My scheduled contact with Little America which fell on the next day -- Thursday the 7th -- confirmed what I knew in my heart: That the improvement in my condition was more mental than physical. Though I was less weak, I was at least three hours getting fuel, heating the engine, sweating it into the shack and out, and completing the other preparations. I moved feebly like a very old man. Once I leaned against the tunnel wall, too far gone to push the engine another inch. You're mad, I whispered to myself. It would be better to stay in the bunk and cut out paper dolls than keep up this damnable nonsense.
That day the cold was worse. The thermograph showed a minimum of 48 degrees below zero. From all indications the "heat wave" was broken. The slick white film of ice on the walls had climbed from the floor halfway to the ceiling. All my resistance to cold seemed to have vanished. My flesh crawled, and my fingers beat an uncontrollable tattoo against everything they touched. It was disheartening to be so much at the mercy of something from which there was no lasting escape. Resting betweenwhiles, I huddled over the stove. The warmth was only superficial. My blood ran cold as ice.
In spite of all my efforts, I was late making contact. Dyer was playing a record, as he sometimes did when he grew tired of repeating the call. I finally recognized what it was -- "The Pilgrim's Song" from Tannhauser; I waited much stirred, until the record was played out. When I broke in, Charlie Murphy chided me: "Oversleep, Dick?"
Charlie had little to say. Siple, however, was waiting to read a paper. As well as I can remember, it dealt with the theoretical configuration of the undiscovered coastal reaches of the Pacific Quadrant, where I was supposed to make a flight of exploration in the spring. Interesting, yes; there was no denying the thought that Siple had put into it. And, desperate as I was to close the conversation, I could not help but reflect that this was the most exquisite of ironies: that I should sit there, gripping the table for support, and listen to a theory about a coast I had never seen and now might never see.
If I remember rightly, I said: "Very interesting. Submit to scientific staff." Dyer broke in to ask if I had any further messages before signing off. I asked him if it would be possible to shift the schedules from the morning to the afternoon. He replied: "Wait a minute, please." Although the words were unintelligible, I could hear voices talking in the background. Dyer said that they were perfectly willing to make the change if I wished it, but that to do so would involve shifting their own schedules with the United States, which had been fixed after long testing. "Never mind," I said. And, for the time being, let the subject drop, not wishing to excite suspicion. Directly after the schedule I took to my bunk, and scarcely moved the rest of the day. The pain was back, and with it the bitterness and the discouragement.
Why bother? they argued mockingly. Why not let things drift? That would be the simple way. Your philosophy tells you to immerse yourself in the universal processes. Well, the processes here are in the direction of uninterrupted disintegration. That is the direction of everlasting peace. So why resist?
From that day on I came to dread the radio schedules with Little America. The task of getting the engine ready, together with the ever-present fumes, emptied me of whatever strength and resistance I had accumulated meanwhile. It seemed almost better to let the radio go by the board. I tried to think up excuses for stopping the contacts altogether which I could present to Little America over the next schedule, but none made sense. I couldn't very well say that the conversations were beginning to bore me or that the transmitter was on the verge of breakdown and not to be worried if Advance Base went off the air. For one thing, many expedition problems remained to be discussed with Poulter and Murphy; and, in spite of the explicit orders I had left with the officers at Little America and reiterated to the tractor crew just before they departed for Advance Base, I couldn't help but feel that any lasting silence on my part might tempt the camp into some rash move.
Thus, I was caught up in a vicious circle. If I kept up the schedules, the drain upon my strength plus the fumes would almost certainly finish me off; if I failed to keep them up, I had better be finished off anyway. This was the way I looked at the situation -- the way I believe that any member of the expedition in my position would have viewed it. Just as any normal man would be, I was doggedly determined to keep them from attempting a possibly disastrous relief excursion.
So I came to dread the schedules for a second reason: the fear that I would betray the condition which I was trying to hide by maintaining them. I knew that Murphy was always studying me in his cynical, penetrating fashion. As time went on, I sent amusing messages to throw him off. (I must say, though, that most of these looked pretty silly afterwards.) But, when a course of action is obvious, you take it for granted that you could not deliberately do otherwise; and, when your conscience is too weak to hold you to that course, you continue along it from momentum. By an ironical twist of circumstances the radio, which should have been the greatest safety factor, had instead become my greatest enemy.
That Thursday night I really grasped how far I had fallen. In the diary I wrote: " . . . These early morning schedules are killing. They leave me without strength to go through the day. Tremendously difficult to get even a little sleep. There are strange nagging pains in my arms, legs, shoulders, and lungs. . . . I'm doing everything possible to hold out. Could I but read, the hours would not seem half so long, the darkness half so oppressive, and my minor misfortunes half so formidable. . . ."
Across the room, in the shadows beyond the reach of the storm
lantern, were rows of books, many of them great books, preserving
the distillates of profound lives. But I could not read them. The
pain in my eyes would not let me. The phonograph was there, but
the energy to crank it had to be saved for the business of living.
Every small aspect of the shack bespoke my weakness: the wavering,
smoking flame in the lantern and the limp outlines of the clothing
on the walls; the frozen cans of food on the table, the slick
patches of ice on the deck, the darker stains of spilt kerosene,
and the yellowed places where I had vomited; the overturned chair
beside the stove which I hadn't bothered to pick up, and the book
-- John Marquand's Lord Timothy Dexter of Newbury -- which lay
face down on the table.
I am endeavoring to set forth, day by day, the way I live. I am steadfastly holding to a routine designed to give me the best chance of pulling through. Though the mere thought of food is revolting, I force myself to eat -- a mouthful at a time. I takes me two or three minutes just to get down a single mouthful. Mostly I eat dehydrated vegetables -- dried lima beans, rice, turnip tops, corn, and canned tomatoes -- which contain the necessary vitamins -- occasionally cold cereals slaked with powdered milk, When I feel up to it, I cook fresh seal meat.
The uncertainty of my existence rises from the realization, when I blow out the candles at night, that I may lack the strength to get up on the morrow. In my stronger moments I fill the oil tank supplying the stove. I use kerosene exclusively now. Its fumes seem less injurious than those from the solvent. I no longer carry the tank into the tunnel as at first. My only container holds just one gallon, and I must make four trips into the tunnel to fill the tank and supply fuel for my lantern. I creep a bit, then rest a bit -- over an hour at the job this morning. I froze my hand rather badly. Little by little I've added to the food stores on the shelves within reach of my bunk. They are my emergency cache. The last thing I do when I turn in is to make sure that the lantern is full of oil. If some morning I cannot get out of my bunk, I shall have enough food and light at hand to carry on for a while.
What baffles me is that I have no reserve strength whatever. Climbing the ladder to go topside, I must rest at every other rung. The temperature today was only 40 degrees below zero; but, though I was clad in furs, the cold seemed to shrivel my bones. It's been blowing pretty steadily from the southeast, and I can't seem to keep any heat in the shack. At night the pains in my body nag incessantly. Sleep is what I need most, but it seldom comes. I drift into a torpor, lighted up by fearful nightmares. Mornings it's a tough job to drive myself out of the sleeping bag. I feel as if I had been drugged. But I tell myself, over and over again, that if I give in -- if I let this stupor claim me -- I may never awaken.
Little by little I came to my feet and regained a measure of control over my affairs. But the improvement came so gradually and was interrupted by so many attacks that it was perceptible only over a long period; it was most apparent in my somewhat improved ability to control my moods of depression. Although I tried to resume the auroral observations, I was in truth too weak to stay for more than a few minutes topside. What I did was to brace the trapdoor with a stick, and peer from underneath while clinging to the ladder. Sunday came in gloomy and on the warm side. On the register trace a wind no stronger than a whisper slewed out of the north, through east and into the southeast; the temperature rose to 4 degrees. I was grateful for that. Most of the afternoon the fire was out; and I persuaded myself that the letup from the fumes was helping me to throw off the exhaustion that followed the radio schedule.
Now that the agony in my eyes and head was diminishing, the hardest thing to put up with was the gloom in the shack. I had craved light before, but in June I lusted for it. The storm lantern and the candles were at best only yellow puddles in a cave. I was afraid to light the gasoline pressure lamp. For one thing, I had to pump air into it with a small piston, which took more strength than I was willing to expend. Another thing, the burner had first to be heated with meta tablets, and the fumes at first were always noticeable. No man could have been more careful than I was. During the brief conversation with Little America, I asked them to have Dr. Poulter consult with the Bureau of Standards in Washington and find out: (1) whether the wick lantern gave off less fumes than the pressure lantern; and (2) whether moisture in the kerosene or Stoddard solvent (in consequence of thawing rime in the stovepipe) would be apt to cause carbon monoxide. I presented the question in an offhand way; and Guy Hutcheson, the other radio engineer, who occasionally relieved Dyer, said he would deliver the message to Poulter and in all probability I would have a reply from Washington by the next schedule, which was Thursday. My life at this time is summed up in the diary entry for this day:
. . . During my rare "up" moments I compel myself to draw all my fuel from the farther drum in the tunnel. The roof is caving in again at that end, and I haven't the strength to shore it properly. These few extra steps I may presently be unable to take, and I want a full drum nearby. Even now I sometimes can hardly reach the nearer drum.
I dare say that every ounce of egotism has been knocked out of me; and yet, today, when I looked at the small heap of data in the tunnel, I felt some stirrings of pride. But I wish that the instruments did not always make their inevitable demands, even though they require little actual strength. How pitilessly resolute and faithful they are. In the cold and darkness of this polar silence they steadfastly do their appointed jobs, clicking day and night, demanding a replenishment I cannot give myself. Sometimes, when my body is aching and fingers won't obey, they appear utterly remorseless. Over and over they seem to say, "If we stop, you stop; if you stop, we stop."
I'm trying to reduce fumes by lagging the stovepipe with surgical tape. The stove burns low most of the day, and to be sure of good ventilation I keep the shack door always open into the tunnel much of the time. So it's always cold. A piece of meat left lying on the table hasn't thawed out in five days.
In the afternoon I put the fire out to cut fumes and got in my sleeping bag until 6:30. The pain in my shoulders is so intense that at times I cannot lie on my back. I crave sedatives, but dare not risk them. Too near the ragged edge to let down even for an hour.
Still can't eat properly -- have to force food down by chewing it to the point of dissolution. To take my mind off the distress of my stomach, I sometimes play solitaire while I eat. I use three decks of cards. They are marked A, B, C. I keep score and bet against myself. My arms grow weary just dealing the cards. Finished a whole game tonight before I downed three mouthfuls of food.
By then it was time for the 8 p.m. "ob." Rested afterwards, and went above again to note the 10 p.m. aurora. You see, my existence, like the most commonplace life, is regulated by routine -- a pattern endlessly and inexorably repeating itself. Nevertheless, since the 31st it is almost always precarious.
Snow fell during the night. When I crept up the ladder this morning, I found I couldn't budge the hatch by my usual method. I rested and tried to lift it with my shoulders. Not a stir. I came below and got a hammer. Pounding finally broke it loose. It left me exhausted for quite a while.
For an Antarctic June the weather has been surprisingly mild. I have the thermograph sheets and the Weather Bureau forms beside me as I write this (I'm stretched out in the sleeping bag), and from them I find that the lowest reading since the first was -46 degrees, on the 7th. Yesterday's minimum was -38 degrees; today's -34 degrees. Also, the air has been almost dead still, which helped, too.
Nevertheless, I've had the fire out so much of the time that the
ice on the walls never melts. I've been watching it creep slowly
toward the ceiling. It seems to rise at the rate of an inch or so
every day. But in spite of everything I seem to be improving.
Incidentally, I have given up the morning tea. It was a wrench to
do that, having been a tea-drinker all my life; but it seemed best
to give up all stimulants, however mild.
Thursday the 14th brought a radio schedule. Murphy was in high humor. He said everything was fine at Little America, and passed on a couple of jokes which he had picked up while chatting with somebody in New York during a broadcast test. "I can't vouch for their authenticity," he said dryly, "because they come secondhand." Then Dr. Poulter came on, with answers to the questions I had asked about the fumes from the stove and the lanterns. From the elegance of the language, I judged he was reading from a prepared statement; I even fancied that I could hear the rustle of the paper in the microphone. If he had been lecture a class in physics at Iowa Wesleyan, he could not have been more earnest, more impersonal.
As between two kind of lamps, Dr. Poulter thought that the storm lantern was the safer. He warned me that, if moisture was consistently present in the fuel, it could cause the stove or lamp to burn with a dirty yellowish flame which would give off some CO. He also advised me to mend all leaks around the burners in the stove where drip or the hot metal would vaporize the kerosene and give rise to nauseating fumes.
That settled the matter temporarily, so far as Dr. Poulter was concerned. As it also did for me, since I had done everything that was humanly possible along the lines suggested. Moreover, I was reluctant to press the matter further, lest I arouse suspicion. Whereupon my Senior Scientist launched into a subject very close to his scientist's heart: meteor observations. Ever since darkness had fallen, he and his crew, in co-operation with observatories scattered throughout the world, had been keeping a continuous watch on the sky for meteors. As I was interested in this and frequently found meteoric fragments in the snow I melted for water, I was informed from time to time about the progress of these observations, either by Dr. Poulter directly or by Charlie Murphy. Into the roof of his own shack at Little America, Dr. Poulter had built a transparent turret, almost flush with the surface, which faced the four quadrants of the sky and was manned continuously by observers when the sky was clear. The results had been phenomenal. On account of the extraordinary clarity of the Antarctic atmosphere, vast numbers of meteors were observed which would not ordinarily be visible through the layer of dust and water particles which obscures the sky over more temperate regions. This was an important astronomical discovery which changed upwards the prevailing estimates of how much material was constantly being received by the earth from this source.
"We're delighted with this piece of research," Dr. Poulter said. "I had no idea that it would turn out so well. Now, we're planning to go a step farther. Demas, as you know, is overhauling the tractors. The canvas tops are being replaced with stout wooden bodies, equipped with bunks, stoves, radio -- complete trail units, in other worlds. What we'd like to do is to take one of the cars out and set up a second meteor station on the Barrier about thirty miles out on the Southern Trail."
"How long expect occupy base?" I keyed back.
"A couple of days, during a clear spell," was the answer in the earphones. "That way, we can get a base line from which to calculate the radients, the altitude at which the meteors enter the atmosphere, and so forth."
"When will tractors be ready?" was my next question.
Poulter wasn't sure. That would depend upon Demas and the mechanics. "But Number One should be ready within a few days."
"Test run?" I guessed.
"To Amundsen Arm [a heavily crevassed arm of the Bay of Whales, lying about 10 miles south of Little America] and back," the scientist said. "That's far enough to give us a line on the extent to which the flags are snowed under, and whether we'll be able to follow the trail."
"Oh, in about a month. We'll see how things turn out, then we'll discuss the whole project with you."
"OK." I keyed a closing message to Dyer: "Sked Sunday?"
Dyer broke in, "Yes, we shall look for you at the usual time Sunday. Good night, sir. This is KFZ signing off." That was Dyer, as brilliant a young man as ever served under me, never ruffled, never at a loss, and as courteous as the winter night was long.
Curiously, the implications of the proposition at first passed over my head, so casually was it presented. Perhaps in my weariness I could not see them. Only once before had anyone seriously undertaken a major journey during the Antarctic winter night. [The celebrated winter journey made on foot from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier by Dr. Wilson, Cherry-Gerrard, Evans, and Bowers of the Scott expedition.] The cold was too great for dogs, and for airplanes the risks -- particularly those surrounding a forced landing -- were almost overwhelming. A month is a long time in the Antarctic; the best-laid plans have a way of vanishing into thin air. We shall see, I muttered to myself as I stumbled into the tunnel to shut off the engine. It did not occur to me for an instant that this development could have any connection with my dwindling fortunes. Nor was it so intended at Little America.
As had the others, this schedule left me worn out; the difference was the speed with which I recuperated. Toward late afternoon, after several hours in the bunk, I felt strong enough to attempt a stroll -- the first in a fortnight. Or perhaps "stroll" isn't quite the word, because I leaned on a bamboo staff and rested every other step to catch my breath and calm the rapid beating of my heart. Altogether I did not walk more than twenty yards, but I was grateful for that little. You are getting well, I told myself; and the words sounded convincing.
I do not recall ever seeing the aurora more active. Even through the ventilator I could see flashes of it. In addition to the regular "obs," I made several other excursions topside to watch the show. The sky had been obscured all day, but in the evening the clouds seemed to roll back especially for the aurora. At first it was a sheaf of tremulous rays; then it became a great river of silver shot through with flaming gold. About 10:30 o'clock, when I pushed open the trapdoor for a last look, it was a swollen mass of gauzy vapor which lay sprawled uneasily through the zenith, between the northern and southern horizons. It began to pulsate, gently at first, then faster and faster. The whole structure dissolved into a system of virescent arches, all sharply defiant. Above these revolved battery upon battery of searchlights, which fanned the heavens with a heightening lustrousness. Pale greens and reds and yellows touched the stately structures; the whole dark sky came to life.
The graceful, trembling movements were somehow suggestively feminine. I sat and watched, my weakness momentarily forgotten. Swinging faster and faster, the criss-crossing rays suddenly became curling spirals which heaved into a system of immense convolutions, all profoundly agitated and touched with a fragile coloration. In an instant the immense arrangement was gone, as if drained though a spigot. All that remained were a few rays whose sthenic excitement was a signal saying: "It's not over yet, not yet."
Gazing up from under the trapdoor, I divined that a climax was
coming. And then from all around the horizon -- north, east,
south, and west -- there leaped up countless numbers of towering
rays, as though a great city were springing from sleep to finger
the sky for air raiders. The columns of light would rush
two-thirds of the way up to the zenith, slide back with a draining
of color, then surge up again. Finally, with a mighty push, they
freed themselves from the horizon, gliding with infinite grace
into the zenith. There, in the height of the sky, they flowered in
the surpassing geometry of a corona, laced with gorgeous streams
of radial light. And red Mars and the Southern Cross and Orion's
belted brightness were contrastingly as pale as the candles in the
On Friday the 15th the temperature rose to 7 degrees in the early morning, then turned and nose-dived through the minus 20's. Rime sheathed everything in a swollen insulation. The wind vane was stuck, and in the forenoon I climbed the anemometer pole to free it and clean the copper contact points at the same time. ("I haven't yet sufficient strength to do this sort of thing -- it took a tremendous lot out of me," the diary says.) Saturday was pitch-black. The barometer dropped to 28.04 inches, after a long, slow fall; and the days of quietude were broken by the wind, which made up afresh in the northeast. Snow fell, and drift surged over the Barrier in wind-flattened rushes. All day long there was a steady spiraling of drift through the ventilator and part of the stovepipe. After the windless silence, the sound of the storm was singularly exciting; its distant thumping reminded me of my returning strength and security. I found that I could read again, without hurting my eyes, and spent a wonderful hour or so finishing Marquand's tale about that eccentric eighteenth-century gentleman, Lord Timothy Dexter. Later, I played the phonograph, for the first time in nearly a week. It seems incredible that a person should lack strength to wind such a small spring, but this was the case. I remember the records well, having noted them in the diary. One was "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers"; the other, "Holy Night," sung by Lucy Marsh. The last one of my favorites, especially the melody in the beginning, which goes:
Oh, Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining 'Tis the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
After this came an unintelligible sentence, followed by a phrase
about a thrill of hope. In the past I had played the record over
and over again, trying to make out the words so that I could sing
them. I have never succeeded; and that day I vowed that, if I came
out of this affair alive, I would lead a national reform movement
insisting upon clearer diction by sopranos for the peace of mind
of explorers who might be tempted to take up singing late in life.