The Antarctic Musical Tradition (AKA: NYE 2002)

What do people do when they are trapped with no possibility of escape or parole? An Antarctica station is not all that different from an old gulag in this respect; you’re welcome to try to flee, but the surrounding environment will kill you more surely than any guard will. To keep this properly nerdy, let’s have a quick word from the Warden of BEAUTIFUL Rura Penthe!

So, now that you have the proper vision of Antarctica as a frozen prison in your head, the leisure activities of choice are just what you’d expect in modern prison, e.g. weightlifting, art, reading, gambling, and music. As I recall from my tour of Alcatraz, one of the greatest privileges a prisoner could be granted was a musical instrument. Per the Institution Rules & Regulations of Alcatraz (1955):

46. MUSIC RULES: Musical instruments may be purchased if approved by the Associate Warden. Guitars and other stringed instruments may be played in the cellhouse in a QUIET manner only between the hours of 5:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. No singing or whistling accompaniments will be tolerated. Any instrument which is played in an unauthorized place, manner, or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report. Wind instruments, drums and pianos will be played in the band or Orchestra Rooms on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays. At no time will you play any wind instrument in the cellhouse. Permission to play instruments in the Band, Orchestra or bathrooms may be granted by the Associate Warden to inmates in good standing. The Band room is a privilege and permission to play there must be requested from the Associate Warden. A limited number of inmates may be allowed to take musical instruments to and from the recreation yard. Permission must first be obtained from the Associate Warden. No inmate on “idle” status or on “report” or restricted will be allowed to use the Band Room, Orchestra Room or to take instruments to the yard. An inmate whose musical privileges have been restricted or revoked shall be removed from all musical lists, and his instrument stored in “A” Block until otherwise authorized by the Associate Warden. No inmate is allowed to give, sell, trade, exchange, gamble, loan or otherwise dispose of his personal or institutional instrument or to receive such from another inmate. Institutional instruments may be loaned to inmates in good standing upon the approval of the Associate Warden. All instruments will be listed on personal property cards. Institutional instruments shall be listed as “On Loan” from the institution, together with the date of the loan and the identification number of the instrument. Surplus parts for musical instruments together with and including extra sets of guitar strings shall be kept in “A” Block. Guitar strings shall be purchased in the regular manner and stored in “A” Block until needed. An old set of strings must be turned in to the cellhouse Officer to draw a new set.

South Pole Station’s rule was a little simpler: “Play it in the Music Room, or play it outside.” Given the choice, most people chose to stick to the small room in the Skylab tower of the Dome. I do know for a fact that at least one person decided that the Ceremonial Pole needed some mindblowing riffs with the Stratocaster and portable amp. Because if you can ROCK at the bottom of the Earth, you can ROCK anywhere.

But every year, people come to Antarctica with disparate musical abilities, some with their instruments. The IT guy from the previous post, arrived at Pole with his banjo and mixing turntable, presciently predicting the musical future eight years later. When you put more than two people and musical instruments together someone decides it’s a good idea to form a band. And, as we all know, the very first thing you do when you form a band is name it. Generally, the bands have US Antarctic Program topical names. A few samplings: NPX (the airport designator for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station), Clear and Copious (what the urine of a well-hydrated Polie should be), NPQ (“Not Physically Qualified”, justification from the screening period to not go south and/or stay the winter).

These bands were were ephemeral creatures of the Ice, disintegrating as people left the continent. While they were there though, they were an invaluable part of station festivities. Heck, this is been the case since the dawn of exploration when the harmonica quartet was an important part of sanity for Shackleton’s crew. The Scots cannae help but bring the pipes.

But what of the people with no instruments or particular musical talent, which included yours truly?

Such begins our tale on fateful day in early December 2002. Having finished my work in the Cryo Barn, I walked next door to bother my neighbors in the Balloon Shack (Meteorology launched at least two weather balloons a day using the reclaimed helium vent gas from my giant LHe dewars). Nobody was there. Still craving people to bother, I went to the next closest building, the Cargo Shed.

In the Cargo Shed, I found Tony, my favorite meteorologist, shooting the shit with the cargo handlers and eating their stash of cookies. One of the cargo guys, Forrest, had already been messing with his guitar in the Cargo Shed, somewhat to the annoyance of the ladies that were wrangling the manifests. The woman who set the chain of events to come in progress had been listening to her guilty musical pleasure on headphones from her computer as she did data entry. Forrest was lamenting that he didn’t have anyone to play with. We all stated, pretty emphatically, that there were dead penguins in McMurdo with more musical skill than us. It was about then that she got up, Patient Zero forgot she had headphones on and pulled it out of the jack, letting us hear the N Sync she’d been listening to the whole time.

In that moment it was revealed to us what we could do with our complete lack of musical talent: we could form Antarctica’s first lip synching boy band. There was some resistance, at first, to the idea:

Dan: I can’t sing.

Tony: You don’t need to! That the joy of lip synching.

Dan: I don’t think we have enough people.

Me: What are talking about? Five is the scientifically proven ideal boy band size. We even have all the requisite members?

Forrest: What do you mean?

Me: Look, you’re the All American Aryan. He’s the cute one. Dan, you’re the rugged one. Tony…

Tony: Go ahead, say it. I’m gonna hit you anyway.

Me: Tony’s the token minority.

Forrest: Well what are you?

Me: Isn’t it obvious? I’m the bad one. I have the goatee and everything.

And thus it began. First things first, we chose our name, the Antarcticly relevant -98 Degrees (my sister still groans at this name). N Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” was chosen as it was the song that had brought us together. We had a couple weeks of dance practice as even more important than lip synching is your choreography. I’m not gonna say we’d have impressed Paula Abdul, but we managed to not injure each other. But then we had to work one the important bits, like fan base. As proven by the Beatles, New Kids on the Block, One Direction and the immortal Fingerbang, the crowd of screaming ladies for the Garmlich Effect is vital. Luckily, we had plenty of willing accomplices for this, not the least of which being Patient Zero who thought this was the funniest thing ever.

For the grand New Year’s Eve party, the heavy shop garage was cleaned within an inch ofit’s life and turned into a stage, dance floor, and buffet. If I recall correctly, there were two different band and the mixmaster skills of DJ Banjo-IT between. Ending the evening, before the countdown, was -98 Degrees.

As we all gathered in the gym for our final preparations, along with our half dozen screaming fan accomplices, the Rugged and the Cute Ones were getting cold feet. I, wisely, had brought a bottle of Captain Morgan to provide the necessary liquid courage. Between us all, that bottle went away along with and everyone was ready to kick ass. Our accomplices left, our parkas went on, and the light in the garage we brought down.

Emerging from the light of the corridor came five completely parkabound men.

-98 Degrees: Their First & Only Performance of "Bye Bye Bye"
-98 Degrees: Their First & Only Performance of “Bye Bye Bye”

The crowd erupted into shrieks of delight and anticipation. As we walked forward, we hugged the throng on either side of the path to the stage, gave high fives, and signed autographs on body parts. We walked on stage, stood in a line, with hands crossed and heads down. It was dark and quiet, the music began. With the “Hey Heyyyyyy”, we stripped our parkas, threw them to the floor and it was ON.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is one of best displays of how little shame I have. Good luck trying to embarrass me, because I did this and rocked the shit out of it. Thank you and good night!