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Sunday, January 20, 2013
Reading List: Alone
- Byrd, Richard E.
Washington: Island Press [1938, 1966] 2003.
To generations of Americans,
was the quintessential explorer of unknown terrain. First to fly
(although this feat has been disputed from
shortly after he claimed it to the present day), recipient of
the Medal of Honor for this claimed exploit, pioneer in trans-Atlantic
flight (although beaten by Lindbergh after a crash on a practice
takeoff, he successfully flew from New York to France in June 1927),
Antarctic explorer and first to fly over the
and leader of four more expeditions to the Antarctic,
including commanding the operation which established
the permanent base at the South Pole which remains there
to this day.
In 1934, on his second Antarctic expedition, Byrd set up and manned
a meteorological station on the
Ross Ice Shelf
south of 80°, in which he would pass the Antarctic
winter—alone. He originally intended the station to be emplaced
much further south and manned by three people (he goes into extensive
detail why “cabin fever” makes a two man crew a
prescription for disaster), and then, almost on a lark it seems
from the narrative, decides, when forced by constraints of weather
and delivery of supplies for the winter, to go it alone. In anticipation,
he welcomes the isolation from distractions of daily events,
the ability to catch up reading, thinking, and listening to music.
His hut was well designed and buried in the ice to render it immune
from the high winds and drifting snow of the Antarctic winter. It
was well provisioned to survive the
winter: food and fuel tunnels cached abundant supplies. Less thought
out was the stove and its ventilation. As winter set in, Byrd succumbed
to carbon monoxide poisoning, made more severe by fumes from the gasoline
generator he used to power the radio set which was his only link to
those wintering at the Little America base on the coast.
Byrd comes across in this narrative as an extraordinarily complex
character. One moment, he's describing how his lamp failed when, at
−52° C, its kerosene froze, next he's
recounting how easily the smallest mistake: loss of sight of
the flags leading back to shelter or a jammed hatch back into
the hut can condemn one to despair and death by creeping cold,
and then he goes all philosophical:
The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna
tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it
so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the
world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a
personal enemy. I sank to depths of disillusionment which I had
not believed possible. It would be tedious to discuss them.
Misery, after all, is the tritest of emotions.
Here we have a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, Medal of Honor winner, as
gonzo journalist in the Antarctic winter—extraordinary. Have
any other great explorers written so directly from
the deepest recesses of their souls?
Byrd's complexity deepens further as he confesses to
fabricating reports of his well-being in radio reports to
Little America, intended, he says, to prevent them from
launching a rescue mission which he feared would end in
failure and the deaths of those who undertook it. And yet
Byrd's increasingly bizarre communications eventually caused
such a mission to be launched, and once it was, his diary
pinned his entire hope upon its success.
If you've ever imagined yourself first somewhere,
totally alone and living off the supplies you've brought
with you: in orbit, on the Moon, on Mars, or beyond, here
is a narrative of what it's really like to do that,
told with brutal honesty by somebody who did. Admiral Byrd's
recounting of his experience is humbling to any who aspire
to the noble cause of exploration.