegians, Kiwis, Russians and the other chaps stationed up there?
FSR: Local authorities threaten to punish such mingling, but I’ve had drinks with an Englishwoman who skied to the Pole from the coast. I know others who’ve drunk with the Russians as they’ve come through McMurdo Station, and I’ve heard their manners are as lively as their appearance is rugged. With their wild hair and beards, their crazy space boots and their willingness to barter for whatever they can get their hands on, one can tell the Russians immediately because they don’t look like they have a single data-entry clerk amongst them. One time there was a “M*A*S*H” theme-night in Gallagher’s pub in McMurdo, and one of the Russians attacked someone who’d dressed up as Klinger.
MDM: Can hardly blame the chap. By the end of the fourth season I was prepared to assault the entire cast. Don’t celebrities and politicians sometimes ring you chaps up with words of encouragement?
FSR: In his book “90° South: The Story of the American South Pole Conquest,” Paul Siple reported that during the first year at the Pole they received a phone patch from Art Linkletter, the TV emcee: “The men learned from him which movie actors and actresses were still married and which had divorced. There was also a contact with a somewhat gay Dean Martin, the singer who was in Las Vegas. The men related that he sang a line from a song, then said he wished he could talk longer but ‘I have to go back to the bar.’”
MDM: Dean Martin gay? Surely Siple meant that in the jolly sense of the word.
MDM: Tell us about your forthcoming book “Big Dead Place.”
FSR: It’s all about the sex, drugs, madness, violence, and endless bureaucracy on the Antarctic frontier. The book will be published in 2005 by Feral House Publishing (www.feralhouse.com) Until then, you can read of further Antarctic hijinx at www.bigdeadplace.com.
—Interview by Giles Humbert III