It is getting cold again -- 65 degrees below zero today by the minimum thermometer. I have a feeling that it is going to be a very cold month, to make up for June. It was a great piece of luck that June was relatively so warm. [The records show that in June the cold crossed 40 degrees below zero on thirteen days; 50 degrees below on five days, and never once crossed 60 degrees below.] I could not have survived otherwise. Now, when the stove is going, I keep the door cracked as wide as I can stand it; and, when it has been out long enough for the fumes to dissipate, I stuff rags (worn-out shirts and underwear, to be exact) up the engine ventilator in the tunnel and into the intake ventilator, so that the tunnel and shack won't get too cold. As a matter of fact, I do without the stove anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day. Believe me, it is a strain on the fortitude. Last night I froze an ear in the sleeping bag.
I'm worried about drift. Ever since I've been unable to attend to it, the drift has been deepening over the roof. This morning, when I went topside for the observations, I noticed how high the ridges were over the Escape Tunnel and the tunnels west of the shack. However, I may be able to do something about this before long. Advancing the radio schedules to the afternoon has been an immense help in bringing me back to my feet. With more time to prepare, the drain on me is not quite so heavy. Today's schedule, though tiring, did not knock me out as the others did.
There was no news to speak of from Little America. Hutcheson said that Charlie and John Dyer were out skiing, and the "Doc" Poulter was with the meteor observers. Lord, how I envy them the multitudinous diversions of Little America; even, I suppose, as they must on their side envy the people home with whom they chat on the radio. . .
I sent a message approving the meteor journey, subject to its being made with full regard for its hazards.
. . . I've begun to read again -- two chapters from The House of Exile, which I hope to continue with tonight. It's the best thing imaginable for me -- takes me out of myself for a blessed hour or two. And tonight, also, I played the phonograph after supper -- "In a Monastery Garden," "Die Fledermaus," "Tales from the Vienna Woods," and "The Swan." As I listened the hope swept over me that I have a good chance to pull through, unless another serious setback comes. Although still stupidly weak, I have made real progress the past week. The knowledge is exhilarating. . . .
. . . Cold spell still holding -- 62 degrees below zero today. The ice is a foot higher on the walls. I have at last managed to get rid of a good deal of the frozen slop which for the most part I've been dumping into the tunnel -- just outside the door. Sitting on the rim of the hatch, I've been hauling the stuff topside with a bucket and line, and dumping it a little to leeward. Of course, this meant half a dozen trips up and down the ladder to fill the bucket; and I thought how wonderful it would be if I had a Man Friday topside and had only to shout: "Take a strain, Friday, it's full." As it is, I have to sit down and rest after every trip. However, the job was well worth doing. The tunnels are much tidier.
I was greatly encouraged over finding myself able to level some of the drifts. Yet, I had to drive myself, for the temperature was in the minus 50's; and, animal-like, I seem to shrink instinctively from anything that hurts. It's odd that I should have changed so much. The cold never used to bother me. I rather liked it for its cleansing, antiseptic action. But now I seem to have very little resistance. This afternoon, for example, I froze my nose rather severely; and, in the minute or two I had my hands out of my gloves to attend to it, I nipped five fingers.
It has been good for me to be outside. I suppose that I was in the air for nearly two hours altogether, though not more than half an hour at a time. The night is still very dark, but at noon the colors on the northern horizon had the hint of sunrise. The sun is now twelve days nearer. . . . I have always valued life, but never to the degree I do now. It is not within the power of words to describe what it means to have life pulsing through me again. I've been thinking of all the new things I'm going to do and the old things I'm going to do differently, if and when I ever get out of here. I hope that I won't be like the monk in the rhyme which goes something like this:
The monk when sick a monk would be, But the monk when well, the devil a monk was he. . . .
These were days of great beauty, shadowless days. Scarcely a cloud marred the sky. Looking upwards, I seemed to be able to see into depths which at home could scarcely be penetrated by telescope. Once more I paced my walk, never far nor for long, but enough to take confidence from repossessing the wheeling constellations, the stars, and the opulent inventions of the aurora australis. In the steepening cold the aurora flowered to perfection. For hours on end the Barrier was bathed in the cold white incandescence of its excitation. At times the sky way coursed by a great luminous stream, a hundred times broader than the Mississippi; at other times it was made up of scattered petals of pale light which I liked to think of as wild flowers. And the glow in the ventilator was like the reflection from a forest fire.
Times when the temperature was in the minus fifties or sixties, a wind would come rustling out of the cold, edged with a breath so sharp that it fairly sliced the skin from the face. Turn, twist, and wriggle as I might, I could never elude its numbing clasp. Maybe my toes would first turn cold and then dead. While I was dancing up and down to flex them and restore the circulation, my nose would freeze; and, by the time I had attended to that, my hand would be frozen. The wrists, the throat where the helmet chafed, the back of the neck, and the ankles pulsed and crawled with alternating fire and ice. Freezing to death must be a queer business. Sometimes you feel simply great. The numbness gives way to an utter absence of feeling. You are as lost to pain as a man under opium. But at other times, in the enfolding cold, your anguish is the anguish of a man drowning slowly in fiery chemicals.
The Barrier shrank from the cold. One could almost feel the
crustal agony. The snow quakes came with greater violence.
Sometimes the sound was like thunder, with one clap breaking upon
the other. The shack quivered to the worse concussions, and a few
were severe enough to awaken me from sound sleep. I rather had the
idea that I was in the equivalent of an earthquake epicenter zone,
for the succession of shocks, increasing as the months wore on,
meant nothing less than that crevasses were opening up all around
Advance Base. Perhaps they were portents. Like the Barrier crust,
my reviving security was based upon a doubtful equilibrium -- one
strong blow could break it in two.
The blow did in fact fall on Thursday the 5th. That day the gasoline-driven radio generator went out of commission. I had everything in readiness for the schedules, even the engine was running. Casually I flipped the switch to test the voltage. Zero, read the dial. A loose connection, probably. But no. When, in tracking down the fault, I arrived at the generator, I found that it was not turning on the shaft. This is bad, very bad, I said to myself; I'd sooner lose an arm that have anything go wrong with this.
Giving up all intention of meeting the schedule, I fell to on the machine. By supper time I had it apart. The fault was fatal. The lug on the generator drive shaft had sheared off. No improvisation of mine would do, although I tried everything that my imagination suggested. Except for a pause to eat or rest, I worked steadily into the night. When midnight came, the table was cluttered with parts and the bunk with tools, but I was no nearer to a solution than at noon. The only possible repair was a new shaft; and where in God's name was I to get that?
Bent over with weariness and despair, I concluded finally that my world was falling to pieces. There remained the emergency hand-powered set, but I doubted that I was strong enough to work it. Ordinarily two men were required to operate these sets, one cranking to supply power to the transmitter, and the other keying. I, who did not possess the strength of half a well man, would have to go it alone. The pity was that the failure had to come at such a critical hour, when the tractor trip was hanging fire. Nor was this all. My imagination was racing. I thought of Dyer calling KFY for hours and becoming worried, perhaps alarmed. No, the failure could not have come at a worse time. All that I had suffered in June to maintain communication was undone by the failure of an inconspicuous bit of steel.
Friday I awakened feeling miserable and uncertain. I unpacked the emergency equipment. Having tested the receiver several weeks before, I knew that it was all right. The transmitter was the doubtful part. It was housed in a steel box about seven inches square which was fixed to a steel tripod, of which one leg had a seat for the operator. Two short crank handles were fitted into the sides of the box; turning these generated "juice." With the help of the instruction book, I finally succeeded in making the right connections. A copper hand switch, clamped to the antenna lead, enabled me to throw either the transmitter or receiver into the antenna. Rigged up and standing hard by my radio table, the set looked workmanlike and simple. But I had a premonition of what it would do to me.
I glanced at my wrist watch. It was nearly 1 o'clock. I had been working with hardly a stop for four hours. I had, of course, missed the 9:30 emergency schedule; but Dyer had said he would also listen in at 2 o'clock in the event of my losing a regular broadcast period. Lunch was a hurried affair of hot milk, soup, and crackers. At 2 o'clock I made the first attempt with the new setup. I threw the antenna switch on the transmitter side, and planted Strumpell's Practice of Medicine on the key to hold it down, so that Little America would hear a continuous signal if they were listening. Then, straddling the seat, I started to crank with both hands. The strain was even greater than I had supposed. Just what the magnetic resistance load to overcome was, I do not know; but to me it was a long, uphill push. As soon as the thing was turning fast, I knocked the book off the key, and with left hand still winding, I tried to spell out KFY-KFZ. Have you ever tried that parlor trick of rubbing your stomach around and around with one hand, while with the other hand you pat the top of your head straight up and down? Well, this was like that; except that the organization of my movements was infinitely complicated by my weakness and my unsure handling of the Morse code.
I called for five minutes, then switched to the receiver. My fingers were trembling as I tuned in on the wavelength Dyer had assigned for this set. I heard only the scraping of static. I tried the two other frequencies which Dyer had marked as alternatives. Nothing there, either. Then I went up and down the dial. Complete silence. Either my transmitter wasn't on the air, or I hadn't tuned the receiver properly, or Little America wasn't listening in. I could have wept from disappointment. After resting ten minutes or so in the bunk, I called again, although it was evident that my strength would soon be exhausted at this rate. When I switched to the receiver, I was almost too tired to care. Then Dyer's voice welled for a second out of the silence. I lost it right away. Desperately I experimented with the tuning dial, trying to find the hairline paystreak.
"Go ahead, KFY. We heard you. Go ahead, go ahead, please. We heard you." It was Dyer. How wonderful, how perfectly wonderful, I thought.
I switched to the transmitter, and told Dyer in a few words that my engine was "shot" and that I was having a hard time with the emergency set.
"We're sorry to hear that," Dyer said, "and we'll try to keep our messages down."
Murphy came on and read the dispatch he proposed to send to the U.S. in connection with the meteor trip. What he said about me was no longer important. When he finished I simply said, in effect: "OK. Radio uncertain from now on. Don't be alarmed by missed schedules."
Then, speaking slowly and softly, Charlie had this to say: "As you know, the journey to Advance Base may be hard, and it certainly is chancy. We consider it so here. Therefore, the possibilities are being examined; and the preparations are being made with the utmost care. If I were you, I wouldn't count overmuch on the possibility of the tractors before the end of July. There is a good chance it may be considerably later."
For an instant I was taken aback. The thought struck me that they knew the trip was dangerous but were still going ahead with it. Had I somehow given myself away? My heart sank at the thought of having done such a stupid thing. I interrupted with a sharp protest that, if they thought the trip dangerous, they should give it up. There were other things I wanted to say, but I simply couldn't turn the handle any more. I keyed KK, the signal to go ahead, and waited.
In spite of the atrocious sending, they evidently understood, because Murphy, still in the same even tone, said he was sorry I had interpreted his statement that way. He went on: "All I meant to imply was this: that, appreciating how long the last three and a half months have been, I can also appreciate how disappointing it might be if, after all this talk, the arrival of the tractor were a long time delayed." He talked a long time; but I didn't hear much of it, because my heart was thumping and my head had turned dizzy, and also because the signal, for an unaccountable reason, was fading in and out.
Poulter then gave a quick resume of the preparations. Much of this, too, I missed; but I did hear him ask if I had any suggestions as to the men who should go.
"No," was my answer.
Beside the key was a long message I had written the morning before, relating to various safety precautions -- the need for a big fuel reserve for the tractor, face masks for the men, fur gauntlets, and a suggestion that two complete sets of rations and camping gear be carried, one on the sledges towed behind and one in the tractor cabin, as protection in case one or the other fell down a crevasse. When Poulter finished, I sent what I could of this message before my arms gave out. "Have very thorough drill on trail; also more flags," I concluded, and keyed the signal to repeat it back. If they replied, I did not hear them. Then I spelled the sentence again, and signed off, cursing my weakness as I sagged over the generator head. But, even so, I drew comfort from the fact that Little America, so far as I could tell, had not suspected anything.
The temperature was 60 degrees below zero, but sweat was pouring down my chest. I turned off the stove and stumbled to the sleeping bag. It was the third serious relapse; and, coming on top of five weeks of depleting illness, it very nearly did me in. If it had not been for the week's supply of fuel, plus the three weeks' supply of food, which I had stored squirrel-wise near at hand, I doubt whether I could have lived the period out. Once again I was reduced to doing what had to be done in slow-motion steps, which were ghastly caricatures of my ambitions. The pain came back, as did the vomiting and sleeplessness.
Everything -- myself included -- is saturated with cold. For two solid weeks the red thermograph trace has been wandering through the minus 40's, 50's and 60's. A moment ago, when I turned the flashlight on the inside thermograph, the pen was edging past minus 65 degrees. The ice over the skylight is fanning out to meet the ice on the walls, which has risen level with my eyes. I hope fervently that the cold will let up, for I simply must have more warmth, even at the expense of less ventilation and more fumes.
I am still in wretched condition. My brain seems unspeakably tired and confused. Last night was agony. This morning was one of my worst. The gloom, the cold, and the evenness of the Barrier are a drag on the spirits; my poise and equanimity are almost gone. This new setback reminds me of the one that followed that attack of typhoid fever which I contracted in England during the midshipman cruise. For weeks I ran a high temperature. Then it subsided to normal. The day I was slated to received solid food (and I was famished) I suffered another relapse; so I had the whole siege to endure again. And now, as then, I am facing another illness with a weakened body and mind.
Today I missed another radio schedule with Little America. I
called and listened for at least half an hour, which was as long
as I could stand. No luck. Then, on the chance that they could
hear me, I broadcast blind: "Can't hear anything. Receiver out of
order. OK here. OK, OK, OK." The whole business was disheartening,
and I was teetering on the thin edge of oblivion.
Wafted in by the prevailing southerlies, the cold clamped down on the Barrier. From that day to and through July 17th the minimum daily temperature was never higher than 54 degrees below zero; much of the time it was in the minus 60's, and on the 14th reached -71 degrees. Frost collected inside the instrument shelter like moisture on the outside of a mint julep. The air at times was alive with ice crystals, precipitated in a dry, burningly cold rain. In a sense, I could almost see the cold fall; for, whenever I opened the trapdoor, a thick fog formed as the super-chilled air from the Barrier met the warmer air in the tunnels and the shack. Even when the stove burned fifteen and sixteen hours a day, it did not throw off enough heat to melt the ice crawling up the wall, an inch a day. The ceiling was half covered with crystals that seldom thawed. And meanwhile the glacial film mounted on the walls until at last it met the ceiling on every side except the west, where the heat from the stove stayed the creeping advance. In spite of the fire risk, I left a lantern burning under the register night after night to keep the batteries from freezing.
All this time I lived on the food which was stored under the bunk and on the shelves. It was an uninspired diet -- Klim, Eskimo biscuits, tomatoes, canned peas, turnip tops, rice, corn meal, lima beans, chocolate, jelly, preserved figs, and I still had some of my mother's wonderful ham. While these dreary things contained adequate nourishment, I did not concentrate on them for this reason alone. It was simply impossible for me, during this bad time, to prepare anything more complicated. Even after the canned stuff had stood for hours near the stove, I often had to break it out with a hammer and chisel. My fingers were burned raw again from touching cold metal; no matter how much food I forced into my stomach or how much clothing I wore, it seemed impossible to revive the heat-generating apparatus of the body. One night, when I felt up to taking a bath (the first in a week), I was horrified to find how close I was to emaciation. My ribs showed through the flesh, and the skin sagged loosely on my arms. I weighed 180 pounds when I went to Advance Base. I doubt if I weighed more than 125 pounds in July.
I've been feeling like a joke without a laugh or, more apt, like a tortoise on its back. This damnable evenness is getting me. It has been impossible to read or wind up the phonograph lately. I must pull out of it somehow, and the only way I can do it is by invoking help from my faith, which I depended upon last month. For I have lost almost entirely the inner peace which I had almost achieved then, and which I know pulled me through. I must somehow win this inner harmony back. Somewhere I must have got off the track.
. . . Because of the continued cold, I have had to keep the stove going so much that I fear I'm getting a heavy dose of fumes. I know the symptoms well by now -- aching eyes, head, and back. It's hard to tell which hurts me more -- cold or fumes. I've learned a great deal from trial and error, but I'm still uncertain as to what is the sure middle course between the two. Last night I couldn't get to sleep, and for the first -- and I hope the last -- time I took one of those sleeping pills, knowing that if I didn't get to sleep somehow, I shouldn't be able to leave the bag in the morning. I've been very weak all day, and the pill must be to blame. . . .
. . . I was at low ebb last night. My brain was not only tired but confused. The thirst for light was so intense that in spite of my resolve I finally lighted the pressure lantern and drank in its bright light for half an hour. It was almost like seeing sunlight again, for the gloom went out of the corner, and there was a respite from the everlasting dimness and flickering. . . . The trouble with me, I have decided, is that I've been thinking words without feeling their meaning; that I've been repeating my convictions about the universe without feeling their significance. That is how I have wandered from the track. If I could feel as well as assert the truth, I should regain inward peace. . .
What made it even harder was losing contact with Little America. Monday the 9th I listened in on the emergency schedule, but heard nothing; this was also true of Tuesday. I gave up calling; the cranking took too much out of me. Clearly, the fault lay with my own apparatus. Every day, hours on end, I fussed with the receiver and transmitter; if I had the set apart once, I had it apart half a dozen times. I pored over the instruction book and the handy guide covering minor adjustments which Dyer had prepared for me. All that I could find wrong with the transmitter was a loose connection. On Tuesday the 12th I hear Dyer calling, very faintly. I tried to reach him. "Hear you. Have had radio trouble. Come in," I radioed; and in my fanatic eagerness I actually spoke the words. But the code was as futile as the words. I could still hear Dyer calling KFY and asking me to come in, please. Twice, at five-minute intervals, I cranked and spelled out: "Can hear you. All OK here, OK, OK." That was all I could manage; it never got through. I finished in time to catch Charlie Murphy's voice. What he said was unintelligible. Then silence. It was as if I were sinking in quicksand and calling to a deaf person who did not hear me.
. . . Thank heavens, I seem to have found what's wrong with the radio. I found a loose connection on the antenna lead-in, which was a surprise, since I had examined it the day after the last contact. Ever since then I've been working steadily, checking all connections in the receiver and transmitter, and tightening them. I don't like this unbroken cold. The temperature sank to -72 degrees by the thermograph, and I had to inject more glycerin into the ink of all the instruments to prevent freezing.
This has been a day of mixed news. I finally made contact with Little America -- which was to the good; but the cranking has left me exhausted -- which is to the bad. The most comforting fact is the discovery that the silence has evidently not stirred up Little America. They are still keeping their heads. Although I was terribly anxious to know how they had interpreted my silence, I didn't think it prudent to ask. Also, because I was afraid that Murphy would start cross-examining me, I plunged at once into the instructions I had written out for Poulter. These said: "Return to Little America if you lose trail. Have plenty of flags, gas, food, furs, and tents; but above all, you must be absolutely certain not to lose trail or run out of fuel."
I could barely hear Dyer say that he got part of it and asking me to repeat, but I simply couldn't. Instead, I finished with a last admonition: "Take no chances with the lives of men."
Charlie came on then and said how glad they were that contact had been restored. He explained that he wasn't going to ask what had happened because of the many important things he had to take up. He went on to say that, in the event that contact was lost again, they would attempt the trip the first good days after July 20th. Then, when he said that, I realized that the radio silence had been taken in the right way. Charlie added that, if they lost contact with me in the future, they would assume that my receiver was working and they would therefore broadcast information to me at 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. As he finished, I heard him say something about the anemometer pole which was incomprehensible. . . .
When the signal came up, Poulter was talking, carefully and deliberately, as he usually did. The party, he said, would consist of himself, Waite (radio operator), and Skinner (driver), plus Petersen and Fleming -- the last two to remain at Advance Base as observers. He expected no great difficulty in navigating the trail but suggested, nevertheless, that at noon, on the days following the start, I fire a can of gasoline which would serve as a beacon.
Harold June talked a little while about the problems of the trip, but I could make out very little of what he said; and when he was done Murphy summed up, repeating himself many times to make sure I understood. What he said, in effect, was that the first attempt was considered experimental; that it was definitely understood no undue risks would be taken; and that if conditions were unfavorable Poulter would return to Little America and wait for better light. "So we'll look for you on Thursday, as usual," he concluded, "and twice a day thereafter, at the given times."
All of which was decidedly reassuring. I tried to frame an acknowledgment, but my strength was drained dry. Dyer was asking me to repeat as I signed off.
[By the Little America log: ". . . Byrd said then: 'O.K.
listen ten minutes every day mhindh dolkng k.' Dyer
asked him to repeat. There came a wicked whine of the
generator as he cranked; then 'So long.' We called to
sign off . . . no answer."]
Even now, after four years, the whole business sounds fantastic. I was lying, because there was nothing else for me to do. But at Little America they were lying, too. The difference was that they were coming to suspect that I was lying and, even as they divined that I was concocting a fiction to mislead them, so they in turn concocted their own brand to mislead me.
It seems that sometime in the last week in June Charlie Murphy began to feel that something was wrong at Advance Base. He had nothing tangible upon which to hang his suspicions -- "nothing but my imagination and intuitions and, paradoxically, the absence of news from you," as he put the matter later. But the suspicion was there; and, sitting at the other end of the radio channel, watching my messages take shape on Dyer's typewriter, he was like a doctor with a finger on a man's pulse. The loss of communications in July gave Murphy's suspicions something tangible to feed upon; and they grew as he noted my floundering with the hand-cranked set, the all but unintelligible code, and the long waits between the words, which to him were not easily explained except by physical weakness.
However, the rest of the men at Little America refused at first to take him seriously. It was argued that he was not psychic and that my deficiencies with the radio were only to be expected. Yet, this notwithstanding, the idea that I was in trouble would not be downed in Murphy's mind.
Although Poulter has always insisted that he was not influenced by Murphy's intuitions when he took up the proposal for the meteor trip to Advance Base, I have my doubts; knowing his gallantry, I have come to suspect increasingly as time has gone on that he told me this to spare my feelings. But I do know that, when he and Murphy started making plans for the meteor trip to Advance Base, they ran into a stone-wall opposition. Under what might be considered the constitutional government which I had set up in Little America, they were obliged to take up all important propositions with the group of sixteen officers who constituted the staff and who had veto power by a two-thirds vote over any act of the executive officers. The struggle was close and, from what I've been told, rather heated. The argument went on for days; the caves at Little America seethed with dissension. The crux of the opposition was the lack of any specific permission from me to come to Advance Base before daylight. It was argued that my original strict instructions had forbidden just such a night journey under any conditions; and it was pointed out that in authorizing the early base-laying trip, I had specifically cautioned Poulter not to start until there was ample light.
But Murphy stood on his intuitions and insisted upon decisive action, even though he admitted before the staff that he had nothing concrete to go on. "I grant you," he told them, "that an intuition is pretty poor stuff to allow men to take risks on; but, if I am right, and you are wrong, we'll never forgive ourselves." On his side, Poulter argued earnestly on behalf of the sheer worth of the meteor observations. But, to certain of the men, many of them navy or ex-navy ratings habituated to arbitrary orders, the proposed trip was a deliberate evasion of an explicit command, a reckless dash supported merely by a hunch, and a potential disaster which might bring disgrace upon the leader and themselves. If, as they surmised, this was to be a relief journey, common sense and the leader's instructions required that the man supposedly in need of assistance first be asked directly whether he needed it.
This Murphy would not do, on the ground that the man at Advance Base, if these facts were laid before him, would have no alternative but to veto the journey. His argument was that they could do two things in one throw: provide Poulter with the base line he needed for his observations and, at the same time, find out whether I was all right. It was on this basis that he and Poulter finally persuaded the staff to approve. Thus the field was left clear for them to continue selling the trip to me as purely a meteor project, knowing full well that I should not be apt to stand in the way of one of Poulter's big scientific projects. The instant I gave my consent, hedged in as it was, they felt they had a free hand. If Poulter found me well, so much the better; he would simply set up his meteor equipment, and no one need be the wiser except that Charlie Murphy might never hear the end of his fiasco as a polar medium. On the other hand, if I were actually in trouble, the double purpose would have been served.
During all this uproar and even while I was out of communication, they were assuring me that all was well, preparations for the meteor trip were moving smoothly, no weighty difficulties were anticipated, and they were looking forward to seeing me soon.
All this I know now. I could not know it in July, 1934; and
Charlie Murphy took excellent care that I should have no reason to
suspect anything. In the four years that have intervened, the
story has come to me in fragments; even now I doubt that I know it
all. The men who were closest to the crux of affairs have elected
to keep their side of the story pretty much to themselves; the
others have only a fact or two, plus their own ideas of what
happened. But, since these events are as much a part of the story
of Advance Base as my own misfortunes, I have felt bound to tell
what I now know.