The Noble Sport of Volleybag

Before our slice of Antarctic life for the day, I should let you know that most of the “Complete by December 16th” pre-order slots are already gone. The next pre-order slots to go up will be set to complete by January 6th. I am going to do my damn best to crank out some of these before Christmas, but anything that ships after December 20th has no guarantee to make it by Christmas Eve. If there is something you desperately need to get under the tree and have been procrastinating, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.

And now we set the Wayback Machine to December 2002 at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to discuss physical fitness and the Noble Sport of Volleybag…

Leak From The South Pole Station Sewer Line - The architect wouldn't like this either.
Leak From The South Pole Station Sewer Line – The architect wouldn’t lick this either.

Prior to the construction of the elevated station, South Pole had three gyms: a weight room under the Dome, a laminate wood floor gym that was the back half of the old building in the Garage Arch, and an exercise room full of stationary cycles, rowing machines, etc. out in the Summer Camp which shut down every winter. I believe the weight room was the oldest continually used gym there. It wasn’t the best weatherproofed of buildings but decades of sweaty grunting had caused all the cracks to seal up with ice on the inside nicely. One time, I offered to pay a guy $20 to lick the ice on the weight room wall. I did so over dinner, ruining yet another meal for our architect. For a man with such a delicate constitution, I don’t know why he kept insisting on sitting with me and Mark.

The gym was a mutant. The limited space at the station combined with the varied athletic pursuits people need to keep sane and the fact that this space used to be part of the garage meant it didn’t quite do anything right.

First, ventilation. The gym was created when the old garage was partitioned into a smaller garage, a parts room/paint shop, and gym. Obviously, the first two need good ventilation or people asphyxiate, so the systems that used kept the air clear for the entire building were dedicated to just these two. This meant that after enough time in the gym, you had to prop open the door as it overheated so badly just due to your physical exertion (remember, Antarctic buildings are generally very well insulated). Air that was over 80F went rushing out the top of the doorway as -80F swept across the transom. A cloud instantly formed that began roiling in the middle of the doorway, caught between the convection currents.

Second, you have to take into account thirty years of shifting athletic pursuits. The gym’s original purpose was to provide a half court basketball game that could double for volleyball for the Navy personnel of Operation Deep Freeze. Of course, that was just silly because the ceiling was so low that you couldn’t make a shot from any farther back than the foul line and any volleyball set or bump was likely to come right back down on your head from the ricochet. Later, the adventure tourist faction of Antarctic workers (which make up a high percentage these days) got climbing wall holds installed on two of the four walls. Finally, the gym was also an emergency refuge, so it had all kinds of speakers and alarm systems in the corners of the ceiling. Basically, the two of the four walls and the ceiling were covered in junk, including a basketball hoop.

It was room meant for all sports and thus it was good for none. The solution, of course, was to make a game that required these things.Volleybag was the product of these physical constraints. The game didn’t just work around these obstacles, it depended on them. At heart, it was volleyball, but instead of a volleyball it used a basketball-sized hacky sack made of Carhartt’s heavy duty #5 duck cloth, stitched together like a baseball, and filled with the stuffing from a dearly departed sofa. The only out of bounds was the back wall and your serve had to be a perfectly clean shot, but other than that the game was like racketball with knobby walls. You actively aimed for the obstruction to change the direction of your shot or to drop it dead to the floor. Players had to be willing to make abrupt changes in direction and sudden stops when playing for this reason.

It was chaotic bliss, a sport I could truly get behind almost as much as Calvinball. One of the IT guys played with us, so he wired up the stereo to run through the emergency announcement speakers. We played at least twice a week for a couple hours each time. The memory of lying prone on the floor exhausted and overheating, door open, ice crust of sweat forming on me, and listening to the Lords of Acid blasting on the PA is vivid. I regularly went home bruised and battered from running into the climbing wall at speed. One time I ended up kicking the wall so hard that I broke my toenail off and discovered that many orthopedic implements haven’t changed much in appearance since the Inquisition’s “presentation of the tools”.

And, oh yes, the cold and lack of maintenance had taken their toll on the floor.  The slats of the hardwood were gapping ever so slightly, exposing blade-like edges to lay your knees or whatever open if you dove for a save.  I bled for that sport often and it shows in the scars.The obstacles that made the game so fun took their toll on the volleybag. Despite being made of the same heavy canvas as our insulated Carhartts, it still tore. The guardian of the volleybag, Johan, one of the South Pole’s denizens of longest duration, kept it in his room with him and had a sewing kit dedicated to mending it. By the end of our winter, it looked as stitched together as Frankenstein’s face. Since I had never worn them, preferring my shorts and Hawaiian print, I volunteered my Carhartts to provide replacement material for the volleybag for the next season (not a new one, much like Grandfather’s Axe). I have no idea how old the volleybag actually was but rumor has it that the game dated back to the seventies.

The Dome and old buildings are gone now. To the best of my knowledge, the sport of Antarctic Kings went with it. Last I heard, the metal skin of the Dome was going to be reconstructed in a quad somewhere at the University of Wisconsin, Madison since they bought it originally back in 1975. I will have to make pilgrimage when that day comes, but there will be no volleybag under that Dome.