Declination: Living for Ice Cream in Antarctica

logo_declinationoften licked never beatenI’ve heard it said it’s impossible to look tough while eating an ice cream cone. McMurdo Station, Antarctica, is the perfect place to test this theory. Can a perfect vanilla swirl on a kid-sized sugar cone soften the impression of a burly-bearded Carhartt-clad machinist with blackened fingers and a weather-hardened face? As surely as the sun will rise — next spring.

During my six-month stint at the biggest research base on the coldest, harshest continent on earth, there was no predictor of station morale as accurate as the performance of Frosty Boy, an Australian soft-serve machine that from a powdered mix magically produced some semblance of ice cream. Toward the end of the six-day work week, the line of welders, janitors, and biologists waiting for a turn at Frosty Boy would stack up. If the machine went down for too long, which it often did, hands would rise at our “town meetings” and tone would turn distressed.

In a place where fresh milk is a pipe dream — I quit putting cream in my coffee at McMurdo because powdered milk was the only option — Frosty Boy was a comforting balm. And with a name like “Frosty Boy,” it was too easy for the rumbling metal box to be considered a beloved buddy.

The galley rule was, “Eat as much as you want, but don’t take more than you’ll eat.” Waste was seriously frowned upon, but if you were good for it, you could turn Frosty Boy’s knob and let loose one, two, three, hell, six hefty twirls of vanilla. No one was judging.

We often went days or weeks without receiving shipments of fresh fruits or veggies, depending on weather. The chefs worked hard with the dry goods they had, but sometimes the only thing that sounded appealing was Frosty Boy. People would sneak it out of the galley to mix with their Kahlua and schnapps.

About halfway through my summer season at McMurdo, alcohol rationing began — rumor had it the person who had ordered the booze the previous year had screwed up the order big time. There was no longer a guarantee you’d be able to buy your favorite six-pack or handle at the station store. Still, people had no problem finding ways to get drunk.

But when Frosty Boy went down? Shit got real. You couldn’t just cruise down to Dairy Queen. The closest place to buy an ice cream cone was a 2,415-mile military flight away in Christchurch, New Zealand. The McMurdo station store stocked a few sundries and collectibles: toothpaste, Antarctica T-shirts, trail mix. But for an ice-cream-like experience, your only hope was the cherished machine in the galley.

At McMurdo, you can’t just order new parts for a machine on the fritz and have UPS deliver it. You can’t call in a specialty repair person. The extreme isolation forces mechanics and utility technicians — UTs — to jury-rig custom fixes on everything from heavy tracked vehicles to vacuum cleaners to dear Frosty Boy. Thankfully, when Frosty Boy would screech to an ice-cream-extruding halt, it usually wasn’t more than a couple of days before it was back in action. I imagine that in order to stave off mutiny, Frosty Boy was probably quickly boosted to the top of the UTs’ to-do list.

One might think that in blustery, below-zero temps, ice cream would lose its appeal. But the sweet, fatty calories hit just the right spot after a long day of physical labor. Only one thing outdid Frosty Boy’s cold, comforting perfection: Wednesday’s Frosty Boy cookie sandwich.

In a calculated attempt to buoy mid-week morale — ergo, boosting work performance — the McMurdo bakers would pump out batch after batch of fresh, hot, melty cookies every Wednesday at afternoon break. In Antarctica’s extremely dry, icy, desolate environment, the sense of smell becomes deprived, making the diffusing scent of baking sugar and chocolate more overwhelming than it would normally be. Read: irresistible. Especially when paired with Frosty Boy.

On top of my 60-hour-a-week manual labor job, I kept up my running habit and often got pumped in the janky bouldering cave upstairs from McMurdo’s weight room. I ran and bouldered more for mental sanity than weight management, yet managed to keep the same pant size since high school. But a couple months into my five-month stint at McMurdo, I quietly logged on to rei.com to order a larger pair of pants, hoping they would make it to me before the jeans I had packed became too tight to button. Oh, Frosty Boy.

Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.

{ 3 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Jason

    My fiance spent summer of 07/08 in McTown. She verifies that everything in the article is 100% spot on true!! Apparently, Frosty Boy means more to them than any of us will ever know.

  • George Nuckols

    As a machinist at McMurdo there were a lot of science projects that got saved but fixing Frosty Boy got me notoriety in the galley. Man do I miss the Ice.

  • Dennis Houston

    If George is the guy who fixed Frosty Boy he is a Hero. They told us that Frosty Boy was beyond repair and I asked about it at an NSF meeting, fixing Frosty Boy took priority over a lot of things. Thanks George.

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