South Pole Cargo feels the heat

Posted Dec. 04, 2008, at 8:21 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:37 a.m.

I have just finished cleaning the frozen snow from a fork loader named Sundog when the radio on my hip crackles to life. “Cargo Meg. Cargo Meg. This is Jim.”

“Go ahead, Jim,” I say, leaning against the loader’s tracks.

“Can you bring over those new cable spools?” he asks me. “We’re going to need them soon.”

Another shift working for the South Pole Cargo Department begins.

Working for the department is like having my finger on the pulse of South Pole Station. We are the hub responsible for all the materials and supplies that arrive here, ensuring that they are delivered to the appropriate people. If the galley orders a shipment of flour, we pull that crate off a plane; if a scientist gets in new parts for a telescope, we deliver them.

In short, there’s very little that goes on at South Pole Station that I don’t end up hearing about — at least insofar as people’s gear is concerned.

“The bulldozer is down again — keep an eye out for a box coming in labeled ‘hot’— it’s the part needed to fix it,” the head of the Heavy Shop tells me when I deliver a shipment of bolts to the garage. “If we don’t get it up and running again soon, we’re going to have a lot of snow piling up around the station.”

“Sure thing,” I say. This job is always busy; other people’s work depends on us getting them the cargo they need.

A radio announcement alerts us of an inbound aircraft. “Attention, South Pole, skier plane 3-7 has departed McMurdo, estimating arrival at 11:55 a.m.”

The LC-130 planes that deliver our cargo are our one physical link to the outside world — South Pole’s umbilical cord. As a plane approaches, two of us hop into loaders, put on our radio headsets and wait alongside the runway. When it lands, we line up carefully behind the aircraft and fork cargo directly out of the hold of the plane — while it’s running.

The first time I drove a loader up behind an LC-130 airplane, I was so nervous that I could barely keep my voice from shaking on the radio. Any wrong moves and I risked damaging one very expensive aircraft.

Lining up carefully, I drove straight up behind the roaring engines and into the prop wash, a respirator protecting my lungs from the exhaust. The Air Guard load master marshaled me to the ramp, then slid the 4,000-pound cargo box off the plane’s rollers and onto my forks. My heart still pounded as I drove away.

Moving materials off the plane is just the first step. After that, we remove the cargo straps securing it, inventory it, then deliver it. Things that cannot be frozen must be put immediately into a warm building.

It was a sad day at the South Pole when the incoming shipment of beer was accidentally left outside for too long and froze.

The cargo office is a bustling place, equal parts communications center, office and clubhouse. Christmas lights hang from the ceiling and a cupboard groans under the weight of cold-battling food and hot beverages. Two of my co-workers run in, their beards frozen solid, and go straight to the snacks. “Have you tried spreading peanut butter on the Oreos?”

“Hand me chocolate syrup.”

“What have you guys been doing?” I ask.

“Putting cargo nets on tri-walls of waste to go out on tomorrow’s flights.”

“We’ve been outside working on it for four or five hours now. We’re trying to break the record for cargo netted in one shift.”

Cargo operates in two shifts. The day shift, on which most of the station runs, works from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I work the swing shift — from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. As the sun never goes down here, time of day becomes pretty subjective. There’s always someone eating cereal while someone else is going to bed.

I like being in the middle of things. In cargo, you are the first to know when mail or fresh food is arriving; you’re the person who gets called when science samples are complete and ready to be shipped to the United States. I relish the role of postman — when small boxes arrive, I strap them to a sled behind a snowmobile, grab a delivery sheet, and set off for the department that needs them.

“Cargo Meg, this is Jim. Do you copy?”

“I copy, Jim. I’ll be right over with those cable spools.” I haul myself into the fork loader, and set off.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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