Off Ice Follow-up
Letter 13: The Women
What are the people like? Who goes to Antarctica? What attracts them to "the harsh continent"? Why? You have asked me these questions in various ways. Sometimes you asked them bluntly and sometimes surreptitiously, but it was always with curiosity. You have alluded that we must be an adventurous, courageous, colorful, hardy, talented, unique, diverse, peculiar, strong, skilled and unconventional group. Yes. You will see that you are correct.
I did not have time to write the brief biographies that follow in this letter, "The Women", and Letter 14, "The Men", while at the South Pole Station. The stepped up demands of my work and station preparation for the closing of the summer season required my time. When you realized that my departure time was nearing, your personal questions about the people began to surface. I saw the desire and the need to address these questions and prioritized to conduct interviews but to write later. The following stories are shared with permission.
Nina: age 43, single, dining room attendant, summer-over. Nina, friendly with a ready smile on her face, open and out-going, and can-do attitude has an MBA from the U. of Missouri at St. Louis. The minute Nina completed her MBA, she pursued her love of the foods industry and studied restaurant management at St. Louis Community College. In the meantime, Nina worked for McDonnel Douglas for 12 years in middle management. Eventually her dream of working in the restaurant business sent her to Alaska. Nina worked seasonally at Denali National Park in a dining room and eventually managed it for 5 years. During the off-seasons, Nina traveled and took odd jobs in restaurants, grocery stores, and with road crew labor operating equipment, cutting trees and holding signs.
It was through the friends that Nina made at Denali who had been employed in Antarctica that piqued her interest. By this time, Nina had professional experience in every aspect of the foods business. This provided her with the skills she needed to apply for summer season employment in Antarctica.
What does Nina miss the most? Piano. She calls it her therapy and has played since the age of ten. Nina played the piano for her church, a pizza restaurant and at Denali where she worked. Here at the station, Nina grabs a book over a movie and loves to shoot pool. At the South Pole, she's hooked on the Internet and has been buying and selling stock for entertainment. Nina's dad is an accountant and she has read the Wall Street Journal since the age of eight. Most importantly, Nina concludes that the Internet from Antarctica has brought her family closer together.
What does Nina say about the South Pole Station? "The South Pole is unreal. Indescribable. Like the moon. The community is so great, but sometimes it's hard to get away from it. The people are grounded, more mature. Yes, I'm coming back!"
Stephanie: 28, married, dining room attendant, summer-over. Energetic and extroverted, Stephanie worked and partied hard. She completed her B.A. in comparative literature and politics at the U. of California Santa Cruz. Immediately upon graduating, Stephanie headed to Japan for 15 months to teach English to all levels spanning 4 to 80 year olds. Because of her love of the theater, she returned to the U.S. where she waited tables and worked in corporate Human Recourses while pursuing her dream. During this time Stephanie met her husband and ultimately returned to education to complete her teaching credential.
How did Stephanie become attracted to Antarctica? A year earlier when she was fulfilling her student teaching requirement, one of her student's parents who had been on an icebreaker research vessel to the Antarctic presented a slide show to the class. Between this exposure and the influence of her brother-in-law who had returned from the South Pole Station that same spring, Stephanie and her husband decided to apply for jobs on the ice. Stephanie was hired. Her husband was not.
When Stephanie departs Antarctica in February, she plans to meet her husband in New Zealand and together work with the Peace Corp in Mongolia for 27 months. Stephanie will be teaching English as a foreign language and her husband will teach environmental education.
What are Stephanie's passions? She loves theater and has stage-managed 15 shows while also serving on the community theater board in a California city. Other passions? Reading and travel.
Stephanie's point of view: "Live life to the fullest and take advantage of stuff as it comes up!"
Becca: 23, single, materials division for cargo, winter-over. Quiet until you get to know her, persevering, upbeat, sweet with an infectious smile, Becca grew up on a West Virginia farm that had been in the family before West Virginia became a state. She earned her B.S. in Environmental Science at an institution in Yellow Springs, Ohio, established by Arthur Morgan and based in utopian ideals.
Desiring to see the United States, Becca took the money she earned from the 7 work-study jobs she'd had while in school and ultimately ended up at Black Bear Ranch, a farming commune, for 3 months. After she ran out of money, Becca dug ditches for $50 a day to save for an apartment. This transition time in her life led Becca to land a job with AmeriCorp in Yreka, California counting Chinook, Coho, and Steelhead salmon in 5 major rivers.
It was in Yreka that Becca met Rob who knew someone who'd been to Antarctica. Rob wouldn't stop talking about going to the ice. They applied and were offered better paying positions in McMurdo, Antarctica, but held out for their dream of going to the South Pole Station where they took labor intensive jobs at less pay. Becca was originally hired as a summer-over, but by Thanksgiving time a winter-over position opened up. She jumped at applying and won the job to remain at the South Pole Station for both the summer and winter seasons.
What does Becca love? Travel. It is and always has been a central part of her life.
What does Becca say about the South Pole Station? "I belong here. This is right. So many people search for home their entire life and never find it. I've previously found it for brief periods of time, but I've found it definitely here. Being at home is really being at home with yourself and others." Becca shared that she immediately felt at home when she first stepped off the C130.
Becca's philosophy: "You gotta want to get it."
You also asked me the age ranges of the people and the ratio of women to men. Ages of the females varied from 19 to 50-something and they comprised, on the average, 20% of the station population. Station life isn't easy for anyone and that also holds true for females. The issues of lack of privacy, rationed water, communal bathrooms, noisy sleeping quarters, crowded living conditions and confined spaces each held their own stresses for individuals in unique ways.
Whether they were introverted or extroverted, loners or partiers, polished or rough, the women were emotionally strong. Depending upon their job assignment, physical strength is a requirement. Tolerance and flexibility are the keys to success. The environment is frequently colorful in language and actions from members of both genders. Some men and women describe the atmosphere as sometimes rough or even tough. The women were assertive and occasionally aggressive in taking care of themselves. Conflicts sometimes emerged with tempers unleashed. Women went to each other for support when they needed it. Toward the middle of the season women began to gather informally Sunday mornings in the elevated dorm lounge to talk, have snacks and drinks, watch videos, share books, and give themselves manicures and pedicures or exchange massages.
The stories I have shared with you are a random and edited sampling of the hours interviewing women at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. To learn about the men, please refer to Letter 14.