"Antarctic Terminology"

Deane Rink - December 7, 1994
Video Field Producer

    An interesting phenomenon about Antarctica is the peculiar terminology and gallows humor associated with living on the bottom of the world, out of contact with normal civilization, in a community that, while diverse, is more tightly-knit and mutually supportive than any comparable stateside community.

Let's think about the names and terms that abound down here. Sprites are tank-tracked vehicles that can go on either snow or the dirt base of McMurdo. Our Sprite is painted red and is named "Arson." All Sprites have numbers and the unlucky one numbered 666 is called the "Anti-Sprite." A yellow Sprite for some reason carries the name "Dr. Cool."

All other work vehicles have numbers and names as well. The large troop carrier that ferries people flying from Christchurch from the ice runway to McMurdo is called "Ivan the Terra Bus." The Delta, a slightly smaller personnel carrier, is predictably named "Delta Dawn." The tractor that carts baggage from the helo pad waiting room to the loadmaster on the helo pad itself is called "Basket Case." Its counterpart at the Mechanical Equipment Barn is "Justin Case." An enormous forklift used to erect satellite dishes and other heavy things is called "Big Jim." The truck that is used to rig phone lines and other electrical equipment is dubbed "Rigger Mortis." Many other vehicles bear women's names, a leftover from the days when McMurdo was almost exclusively male.

Places also acquire names, probably for some deep historical reason, but since most personnel change every three to five years, the reasons are often obscured in memories long gone stateside. The McMurdo Dome, an outlying camp is known locally as "MacDoom." A particularly sharp and craggy peak overlooking the Taylor Valley, the site of our first live broadcast, is known locally, with apologies to the Swiss, as the Matterhorn. Another crag nearby has somehow picked up the name "Doesn't Matterhorn." The waiting bench for shuttles to Scott Base and the ice runway bears the name Derelict Junction. Next to it sits a small forlorn fake pine tree, perhaps the only tree on the continent. A sign nearby says "Don't park on the grass." Behind this rises a telephone pole on which a sign has been posted: "Metaphysical Pole." Does this mean that Antarctica has five poles instead of the usual four? This is a question best pondered by philosophers, of which there is a crucial shortage on this, the most practical of continents (cracker-barrel philosophers are all around, but don't count).

Of course, there are shortened names: "Ob Hill" is Observation Hill, the highest point in McMurdo Town. "See-sec," or CSEC, is what everybody calls the newest building in town, the Crary Science and Engineering Center. "Mac Ops" is the McMurdo Operations Center; similarly, "Helo Ops" is the Helicopter Operations Center. BFC is not one letter short of BFD, but an acronym for the Berg Field Center, the place that outfits field journeyers with Scott tents and ultra-thermal sleeping bags, crampons and ice axes. The squadron of Navy helicopter pilots are officially known as VXE-6, but unofficially, most pilots wear a patch on which a skull and crossbones is emblazoned, the "Ice Pirates." What I wouldn't give for such a patch! The scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, Massachusetts have gone acronym-crazy and refer to themselves as "who-eees." Since they work at Lake Fryxell, everyone else refers to them as the Fryxellians. It is a matter of some debate what this leaves as nicknames for residents of the other two lakes in Taylor Valley, Lake Bonney and Lake Hoare.

The scientists have long been known as "beakers," or more pejoratively, "beaker scum." The origin of this seemingly insulting term is apparently the wildly popular kids' show on PBS, Sesame Street. In any event, few scientists seem to mind; at least their importance is recognized enough to warrant the good-natured ribbing. Of course, every New Zealander down here is a Kiwi, and every civilian is a "puke" to the Navy contingent. This is not necessarily a derogatory term, just a descriptive one, an unstated test to see if the "fingies," or freaking new guys, can take a joke. The Navy also refers to any pencil-pusher within their own ranks as a "sand crab," the only marine animal that never leaves the land. I think I've heard Herc enthusiasts among Navy ranks refer to helo pilots, who are not allowed to fly over open water down here, as sand crabs as well. (Herc is short for Hercules, the official designation for the LC-130 cargo planes that do the bulk of the heavy work in Antarctica. Each Herc bears its own number; one of the oldest is 00, affectionately known as "double nuts" because it is always being repaired).

McMurdo practices encourage specialized terminology. If one wants to leave the ice, one puts in for the manifest to Christchurch, and is given a date of departure. The 24 hours preceding this are usually spent saying last good-byes, shaking hands, promising to send care packages from the States. When, as is often the case, the flight is delayed because of weather or mechanical failure, the departee is put in the awkward position of re-appearing in the galley and seeing all those people to whom solemn good-byes had been offered. Such a person is referred to as "ungone."

The Marines have a saying they use for recruiting: "Many are called, but few are chosen." In Antarctica, this has been corrupted into "many are cold but few are frozen." By further perverse corruption, old-time Antarcticans refer to themselves as "the frozen chosen."

There are other Antarctic terms of indeterminate origin that might be of interest to stateside lexicographers. "A case of the Herbies" means that intense winds are coming off the polar plateau, driven by gravity, winds that have been recorded up to 200 miles per hour. This last statement immediately identifies me to an Antarctican as a mid-latitude person; winds down here are always given in knots. I'm still pondering over a poser put to us by a resident of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. He wrote that Pole residents refer to their small community as "Pole-land" and asked "What does that make us residents?" All answers gratefully received by us dim bulbs. Another term occasionally crops up: "ice wife." This is the subject of an original tune that used to be played down here, but during this year's coffee house folk concert, despite desperate imploring from the packed house, its performance was politely declined.

Then there are the terms playing off established brand names. Old Skua is the polar equivalent of Old Crow. At least, that's what a bunch of tipsy horseshoe players told me. "Rancho Penguino" is the sea ice research station of world-famous penguin expert Gerry Kooyman. Kooyman even names the penguins he studies, according to their personalities. Rambo and Terminator and Puck and Falstaff and Pacer are among the avian residents of Rancho Penguino, along with Lucky, a starving emperor penguin whose life was saved when he was given a room and a dive-hole at the Rancho.

Some terms have meanings close to what they signify in the States. "Retrograding" is what is done to the majority of Antarctic trash after the U.S. Antarctic Program decided to clean up McMurdo Station and purge it of its North Slope drill-rig town feel. But in another semi-famous Antarctic ditty, "Letter from Home," the term is used to suggest what should be done to a fellow who tried to horn in on another man's woman. "Deployment" is what happens to every person who journeys here. A lot of the locals think this is a bargain basement word suggesting a lesser form of employment they were forced to accept in order to get here, and they may be right. This is the only place where G.A.s, general assistants, the people who clean the urine barrels and shovel the snow and handle the hazardous waste and clean up the rotting food and the vehicle oil overflows, are as likely to have an advanced degree as a lawyer or university administrator stateside.

All this brings us by a "commodius vicus of recirculation" back to my original title, a somewhat obscure reference to, or triple pun about, two simple letters, DV, which should have no special significance for people in the Upper 50. But down here, in the Antarctic, it could mean any of three very different things. It could stand for Dry Valleys, those surprising features of Grand Canyon stature that Scott's party first discovered in 1905, as they searched for a way to proceed to the South Pole across the Transantarctic Mountain barrier. These are permanently-ice-free declivities that have become the focus of a significant portion of the U. S. Antarctic Program's research activities. They embody simplified ecosystems in a harsh environment, analogs for Martian life search strategies and models for coastal eutrophication studies.

DV could also refer to O.A.E. (Old Antarctic Explorer, a moniker one is entitled to don once one has returned for a second or higher deployment) Arthur De Vries, a biologist who has become celebrated for discovering and isolating a protein anti-freeze that naturally occurs in Antarctic cod, allowing such fishes to navigate the sub-zero waters of McMurdo Sound year-round. De Vries started coming here in 1968, making him one of the oldest of the O.A.E.s.

But most likely, DV will be recognized under the diminished ozone layer as "distinguished visitor," the local term for a fingie with power or clout, a politician or admiral or $100-million-dollar movie director that has decided to come to the Antarctic for any of a variety of reasons: the romance, the free vacation to an unattainable location, the chance to tell unbeatable cocktail stories featuring him- or herself as hero, or, occasionally, an interest in polar science or diplomacy. DVs get whirlwind tours, see the whole continent in a few days, monopolize helo time, and most importantly, are served fresh greens and have Hercs that run on time, making them almost never ungone. They return to inside the Beltway or Hollywood and sing the praises of the U.S. Antarctic Program, ensuring the funding for what must seem like a tenuous irrelevancy to an Iowa farmer struggling to meet his mortgage in the mid-latitudes, but what is indeed one of the most impressive applications of government organization and resources that this usually cynical observer has ever experienced.

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