The “smoking bar” on Antarctica’s McMurdo Station was raucous and depraved. For Hunter R. Slaton, it was perfect.
“Southern Exposure” by Hunter R. Slaton is from COME HERE OFTEN? 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar, edited by Sean Manning, courtesy of Black Balloon Publishing.
Even more than most bars, Southern Exposure—a joint that in the space of six short months I found, loved, and then crashed and burned in—has to be reconstructed from memory alone, because I will never be able to go back. Not because I’m banned for life, or the place burned down—for all I know, it still does a brisk business, six days a week. No, the reason why I probably won’t ever again darken the double-door vestibule of Southern Exposure is because, well, it’s on Antarctica.
In the late spring of 2004, I accepted a contract to wash dishes (or be a “dining attendant,” in the corporate parlance) for Raytheon Polar Services Company at McMurdo Station, the largest of the United States’ four permanent research stations on “the Ice.” I’d always been fascinated by stories of the old Antarctic explorers, and—not having $15,000 on hand for an Antarctic cruise—working for Raytheon Polar Services, a branch of the infamous munitions manufacturer, was my best way to get down to the seventh continent. So in early August of that year, I flew commercial air from New York to L.A. to Christchurch, New Zealand—and thence by a ski-equipped U.S. military C-130 south to McMurdo Station.
McMurdo is situated on Ross Island, at the edge of the New Zealand “side” of the continent, and is the site of many famous Antarctic expeditions: Shackleton wintered here, as did the doomed Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, who in 1912 missed being the first man to reach the South Pole by five weeks (losing the race to a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen) and then perished with his men on the long march back to their base. Today McMurdo is the largest of the U.S. bases, but that’s not saying much. During the summer season its population swells to 1,200 souls, and in the winter shrinks to a skeleton crew of approximately 200.
In many ways McMurdo resembled a small mining town. There was a galley, various “dorms,” a carpenter’s shop, a heavy mechanic shop, a general store, various scientific research facilities, a coffee shop, and a post office. There was once a bowling alley but it has since been ripped up. But even before the bowling alley was gone, it never was the most popular recreation option on station. Those were the bars.
There were three of them; they were the hubs of social life on the station; and which one you frequented said a lot about you. The first was the coffee shop, which at night turned into the “wine bar.” People went there to drink pretty bad red wine, play board games, and listen to the occasional singer-songwriter or band play. I only went there once or twice.
Gallagher’s was known as “the non-smoking bar.” It was where you could get a burger a couple nights of the week, when volunteer shift-workers were on hand to fire up the grills, and where they also had karaoke. It didn’t reek of smoke and no fights ever broke out—and thus the place was too much good, clean fun for me.
Southern Exposure was “the smoking bar,” and it was where most of the cooks and the dishwashers went after our ten-hour work days. It also was where the hard-drinking heavy equipment operators and machinists and carpenters from Alaska and Wyoming who couldn’t give two shits about being on Antarctica—to them it was just a job—would come and get lit up on a nightly basis.
You walked in through the double-doored vestibule (to keep out the cold), entering what looked like a badly neglected Elks Lodge. The ceiling had exposed wood beams. The tables were six-sided card tables. The chairs were worn armchairs that leaned back just far enough so that you would think they were about to tip over on you but obstinately kept upright. There was a shuffleboard table, a pool table, and two
dart boards. The blond wood bar was in decent condition, while the barstools were topped by swivel chairs. It was dark, smoky, bedecked with scraggly Christmas lights, and everybody was either drinking canned beer from New Zealand or Jack and Cokes and smoking Marlboro Reds like they had an endorsement deal. Even if I hadn’t been a smoker at the time, it would’ve been the place for me.
(Ironically, during the station’s U.S. Navy days, “Southern”—as everyone called it—had once been the officers’ club, whereas the relatively spit-shined Gallagher’s had been the lower- ranking noncommissioned officers’ club.)
There weren’t any professional bartenders on the Ice. (Or, should I say, there weren’t any bartenders who were hired specifically to tend bar on the Ice; there were quite a few bartenders there on sabbatical.) Rather, it was all done on an ad hoc basis—you got a nominal wage, and you got tips, but it was essentially picking up an extra part-time job for a few hours a week outside of your full-time, sixty-hour-a-week gig. (On the Ice you only got one day off: Sunday.)
There’s that fizzed feeling when you first walk into a place where you just know you’re going to have fun. Your chest sort of expands, you toss your shoulders back, stand up a little straighter, and suppress a grin. This shit is going to be good.
It’s a feeling I associate with imminently feeling like my best self: confident, able to make friends, talk to girls, drink all night and not lose my head, be funny, throw darts, talk shit, smoke half a pack, get buybacks, hear great songs, and feel cool doing it. Southern was that kind of place for me.
Most nights after work (except for Monday, when the bar was closed, in a token Raytheon nod to preventing alcoholism—ha!) I would head back to my room, shower off the accumulated sweat and grime of ten hours scrubbing pots and pans in a hot kitchen, throw on a clean blue polo (our regulation dishwashing shirt, but mine fit so well that I wore them even on off hours) and my denim jacket, and head over to Southern with whoever was coming from Building 155, the station’s nerve center where I started out living, or later “Hotel California,” the first-year dorm I moved to after a few weeks on the Ice.
Mostly I drank Speight’s, the best of the canned New Zealand beers. We would also do lots of shots of Jagermeister, ordered by various members of the kitchen or dishwashing staff in absurd quantities. “I’ll take thirty-two shots of Jager!”—for, like, nine guys. Invariably at the end of the night, in a closing-time panic—11pm work nights and midnight Saturday—we would order beers to go in order to keep the party going back at the dorm. “Can I get eighteen Speight’s to go?” We’d stuff the beers in every available pocket of our massive “Big Red” parkas and tramp out—flushed, drunk, and happy—into the frigid, shockingly bright Antarctic night.
Most nights I’d be in the corner with the darts, which was kind of the galley crew’s thing. I wasn’t much good, but no one hassled me for it.
Then one night in mid-September I met her. I’m at the bar, surrounded by people, and in my memory her luminous pale face, icy blue eyes, slightly upturned red mouth, and white-blond hair are somehow in shadow, as if in a dream where the shadows and light don’t correspond to where they ought to be.
She says something to me but I can’t hear her. It’s Saturday night and loud in the bar.
I lean in: “What?”
“I didn’t think there would be hipsters down here,” she says again.
I don’t remember what else happened that night, or how much we talked—but from that point onward I was a goner. She’d walk past my dish window in the galley and my gaze would involuntarily tractor-beam onto her. She was from Boise—went to school some 300 miles away in Moscow—and though I’d never been to Idaho, the vision I have in my head of her driving across the state to college, listening to Modest Mouse’s album This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About on repeat in her CD player, remains my indelible and iconic image of that place.
She was there for the same reason I was—an adventure—and over the next few weeks I fell hopelessly under her spell… which was a big problem because I had a girlfriend back home. It was all a mess. I ended up winning her, and for a time it was glorious, but it cost me a lot.
I mentioned fights earlier. There were a few at Southern, especially toward the end of the season, as people began to crack up a bit. Once, some day-shift workers went to Southern during “day bar” hours—which were supposed to be exclusively for night-shift workers—and got so shit-cocked that one of them slugged another hard in the jaw as part of a Fight Club–esque dare, knocking him out. Violence of any kind was the biggest no-no on station, one that would instantly get you put on the next flight back to New Zealand. That particular incident got hushed up and the guy, a friend of mine, didn’t get fired.
But I did. Even though things ended badly for me, I remember Southern Exposure and the Ice in golden-hued tones. I was angry at my far-too-corporate bosses and wracked by guilt and obsession surrounding the girl; I drank too much, both at Southern and in my dorm room; I overslept, waking in a panic and rushing in late to work one too many times; and because of that I got fired toward the end of January, after about half a year on station, unceremoniously dumped on a plane back to fragrant, green New Zealand.
I knew my pink slip was coming, though, and so on the last Saturday before the hammer dropped, everybody came out for my last night in Southern. The dining staff made me a card, and bought me about a million drinks—and I felt that sweet, last-night-in-town pang, when all the old grudges and troubles are forgotten. I felt somehow weightless.
Yet that wasn’t how my last day on the Ice was. I went in to work and immediately got accosted by the executive chef. “Well, they finally decided to fire you,” she said, in her dismissive way, as she marched me into the HR office. That morning was a blur. I hadn’t packed at all. I threw all of my clothing and accumulated detritus into the orange duffels I’d been issued back in August and tried to find the girl, who was out in the field that day, miles from station. I briefly considered temporarily going on the lam—hiding out in various friendly dorm rooms and other spaces in town until the girl could get back—but I lost my nerve.
She found me, eventually, out on the ice runway, waiting to board the plane. Someone had radioed her that I’d been fired and would be gone in a matter of hours. A truck pulled up and she got out of it. We embraced on the runway and said goodbye, her crying and me—I don’t remember.