August began on a Wednesday. It was black with threat. I had never seen the barometer drop so low. The pressure fell to 27.72 inches, and the recording pen ran off the sheet. Watching it fall, I had the feeling that the air was being sucked off the Barrier. But the anemometer cups dawdled on a simpering breeze which was satisfied to box the compass and presently expire. Nothing else happened. Yet, all day I imagined that the Barrier was holding its breath, waiting for the swoop of a hurricane.
My mood was infected by the uncertainty in nature. For the first time I was really on the verge of losing my self-control, I could not sit still for nervousness. I refilled the spare kerosene cans just outside the door, which had been used up during the last setback; and I brought in more food from the tunnel until I had at least two weeks' reserve in the shack. The extra effort taxed me, but I would not -- and indeed could not -- stop until it was done. Habit and necessity made me do a number of things automatically; they were done in spite of myself.
The fact that I had heard nothing from Little America in five days sharpened my fears. For all I knew, Poulter might be on his way, might, indeed, be close by. I used up the last of my strength setting off another can of gasoline. The surrounding night was empty of signs. So I went to bed and dreamed fitfully of tractors and crevasses and strange unfriendly faces crowding the shack, shutting out something vague which, nevertheless, I ardently desired.
I hear nothing today; but, to be on the safe side, I set off one can of gasoline in the afternoon and another in the evening. The weather is moderating. From a minimum of 52 degrees below zero yesterday, the temperature has soared to -2 degrees at 11 p.m. There's a light fog, but no wind to speak of.
Providence has been good to us. Poulter is safe at Little America, and all my futile tinkering with the radio seems to have borne fruit. The messages really made sense today. Poulter hasn't left, but is ready to do so as soon as Haines gives him a good weather report. Little America is fog-bound, but it is wonderfully clear here. At noon the northern sky had a fine rosy hue and a definitely yellow look in the direction of the Ross Sea. The maximum thermometer read zero this morning, but it's getting colder again -- nearly 40 degrees below zero now (10 p.m.). The growing light is a factor which each day lessens Poulter's hazards; but on my side I have almost ceased to care. A sort of numbness seems to have claimed me. Dyer must be having a hell of a time at the other end of the conversations. It is a miserable predicament not to be able to answer Little America's urgent questions. But I must say that Dyer and Hutcheson have been wonderfully patient.
Poulter has started. This afternoon I was told that he had taken departure five hours earlier with two month's rations aboard and a big reserve of gasoline. The weather looks good, for there's practically no wind, and the temperature is steady in the minus thirties. Also, the fact that Poulter is actually headed south again has pierced my torpor, and hope is once more quickening in my heart.
Sunday was a day I should like to rub from memory. I was in ghastly shape when I awakened -- too sick to eat and too tired to lose myself in any passing task. I fussed a bit with the register, but my eyes kept bothering me, and I finally sank into the chair beside the stove to wait for the noon schedule. It brought bad news. Poulter was bogged down in the crevasses on the Little America side of Amundsen Arm. He had missed the passage which had carried him safely through before; in trying to negotiate a new transit, he had lost his way and was even then trying to extricate the car from a pothole crevasse into which it had fallen.
Because the receiver was acting up again, it took me some little time to get these facts straight; and, when I had them in full view after hearing the combined reports of Murphy and Haines, they seemed enormous. If Poulter was in serious trouble, less than ten miles from Little America, why wasn't something being done to help him? My nerves broke. I jerked at the key: "Charlie and Bill, what in God's name is the matter? Won't another tractor help? Use all resources."
Charlie was replying as I adjusted the headphone. The anger was gone, and remorse was flooding in; I would have given anything I possessed to recall those words. My friend spoke deliberately, gently, and even, I thought, a little reproachfully. If I do not remember his exact words, I do remember the sense. In his opinion, he said, Poulter was proceeding cautiously and reasonably. A stand-by tractor was ready, and had been ready from the time Poulter left. They were in constant touch with him. Although Poulter had been offered the full facilities of the camp, he had firmly declined them. So there was no cause for alarm. In all probability the tractor would be under way again within a few hours. Finishing, Charlie said, in the same unemotional tone: "Dick, the truth is that we are more worried about you. Are you ill? Are you hurt?"
I tried to dodge the questions by saying that I understood the whole tractor situation. But at this point first my legs and then my arms gave out on the cranks. The message was left dangling in mid-air. Charlie began to talk. He said that what they had heard was only partly intelligible. And again he asked what was wrong. There was no escape then. The old fiction of the lame arm just wouldn't do any more. Murphy was too insistent. He even mentioned something about sending out a doctor. "Nothing to worry about," I answered finally; "only please don't ask me to crank any more."
All this was duly committed to the Little America log; and with it John Dyer's incidental observation that "Byrd's strength seems to peter out after every few words." My evasions therefore fooled nobody but myself. Murphy's misgivings deepened; yet, he professed to be satisfied. "We appreciate how hard the cranking must be," he said. "Don't worry about us or about Poulter. See you tomorrow."
At noon today Poulter was only twenty-one miles south. Yesterday he extricated himself from the crevasse, but since then has been crippled by continuous mechanical trouble. The clutch is slipping badly, the fan belts have all been used up, and Charlie was doubtful that Poulter could do much about it. I sent a reassuring message, only to have Charlie say that Dyer couldn't pick up a word; my signal was too weak. He tactfully suggested that I need not exert myself cranking unless I had an important message; otherwise an OK would mean I was all right. I sent two or three OK's, and closed down for the day.
I've suffered for what I said yesterday. I did my friends at Little America a grave injustice in questioning their judgment and efficiency. Of course they know what they are doing, and from this distance I have no right to meddle. Yet, my chagrin goes beyond that. It maddens me that after sixty-six days I have given myself away in a momentary fit of impatience.
I have no way of telling how much Little America has guessed. Charlie's casualness may be just a mask. Which is what torments me. The last thing I want is to see this trip degenerate into a rescue trip with all the risks and humiliations which such a trip would involve. And again I say this in all humility. This business has long since passed the ephemeral consideration of pride or face-saving; it is now one of cold calculation. If they are tempted into recklessness, and something goes wrong, my chances of ever getting out of here will suffer, too; for the Barrier is not a fit place for worried, anxious men. So my solicitude is definitely selfish. Obviously, the officers at Little America are acting with profound care as to the risks. They could not act otherwise without betraying me and the men under them. . . .
All this notwithstanding, I wish to heaven the matter were settled, one way or another. I can't go on this way, raised one minute by hope and dropped the next by failure. Every day my recuperative resources grow a little less; and for this I mostly blame the radio. The steady cranking has raised hell with me. When I finish a schedule, I am reduced to staggering about in a condition approaching helplessness. One can put up with such misery only so long, then something has to give. I am sinking once more to the level of beggary.
I shall go to bed now, supported by the hothouse fiction that
tomorrow night will find them here. In my heart I know this can't
possibly happen; not after Charlie's discouraging report. Worst of
all, the cold is steepening: it's close to 60 degrees below zero
Tuesday was heart-breaking. In a matter-of-fact way Murphy informed me that Poulter was once more back in Little America. Twenty-six miles south, or barely half the distance made good on the first attempt, the clutch had given out entirely. Poulter had turned back and was lucky to reach Little America at all. "It's a pity, but these are the facts," Charlie said. "The men are sleeping now. The car is being overhauled and will be ready by midnight."
I replied that what they were doing was sensible. Nothing was to be gained by hurry and push.
"Please repeat; we couldn't get it," Little America said. "John says that your transmitter isn't tuned properly."
Ill fortune seldom comes unattended. My transmitter was failing. Formerly I couldn't hear Little America, but Little America could at least hear me. Now the situation was reversed. I could hear them fairly well, but they could scarcely hear me at all. "Wait," I said. I hurriedly checked the transmitter, made a few adjustments, and started afresh.
"No good, but never mind," said Charlie. "Try to have it fixed by tomorrow. We'll see you at the same time. Don't bother about lights for another two days or so."
That morning I really surrendered. In the diary I wrote: "It appears that aid for me and reasonable safety for the men can't lie in the same bed. . . . It was a mistake to allow my hopes to rise so high. . . . I finally gathered today that three men were in the party, and that one of them was that fine, loyal shipmate of many years -- Pete Demas -- another was Bud Waite, in whom I have complete confidence. When Poulter and these two men turned back, there must have been good reason for it."
Yet, even with hope gone, the animal tenacity in me, as in every man, would not let me give up. Ever since the first start, I had been preparing flares and firepots. Now, making one trip an hour, I hauled half a dozen more cans of gasoline to the surface. I then had twelve signal pots ready, consisting of tomato cans and a couple of gasoline tins with the tops cut away. Weighted down with snow blocks and covered with paper to keep the drift out, they were racked on the improvised bench on the roof. I stood up the kite in the veranda, at the foot of the ladder, with the line neatly coiled. There, too, I put the last of the magnesium flares, of which I had about half a dozen left. In a sense, I was preparing for a last stand.
Yet, these simple preparations, by taking me out of myself for a while, did me good. And the day itself was almost heartening. It was clear, and not too cold -- only 41 degrees below zero at noon. And there was no denying that the daylight was rising with the implacable and irresistible force of the solar system behind it. Between me and Little America the darkness for a while was broken clearly in two; the pearl dawn-light expanded and turned rosy and yellowish, and it made me think of a rug being laid for the sun. The sun was only three weeks distant now. I tried to imagine what it would be like, but the conception was too vast for me to grasp.
They started again early this morning for the third try -- Poulter, Demas, and Waite. The day was clear, the light good, and the cold only so-so. The air was in the minus thirties around midday and is now holding fairly steady just under the minus-forty-degree line.
Charlie was cheerful. "Keep the light going, Dick. This time I really think they're going right through," he said. Well, that remains to be seen. I cannot allow myself to hope again; the drop into failure is too abrupt. The great pity is that I am only half in touch with Little America. I can hear them well enough, but they can't get me. I've already had the transmitter apart once, and I shall have another go at it tonight.
Next day was Thursday. I awakened with the unshakable conviction that this trip, like the others, must inevitably end in failure. Better now than then, I understand why I chose to adopt this attitude: it was a defense mechanism for warding off the terrible wrench of another disappointment. Strangely, I had no true sense of despair; rather, I thought I was being downright realistic. My own personal stake in the outcome of the journey was of dwindling importance. No matter how the trip turned out, whether they reached Advance Base or not, I was convinced that I personally had little to gain; my salvage value was next to zero. Only one thing continued to be important: the expedition's prestige and the safety of the three men between me and Little America.
The weather was not exactly auspicious. Although the barometer was flickering upward, the sky was overcast, and the weather vane tentatively fingered the east, which is the storm-breeding quarter. The fear grew in me that either a blizzard or a fresh onslaught of cold would trap the party midway between Little America and Advance Base. I became like a spectator at a play. The dangers massing around the principals were manifest; but, because the resolutions lay in the hands of others, I could not shout a warning.
Evidently the same uncertainty permeated Little America. When we met on schedule in the early afternoon, John Dyer sounded hurried and nervous. From what he said, I gathered that Charlie Murphy was off skiing somewhere. Bill Haines reported in his place. All that I could make out was that Poulter was getting along quite well. "How's weather?" I asked. Bill thought it looked none too good. "For God's sake, Bill," I spelled out, "tell them to hurry." If weather were in the making, I wanted the party off the Barrier.
"I understand," Bill answered; "but they'll be all right. They can take care of themselves."
Charlie Murphy took over then. Although his voice was clearer, I lost much of what was said. However, he finally fixed for my benefit the fact that the stand-by tractor was in readiness to go to Poulter's assistance, and that in the event the tractors failed, June and Bowlin could have one of the planes ready to fly within forty-eight hours. Charlie Murphy and I had known each other for a long time; we had had a close and deep affection for each other; and, not so much from what he said as from what he left unsaid, I sensed the anxiety in him. "Thanks," I replied, "but you must make no mistakes, nor take chances."
Afterwards I sat beside the fire, with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I must have dozed, because the next thing I knew the shack was completely dark. I had neglected to fill the lantern, which had burned itself out. I groped around until I found the flashlight. It was time for the 4 o'clock radio schedule. Sitting in the dark, I heard Charlie telling me that Poulter was forty-odd miles on his way, and evidently moving right along. The rest was barely intelligible. I caught a reference to lights, and then a sentence asking if I needed a doctor. Manifestly, Charlie had his own ideas as to the state of affairs at Advance Base, and no further deception on my part would be apt to mislead him. Nevertheless, I replied, "No, no, no." And on the negative we shut down for the day.
Thereafter the hours fell like chips from a lazy whittler's stick. I paced the shack from the sheer physical necessity of doing something. Once I went topside for a check on the weather. The wind was all but mute in the south, and the sky appeared to be clearing. The cold was coming on again. From a high of 16 degrees below zero around noon, the temperature was again pressing into the minus thirties. I thought: Poulter can put up with that, after what he has been through. Before closing the hatch, I looked north and, I think, said a silent prayer for the three of them.
For supper I had soup, crackers, and potatoes; and, when they were down and promised to stay down, I went to bed. I pondered a long time. The likelihood to which I had blindly closed my mind was virtually a demonstrated fact: namely, Little America had now made up its collective mind that I was in trouble, and Poulter was coming more to help me than to observe meteors. And, if this was truly the case, I knew for a certainty that he must be determined to make a run for it, regardless of the condition of the flags beyond the Valley of Crevasses. This explained all the talk about lights. Once safely around the crevasses, he was evidently of a mind to steer by compass for Advance Base, trusting to find me by a light which could be seen fifteen or twenty miles away.
I could see the risk in that. Suppose I collapsed entirely. Without a light to fetch him in, Poulter might pass within a hundred yards or so of the Base and never see it. That would be easy to do on a dark night. And if in the hurry they should push too far to the south, then it would indeed go hard with them. True, they knew the position, and Poulter could determine his own location within a mile or two by taking star sights. But taking these in the cold is no simple matter; and, indeed, if the sky was overcast, it would be impossible. In that case, Poulter's only recourse would be to block out an area and criss-cross it until he ran down the Base. Meanwhile, more hours would be used up, more gasoline; and the danger from crevasses in an untested area would be multiplied many times.
Clearly, then, I had a task to do. Instead of being merely a passive objective, I must also be an active collaborator. My job was that of lighthouse keeper on a dangerous coast. I simply had to stay on my feet; and, since my reserve strength was almost exhausted, I must husband the little that remained. There was no sense in frittering it away as I had done in the past, setting off my gasoline pots when Poulter was so far away that he couldn't possibly have seen them. So I drew myself up into the bunk, lighted a candle, and calculated his probable arrival time. At 4 o'clock he was some forty miles and thirty-seven hours out of Little America; his average speed, therefore, was one and a fraction miles per hour. He had eighty miles to go. Even with the best of fortune, he wouldn't be apt to travel faster than five miles per hour. Suppose by the grace of God he was able to make that speed. In that case he would arrive about 8 o'clock in the morning.
This seemed too good to be even possible. But I had to be ready
for any eventuality. Therefore, I resolved to have the first kite
in the air by 7 o'clock in the morning and to burn gasoline at
two-hour intervals during the day. More than that I could not do;
and I was doubtful that perhaps even this was within my scope.
Anyhow, I reached out for sleep. It was a long time coming; and,
when it came, it was haunted with phantasms of crevasses and
floundering men and dancing, far-off lights.
In the morning I awakened with a start. Ordinarily the business of waking up was a long-drawn-out inner struggle between resolution and despair, but this time I was pitched headlong into alertness. I dressed as rapidly as I could, lit the stove, and went slowly up to the surface. It was 7:30 o'clock by the wrist watch. The day was dark. Heavy clouds were heaped up in the eastern sky. From habit I glanced north. And this time I swore I saw a light. To be sure, I shut my eyes. When I looked again, the light was gone. Stars had deceived me on many occasions, and one might have misled me then; I did not think so. The conviction brought an access of strength.
The kite was standing at the foot of the ladder. I hauled it up on a string and soaked the long tail in gasoline, leaving a couple of feet of paper dry at the end. This would be the equivalent of a fuse and give me time to haul the kite into the air before the tail burned up. Then I started down wind with it. There was just a whisper of a breeze out of the southeast. To save strength I crept part of the way. Altogether I went about two hundred feet, the longest distance in many a day. I scooped out a little hole, stood the kite upright in it, and piled snow loosely around the vertical strut to hold it erect. Then, after straightening out the tail, I fired the paper. Although I footed it back as fast as I dared, the gasoline was blazing before I reached the other end of the line.
Not having the strength to run, I had to jerk the thing into the air, pulling in the line hand over hand. The first pull was lucky. A gust of wind caught the kite, lifting it cleanly. I yanked hard, and it skated to a height of a hundred feet. The sight of it swaying against the night, dangling a fiery tail, was very satisfying. It was my first creative act in a long time. The light lasted for perhaps five minutes. Then it shrank to a mere incandescent filament, which finally parted and fell. No answer came from the north. I hauled down the kite and turned to the battery of gasoline signals. I fired two charges in quick succession. Nor did this evoke a response. The frenzy passed, and I stumbled from exhaustion. Too weak to go further for a moment, I sat down on the snow to think. My lights must have been visible for at least twenty miles. The fact that Poulter hadn't answered meant that he must still be out of sight. Therefore, I could rest from the signaling for at least four hours more.
Back in the shack I paused at the radio and listened for ten minutes or so on the chance that Little America might be on the air. The air was silent. By then the snow had melted in the water bucket. I made a little hot milk, which refreshed me, then climbed into the sleeping bag, leaving the lantern burning. I dozed intermittently. Several times I thought I heard the scrunch of tractor treads, but it was only creaking noises within the Barrier itself; and several times the singing of the antenna wire in the wind similarly tricked me. At noon I went topside again with my field glasses. The dawn-light was quite strong; I could count at least a dozen flags down the trail, which meant visibility was good for two miles; and a rose glow suffused the northern quadrant, halfway to the zenith. But nothing moved.
At the regular time I met Little America. Murphy was almost jubilant. Six hours before, Poulter had advised that he was more than halfway around the Valley of Crevasses. Best of all, he had picked up the trail. Indeed, the flags were apparently standing clear. Poulter said that expected no more trouble; he was over the Hump. "This is the best news in a long time," Charlie said. "We have another schedule with them at 3:45 o'clock. We'll broadcast a report to you then."
An hour later I pulled myself up the hatch, and fired a can of gasoline. No answer came; but, then, I did not expect one so soon. At 4 o'clock Little America was calling in great excitement. Poulter was ninety-three miles south, dead on the trail. "According to the last report," Charlie said, "the generator brushes are giving out, but Poulter is pretty certain that he won't be held up. Good luck to you, Dick. Don't forget to keep the fires burning." I didn't reply, dreading what would happen if I cranked the generator.
When Dyer signed off, saying he would look for me again in four hours, I tried to collect my thoughts. Charlie guessed that with luck Poulter might be at Advance Base in another eight-hours -- by early morning at the latest. The prospect was too big to visualize. It was like knowing in advance that you would be reborn again, without the intermediate obliteration of death. Moreover, I thought that Charlie was being overly optimistic. Poulter still had about thirty miles to go. In the 61 hours he had been under way, he had averaged 1-1/2 miles per hour; and, in the past 24 hours, less than 2 miles per hour. Even at the latter speed, he was still 15 hours distant from Advance Base. So he wasn't apt to arrive much before 7 o'clock in the morning.
Even so, prudence persuaded me to make ready for an earlier arrival. About 5 o'clock I went up the ladder. The sky had cleared considerably, but the gray dawn-light had gone, and the Barrier had seldom looked so black and empty. I set off another can of gasoline; as before, no answer came, nor did I expect one. I dropped below and rested an hour. I forced myself to read Hergesheimer's Java Head, incidentally; but my mind would not follow the words. At 6 o'clock I was again at the trapdoor. And this time, I really saw something. Dead in the north a beam of light lifted itself from the Barrier, swept to the vertical, and fell; then it rose again, touched a star, and went out. This was unmistakably Poulter's searchlight, and my first guess was than it wasn't more than ten miles away.
I was inexpressibly happy. With a flare in my hand, I made for the kite, half falling in my eagerness. I made the flare fast to the tail, and lit it, and, by repeating what I had done before, I jerked the kite seventy-five feet into the air. The flare burned brilliantly for about five minutes. All the time I watched the north, but in vain. The flare died, and I let the kite fall. For half an hour I sat on the snow, just watching. The darkness deepened perceptibly. I knew that I had seen a light, but after all the disappointments I was ready to mistrust anything. What I had to have was a clear-cut decision, one way or the other. This waiting, this coming and going, this uncertainty, were intolerable. This was the seventy-first day since the first collapse. I had endured as much as human frailty could bear.
When I moved to rise, my strength was gone. I crawled to the hatch, slipped down the ladder, and made for the bunk. My weariness was infinite. Yet, I could not lie still. Half an hour later I headed topside, halting at every rung of the ladder. You will see their lights close by, I told myself. No lights showed. The Barrier was solid gloom. But they must have seen the kite flare. If they had, then they must have felt no need to make acknowledgment. For I saw nothing, and heard nothing. I fired another can of gasoline; when it burned dry, I ignited another flare, which I planted upright in the snow. Consciousness of my own futility added lead to my feet. The minutes went by. At 7:30 o'clock a few stars struggled clear of the cloud rack. Where are they now? Carefully I lighted another can of gasoline, and waited for it to go out. Maybe they have camped for the night. But I knew they wouldn't do that, having come so close. In my pessimism I imagined the worst: a breakdown, fire, perhaps they had fallen through a crevasse.
The red trace on the thermograph was working through the minus forties. I was unspeakably disheartened when I picked up the earphones. Charlie Murphy was in the midst of a report. As nearly as I could tell, Poulter hadn't been heard from since 4 o'clock. The earphones fell from my hands. It is a pity that I didn't wait to hear more, for Murphy was trying to tell me that this was in all probability a very good sign; that having drawn so near Advance Base, Poulter had no doubt decided not to waste time broadcasting, but was pushing on as fast as he could. The fact was that I was at the end of my tether. My mind turned vague, and, when I recovered my facilities, I was sprawled half in and half out of the bunk.
The cold roused me. It was then about 8:30 o'clock. I hitched myself to the top of the bunk, pulled the blankets up, and fell asleep. I slept for about an hour and a half. Then, realizing that I simply must tend to the signals, I drove myself to the ladder. The best I could do was to get halfway up. I lunged back into the shack and tried to think what I could do. Obviously, I needed a stimulant. Remembering what alcohol had done to me the last time I had tried it, I ruled that out. The rest is not wholly clear. In the medical chest was a hypophosphate containing strychnine. Around the bottle was a slip of paper containing the ingredients and the dose -- one teaspoonful in a glass of water. The fluid was frozen, but I thawed it in the water bucket. I took three teaspoonfuls in a cup of water, and on top of it three cups of the strongest tea I could brew. I felt lightheaded, but my strength seemed to come up.
Armed with another flare and a length of flexible wire, I pulled myself up the hatch. Temporarily, at least, I had strength to spare. I threw the wire over the radio antenna between two of the poles, made the flare fast to one end, fired the fuse, and then hauled it to the top of the antenna. The light was blinding. When it died out, I blinked my eyes and peered into the north. The fingering beam of a searchlight moved slowly up and down against the dark backdrop of the horizon. It might be another hallucination. I sat down, resolutely facing the opposite horizon. When I stood up and looked again, the beam was still fanning up and down. Indeed, I soon made out a second light, fixed and dimmer than the first, evidently a headlight.
This was indeed the world advancing to meet me. In a little while I should see friends and hear voices talking. The escape which for two and a half months had existed only in imagination was now an oncoming reality. It would be hard to describe exactly what that light did to me. In my whole life I can recall but one comparable experience. That was at the fag end of the transatlantic flight. We had crossed the Atlantic in fog and storm, and on the coast of France ran into a succession of line squalls which gave way to rain and more fog. Although we did reach Paris, we were obliged to turn back to the coast, as that was the only place we could land without killing somebody other than ourselves. Our fuel was nearly gone; the four of us were exhausted; and ahead of us, as certain as death, was a crash landing. And then, in the forty-fourth hour, on the coast of France, we saw a revolving light, which was the beacon of the lighthouse at Ver-Sur-Mer. Well, seeing the tractor's lights was something like that, only this time I had waited longer and suffered more. In that miraculous instant all the despair and suffering of June and July fell away, and I felt as if I had just been born again.
Suddenly the light disappeared. The car had dipped into one of the shallow valleys with which the Barrier abounds, and the intervening ridge had blotted it out. Therefore the tractor must be some distance off, and I doubted that it would reach me for another two hours. After lighting another can of gasoline -- that left only two -- and the next to the last flare, I went below, intending to prepare supper for my three guests. I dumped a couple of cans of soup into a pan, and set them on the fire to heat.
When next I peered from the hatch, I saw the searchlight very clearly -- so clearly, in fact, that I was able to decide that it was fixed to the side of the cabin. Even then, I decided, they were still about five miles off. It would take them another hour to run out the journey. So I sat down in the snow to await the conclusion of this wonderful event. In a little while I could hear on the clear, vibrant air the rumble of the treads, then the beep-beep-beep of the horn. But the car was not appreciably nearer. Feeling cold, I went below and huddled beside the fire for a little while. It was hard to sit still when a miracle was being contrived overhead; yet, I compelled myself to do so lest I collapse completely. I looked around the shack and thought how different it would be in a few minutes. It was a filthy mess, and I remembered being ashamed that Poulter and the others should find me in such a state; but, while I did make a few feeble passes at the untidy heaps, I was too weak to do much about them.
A few minutes before midnight I went topside again. They had come
very close. I could see the bulking shadow of the tractor. As a
greeting I set off the last can of gasoline and the last flare.
They were just dying when the car stopped about a hundred yards
away. Three men jumped out, with Poulter in the center, looming
doubly big in furs. I stood up, but I did not dare to walk
forward. I remember shaking hands all around, and Waite insists
that I said: "Hello, fellows. Come on below. I have a bowl of hot
soup waiting for you." If that is really so, then I can only plead
that no theatricalism was intended. The truth is that I could find
no words to transport outward what was really in my heart. It is
also said that I collapsed at the foot of the ladder. I have only
a muddled impression of that and a slightly clearer one of trying
to hide my weakness. Nevertheless, I do remember sitting on the
bunk, watching Poulter and Demas and Waite gulp down the soup and
the biscuits; and I do remember what their voices were like, even
if I am not sure of what they said. And I do remember thinking
that much of what they said was as meaningless as if it were
spoken in an unfamiliar tongue; for they had been together for a
long time, occupied with common experiences, and in their talk
they could take a good deal for granted. I was a stranger.
All this happened a little after midnight, August 11, 1934. Two months and four days passed before I was able to return to Little America -- which was all to the good, since it enabled us to extend the meteorological recordings that much longer. This second wait was also a long one, but I was in no shape to leave earlier than I did. I could not possibly have survived a trip back in the tractor, and I hesitated to risk an airplane until I had enough endurance to withstand the rigors of a forced landing, always a possibility in that part of the world. It is a tribute to Poulter's self-restraint that he never once brought up the question of my returning. Neither, until toward the end, did Charlie Murphy, who continued to act as a buffer, relaying only those expedition matters which required my final decision. "We are all happy beyond words over the way things have turned out," he radioed Poulter. "Tell him that he will find an expedition ready to go when he throws the switch."
The two months that followed the tractor's coming were as pleasant as the others had been miserable. True, with four of us in the shack, we couldn't move without getting in each other's way. At night the three of them used to spread their sleeping bags on the deck and sleep shoulder to shoulder like three Musketeers. Demas and Waite took turns at cooking and cleaning house; Poulter looked after the instruments, and observed meteors as long as the darkness lasted. For a long time they wouldn't allow me to do anything; and, to tell the truth, I didn't insist beyond the requirements of simple courtesy. For it was wonderful not to have to do anything for a change. The darkness lifted from my heart, just as it presently did from the Barrier, with a tremendous inrush of white light. I was a long time regaining my strength, but little by little it came back, and with it some of my lost weight.
Yet, for a reason that I can't wholly explain, except in terms of pride, I concealed from these men, as best I could, the true extent of my weakness. I never mentioned and, therefore, never acknowledged it. On their side, the men never pressed me to tell what had happened before they came. They must have had their own ideas when they cleaned up the mess, but whatever they thought they kept to themselves. The self-preservation instinct of leadership and a sense of shame over my flimsiness drove me to wall off the immediate past. I wanted no one to be able to look over the wall; also, something deep inside me demanded that I close my mind to the notion that I had been rescued.
Pride contrives its own special vindications. I was for a long time convinced that whether the tractors had come or not, I could have stuck it out alone. As indeed I might, had it not been for that damnable hand generator. However, that is beside the point. The point is that I needed help badly; and the least that I can do is to express my everlasting gratitude to Poulter and Demas and Waite and Charlie Murphy.
On October 14th Bowlin and Schlossbach arrived from Little America in the Pilgrim. The sun was already high in the sky, and Bowlin told me that the main sledging parties were making ready to start on their three-months' journeys. Poulter said he would fly back with me. Waite and Demas stayed behind to strip the last sheets from the recording drums, and stow the personal gear and the weather records on the tractor. I climbed the hatch and never looked back. Part of me remained forever at Latitude 80 degrees 08 minutes South: what survived of my youth, my vanity, perhaps, and certainly my skepticism. On the other hand, I did take away something that I had not fully possessed before: appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values. All this happened four years ago. Civilization has not altered my ideas. I live more simply now, and with more peace.
Before I close this story of Advance Base, I must mention one more
thing I learned as a result of what happened to me there. Eager as
I was to step directly into the responsibilities of leadership on
my return to Little America, I was not long in discovering that a
few were beyond me. The medico said that if I flew I should have
only myself to blame for the consequences. While I did, in fact,
command the first important flight into the unknown -- and these
flights have been my biggest interest -- and another one later on,
I had to be satisfied to stay on the ground after that and turn
the tricky navigation of the big Condor over to Ken Rawson. Rawson
was then only twenty-three years old and, if I remember correctly,
had been in the air but once or twice in his life. He performed
his job to perfection. No better compliment is possible than the
simple statement that the two hard-boiled veteran Navy pilots who
sat forward of him never questioned his reckoning. So I say in
conclusion: A man doesn't begin to attain wisdom until he
recognizes that he is no longer indispensable.