Category Archives: Adventure & Radiation

Nevada Test Site Cocktails

These both come to me from retiree workers at the Nevada Test Site who were there when we were still “stamping our feet”.  Some vocabulary review is necessary:

Mercury, NV was the ghost town inside the Nevada Test Site that was taken over by DOE and the military. It’s about as nice as you could imagine a pre-1950s middle of nowhere desert town subsequently attacked by military aesthetics and architecture to be. These days, with staffing levels dramatically reduced, it’s effectively a ghost town again.

A “shot”, in Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Defense/Department of Energy parlance, refers to a nuclear test, as opposed to NASA where this refers to a vehicle launch.

The Nevada Test Site was formerly known as the Nevada Proving Grounds.

The Proving Grounds Test Shot
1 part whatever juice mix (usually military Bug Juice) or soda type item the Mercury commissary has available
1 part spectroscopic grade (99.999%) ethanol
Mix with ice, if available, in a large container, serve in shotglasses stolen from a Vegas casino or commissary coffee cups (whichever is handy)

Safety recommendation: DO NOT serve in Dixie cups.  The wax melts in the heat and dissolves with alcohol that strong.

Frenchman’s Flat Martini (be sure to bring ingredients in a cooler)
4 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
Crush desert sage and drop leaves into the drink
Mix with ice in a shaker, serve in a martini glass in the presence of a nuclear device to be detonated within the next 24 hours.

Etiquette Recommendation:
The device is a member of the team as well.  Team members should toast the device by clinking their glass against it.

Safety Recommendation:
DO NOT drink from that side of the glass.
DO NOT use desert sage collected within the Nevada Test Site.

The Decembering 2013 & A Worrisome Cigar Box

Alright, the December 14th pre-order slots are now up. There’s a slightly longer window this time than normal because of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US. I’ll be out of town for a bit engaging in conspicuous consumption of turkey and fine drink, so there’ll be a while when the coffee engines are wound down before the December BBotE begins flowing out in quantity.

As far as steins go, I have a rather large shipment of dewars slated to show up right before Thanksgiving. The number of “steins on hand” should dramatically increase, so keep any eye out there.

Your full holiday purchasing advice for this year can be found in the previous postI do regret to inform you that one of of the BBotE varieties will soon disappear from the selections. Caffe Vita’s Guatemala Nueva Vinas is now done for the season and hopefully will return sometime around next May 2014. I have a still small supply on hand, but as soon as it’s gone, it’s gone.

Now, on to the wonderful worlds of radiation and history.

Two weeks ago, I got to go take a tour of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s “Old Town”, AKA the few remaining buildings that still date back to WWII, as they are preparing to demolish them. Space is at a premium up in the mostly vertical space of LBL, these buildings have seen better days and science needs those scant square feet back to do research again.

Lovely boxeses, but what does it keeps in them, Precious?

Alhambra Casino Cigar Box – Lovely boxeses, but what does it keeps in them, Precious?

The day before we showed up, they had found an Alhambra Casinos cigar box in one of the Old Town buildings. To most people, a cigar box is a curio box, filled with your odd great aunt’s odds and ends from decades back when her first husband smoked a cigar a day after work. To people in my line of work, specifically those of us that have had any time in the nuclear weapons complex or former Manhattan Project sites, a cigar box is a moment for sphincter clenching, reach for the gloves, respirator, radiation meter, and everything needed to secure and dispose of this box as the likely radioactive hazardous waste that it is.

WHY do we react this way? Because Alhambra Casinos were Glenn T. Seaborg’s favorite brand of cigar. In addition to collecting titles as the head of

Box Interior. Note reads "VERY VALUABLE SAMPLE. Do Not Disturb in any way! Sample-J G. T. Seaborg"

Box Interior. Note reads “VERY VALUABLE SAMPLE. Do Not Disturb in any way! Sample-J G. T. Seaborg”

commissions, agencies, departments, and universities like they were Pokemon, Glenn also collected souvenirs of all the places he’d gone, the projects he participated on, and the discoveries made. When you keep in mind that this is the man who rode on a train with the sole sample of plutonium in the world in his possession, his souvenirs get a bit interesting. And what did he always stick them into? One of the ubiquitous cigar boxes lying around his office, home, or hotel room as he never traveled without them and smoked like a chimney.

Smithsonian Modern Physics Exhibit - That's a familiar looking box.

Smithsonian Modern Physics Exhibit – That’s a familiar looking box.

He was a remarkable man that presided over the dawn of the Nuclear Age, but damn if he didn’t leave quite a mess to clean up. In the course of decommissioning his many labs & offices, we’ve found these with plutonium, americium, curium, neptunium, beryllium alloys, reactor graphite, shaped explosives, playing cards signed by nuclear test teams, and much more. At some point we’ll find them all, but he’s been gone for 14 years and they’re still popping up. Sometimes it feels like the Manhattan Project never quite ended.

 

Alcoholism in Antarctica

This is a post over two months in the making as it’s pulled together some hard times from Pole. I hope it helps someone. While I stand by what I’ve done and my justifications, I can’t say they give me great comfort.

Today is Midwinter in Antarctica. It is one of the most important dates on the calendar because it means you’ve hit the halfway mark of the Long Night and every day from here is one closer to the sun coming back above the horizon. You might think this is cause for jubilation. While it was certainly the reason for a feast and party, the more common reaction was “Fuck. It’s only halfway through winter. At least four months until the station opens again. Fuck. Pour me some more whiskey, dammit.”

I once gave a presentation to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where I opened, “Hi, I’m Phil Broughton. I’m not an alcoholic but I am a compulsive bartender.” From there, I told a tale of alcoholism and enabling from the perspective of a safety professional serving people booze to oblivion. In my previous tales of the Ice, I’ve discussed the fun associated with being at the end of the Earth, rivers of ions swimming in the sky over head, and a cocktail in your hand. This has generated a lot of fine detailed questions about the drinking culture of the continent which I’m going to try to tackle with one post. But it’s also time to discuss when that goes wrong, because when you’re 14000mi from home there’s a lot that can go truly horribly wrong. There are times I still wish we’d had a chaplain down there like they did in the Navy days but, alas, there was me. I like to think I did right, at least well enough, by people that were hurting.

Whichever US station you were at dictated how and what alcohol was available to you. Each of the three had a ship store from which you could by whatever sinful products of comfort you wished: liquor, beer, wine, smokes, soda, Keebler E.L. Fudge cookies, etc. One of the stereotypical flags that you might have a problem with alcohol is that you’re in your room drinking alone. The Navy knew this, which is why the bars were built; if you’re going to be consuming alcohol, you need to do it in public where everyone else is watching. McMurdo, being the largest station, was also unique among the stations for having three bars that all charged for drinks. Barbaric, I say. South Pole and Palmer Stations operated on the “bring some, take some” honor system. You want to drink in Club 90 South, you better put a bottle up on the shelf or beer in the case now and then. No one really said anything, but yes a silent tally of your consumption versus contribution was being made in the heads of your comrades. I formalized the honor bar a bit by making broadcast announcements of what the bar was lacking so that when the ship store opened on Saturday afternoon people could make sure we were well stocked for the evening and through the next week (this didn’t necessarily go over well with management as it was seen as encouragement).

I’ve been asked when the bars opened. Again, depended on the station. McMurdo’s bars had specific hours that they were opened to serve the various shifts and you as customer were supposed to attend the correct bar accordingly. I don’t know about Palmer, but Club 90 South at Pole was open 24/7/365. Not that I was there 24/7/365, mind you; my bartending duties were purely a volunteer matter which guaranteed me a chair when I showed up in the bar. At first during the summer it was just Saturday nights, but by the time winter rolled around I was up there most every night doing my thing for folks. This is the joy of an honor bar; come on in any time, no one’s gonna charge you, so help yourself. You are, of course, supposed to be working during the day but if it’s just you in the bar, and no one’s keeping a tab, who’s to say you were even drinking? (this is a very Zen alcoholic justification) The answer: me, when I find you passed out on the floor with a toppled barstool beside you when I come to “open” the bar at 8pm.

Antarctica’s problem is that you’ve run as far as a person possibly can to “escape”. I heard about every relationship shattered by the distance to the Ice…and all the ones that ended before you even thought about coming to Antarctica. The strings of jobs and towns abandoned as you tried to make a new start, a new life, in the next town, or state, or country over. But once you get to Antarctica, there’s simply nowhere further to go. Then the station closes for the winter with no more flights for nine months. When things start going wrong for you again, because the common denominator in all the situations you’ve fled from is you, you’re trapped. So you’d better get acquainted with yourself OR you can just drink yourself to oblivion and kill the days so that you aren’t even there. I’m not going to put a number on how many people took the latter route, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any that really made the former work.

I recall pouring glass after glass of Crown Royal for a person that, against all odds, was still managing to sit on a stool and semi-coherently ask for another drink. There were three people that individually pulled me aside and said, “Dude. STOP SERVING HIM. He is so far gone it’s not even funny.” Assuming they remember, as it was a decade ago, they were drinking too, and the ravages of hypothyroidism in Antarctica on memory, they probably still blame me for serving irresponsibly. I had a different perspective. I try to keep in mind and control the most serious danger and deal with the other ones as they come up. The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide him over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85F night. I was doubly happy to be serving him in the bar rather than have him get to this state, or worse, alone where something dumb/wrong might happen and no one would be able to help him until it was far too late.

So, yes, I ended up cleaning up more than my fair share of puke from my fellow Polies that were in a bad way. I apologize for any bruises I may have given manhandling them into chairs or onto couches because I wasn’t going to let them lie on the floor. But I am happy to say very few people had to shamefully look at their vomit permanently frozen into the ice, until painstakingly chiseled out so that the crew wasn’t embarrassed when the new people arrived. And no one, no one, had to be treated for hypothermia and frostbite due to getting drunkenly disoriented or passing out in the cold.

Phil Does Stupid Human Tricks, AKA "The Dragon", with Liquid Nitrogen in Club 90 South

Phil Does Stupid Human Tricks, AKA “The Dragon”, with Liquid Nitrogen in Club 90 South

Oh, the Crown Royal. One of those odd things that just happens, any bartender will tell you this, is that bars have peculiar booze consumption characters. That there will be a type of alcohol that sells remarkably well in one bar but doesn’t even move in the bar the next block down. Or, for similarly unknown reasons, a college town bar will see that each different year progressing through college has it’s signature booze, i.e. the class of 2014 all order dry martinis, but the class of 2015 is all Jaegerbombs, all the time. For the South Pole 2002-2003 winterovers, the booze of choice was Crown Royal, I think because of the lovely felt bags the bottles came in. Every time a new bottle was opened, the bag got suspended from the Christmas lights over the bar, slowly making a curtain. In the picture to the above, taken January 2002, it was still pretty sparse up there; by July, one of the communications techs took down about 50 of the bags to make a quilt. There were so many by then that we didn’t even notice.

A fair question I’ve been asked is “How did you get all that booze down there? What did you have? Was there non-alcoholic anything?” At Pole & McMurdo, you could buy hard liquor, wine, beer, and soda from the ship store, though as memory serves we had a better variety at Pole though not the same vast inventory. It is telling that the very first cargo pallet that came off the plane when I arrived at Pole on the opening flight was nothing but beer (my luggage didn’t arrive for another two weeks).   While bulk cargo can be brought to McMurdo & Palmer by boat, everything that comes to Pole has to do it by plane. I would describe the variety of booze in the ship store as comparable to a middling supermarket. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see both sweet vermouth and Makers Mark on the shelf, because it meant that I didn’t bring the Angostura bitters in my luggage for nothing and that there’d would be manhattans to drink all the way through winter.

Actually, the fact that I was in no danger of running out of Makers Mark or sweet vermouth is an interesting point, given that the United States Antarctic Program and the contractor running the station had made a commitment to reduce alcohol dependence. Turning the stations dry was, frankly, out of the question, though it was threatened. During the offload of the cargo vessel in McMurdo by the NAVCHAPS (US Navy Cargo Handling And Port Services), all the bars and booze sales in the ship store shut down lest there be trouble, again, for the who knows how manyeth time. Of course, the research vessels constantly circumnavigating the continent are always dry vessels, not that this stops homebrewing in the finest of prison wine traditions on the boats. So, there was proof of concept that it was possible to go dry…but booze sales were a decent moneymaker for the contractor because, really, how many t-shirts are you gonna sell to each person? Alcohol, tobacco, and candy are consumables and have the possibility of repeat business that selling souvenirs lacks. People generally got some percentage of their paycheck paid to them on continent in cash and then promptly went to the ship store to buy booze with it.

As bartender that year, I was paying attention to our consumption rates and what things ran out when (something not done before, it seems) and, frankly, it wasn’t complimentary. Remember for this timeline, South Pole Station opened on October 30th with first flight and the station closed on February 14th, with several resupply flights coming in per day while the station was open:

  • Ran out of Dr. Pepper & Mountain Dew in late March
  • Ran out of red wine in early April. SEE ALSO: South Pole “Enhanced” Sangria
  • Ran out of Coke & Pepsi in mid to late April
  • Ran out of Diet Coke & Pepsi, 7-Up, and root beer in early to mid May
  • Ran out of tonic and Bailey’s Irish cream in July
  • Ran out of Crown Royal, Bacardi 151 and club soda in August
  • Ran out of all beer except the worst one (New Zealand’s Export Gold) by early September.
  • Ran out of Export Gold the night before first flight arrived and the station opened.

At the end of the year, we still had more hard liquor than you could shake a stick at on the shelves and in storage. Of the three we ran out of, this was due to irrational popularity (Crown Royal), a special item shipped down by a cargo manager one time, three years prior (151), and for only one of them, a bartender that made mixed drinks (Bailey’s). As a responsible bartender, I made a point of trying to alternate people’s booze with non-alcoholic options but I ran out of those damn early, other than water. We had quite a few varieties of New Zealand’s beers available but they dwindled away one by one through the winter, leaving only Export Gold by the end. Therefore, as the months wore on, the alcohol consumption not only increased in quantity, but it increased in alcohol content per drink. By the end, I was regularly tossing out 4-7 empty liquor bottles a night for a 6-12 people. This doesn’t jibe with a desire to reduce alcohol dependence and the letter I wrote to the USAP and Raytheon stating this got no response.

The other thing all this booze did was cause an extra rift in the station population. Antarctica has always suffered a cultural split between the “beakers” (researchers on NSF grants) and “support” (all the workers from the Contractor that operate/build the stations, i.e. everyone else). As support staff that very directly helped keep experiments up and running, I was in an odd bridging role that let me play in both camps. The new rift that revealed itself was the Teetotalers vs. the Drunks and it was a roughly 40/60 division in a winter station population of 58. I’m to understand that the bar became much more central in the life of the station my year than it normally was, and that might partially be my fault. It was a standing complaint from the Teetotalers that any event that happened always drifted to Club 90 South, or that the event just didn’t work because everyone was at the bar instead. Stitching these two groups together, which were almost but not quite broken along the traditional beaker/support lines, is a task our station manager had that I didn’t envy.

I’m to understand the solution that was implemented the following year was an HR representative from Contractor HQ that stayed for the whole winter to help with problems, by doing such things as sitting in the bar and monitoring drinking habits. When I was told of this plan I predicted the HR representative would be the Most Hated Person At Pole. The result was a lot of solitary drinking and little cohesion in the crew, which made for a very hard winter for everyone. Being at the bottom of the globe for a year, surrounded by two mile thick ice sheets, and no escape is hard enough without trying to do it alone.

While I have misgivings about my bartending and the things I saw in Antarctica, I still think it’s preferable to the alternatives.

EDIT: The original 2nd to last paragraph said “no cohesion in the crew” . As someone that was there the year after me was quick to point out this may also have been a function of a largest station winterover population ever, spread across the old Dome and the new berthing in the elevated station, separated by a decent hike and 96 stairs at ~10000′ of altitude. More people is an opportunity for more cliques so, by comparison, two major blocs looks cohesive next to a dozen or so smaller fractious groups. However, even one friend that isn’t a bottle is a better than none.

St. Patrick’s and ANZAC Days, 2003

ANZAC Memorial, Sydney Australia July 2010

ANZAC Memorial, Sydney Australia July 2010

April 25th means little to Americans other than, probably, waiting anxiously for whatever you ordered with your tax refund to arrive. But to the fine folk of Australia and New Zealand it is ANZAC Day which, generally, means a fall holiday. At the very least it is an excuse to have gunfire breakfast, AKA coffee spiked with a very respectable amount of rum, which is something I learned as retaliation for my observance of St. Patrick’s Day with my exceptionally Irish coffees.

For St. Patrick’s, I got up early, relatively speaking, checked my dewars and telescopes, and then went up to Club 90 South. I then spent the next five hours cleaning up months of accumulate detritus and generally ignored maintenance in the bar. FACT: one of the reasons bars are dimly lit is so you don’t have to clean them as thoroughly. Once cleaning was completed, I compiled the finest 14 hours of drinking music that the X Drive had to offer, and then decorated the bar with shotglasses and bottles of Jamesons. At 5pm, I pressed play on the tunes and poured myself some whiskey so that I would be ready to salute whoever came through the door as I poured them their shot.

It was good time. Eventually, people started biting beer cans and spitting torn aluminum at each other. That’s how good a time it was.

A little over a month later, our telescope mechanic and former New South Wales rugby prop walked into the bar a plunked down a bottle of something special he’d brought down in his luggage: a bottle of Bundaberg rum. I was familiar with and fond of Bundaberg’s ginger beer but had no idea they made a rum. Flavor-wise, it’s a grassy salty rum agricole similar to St. George Spirit’s Aqua Libre. I can’t possibly do justice to Allan’s accent which was so thick you could drown sheep in it, but when I asked what that was for he said, “Have a Bundy with me. It’s ANZAC Day.”

Turkish Artillery in the Morning - rum by Bundaberg, mug by R. Stevens of dieselsweeties.com

Turkish Artillery in the Morning – rum by Bundaberg, mug by R. Stevens of dieselsweeties.com

While I knew the history well, it was thus I was made privy to many of the modern cultural secrets of ANZAC Day, primarily the concept of the Gunfire Breakfast, which is coffee with sufficient rum added to it that you didn’t care about the guns anymore. In honor of that, and the fact that they’re running almost 20 hours ahead of the west coast of the US, I made myself a mug of gunfire breakfast with the Ipsento Panama BBotE and my bottle of Bundy I picked up three years ago in Sydney. This was, perhaps, not the best idea at 9pm but it was goddamn delicious and I hereby dub it “Turkish Artillery in Morning”. The recipe:

  • 1 part BBotE (I found the blueberry fruitiness of the Ipsento Panama went well)
  • 3 parts boiling water
  • 1 part agricole rum (grass, salty flavored rum that uses the whole cane)

So, to all those who fell at Gallipoli, all those that mourned them back home, and all those that returned short a few limbs or marbles, here’s to you. And to the people of Christchurch who had to endure me giving a damn long semi-inebriated lecture on the history of the Great War and why the Arch of Remembrance at the end of Cashel Street was there to my ignorant fellow Polies in 2003, I apologize again.

With that, the band played Waltzing Matilda…

Station Closing – Settling Down For A Long Winter’s Nap

Ten years and eighteen days ago, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station closed for the winter, with the last LC-130 ski cargo plane departing the skiway on Valentine’s Day 2003. I watched it disappear from a mostly abandoned experiment in the Dark Sector (AKA the pie wedge extending from pole with all the telescopes in it). With the rapidly vanishing dot in the sky, I don’t know if anyone else felt it but the weight of 8-9 cold dark months finally settled down on me.

If this all was a terrible mistake, it had officially been made. There would be no escape. The last planes leave Antarctica when the temperatures start dipping below -50F and won’t return until the temperatures are reliably above that. Below -50F, we’re no longer entirely confident that we can keep the engines running (possibly freezing solid, ne’er to move again, should they stop), keep the skis from welding themselves to the ice, or that the JP-8 fuel won’t start to gel in the lines thus leading to tragic explosions. I list these things as they’re all incidents that have occurred in Antarctica or near Thule AFB in Greenland. It is also worth noting that the very first LC-130 is buried roughly 30′ under the snow where it crashed at the end of the skiway. Shit happens when things that would normally be a minor error can easily turn fatal at the hairy edge of safe operation. One of my favorite sayings when trying to teach radiation safety to recalcitrant undergrads, grad student, and postdocs is “Every safety regulation is written in someone’s blood. Try not make any new rules, okay?” My other favorite is “Stupidity is a harsh teacher and pain is Her lesson plan; not everyone is lucky enough or survives to get a second lesson.” but that one’s somewhat more insulting.

Antarctica, however, is the most unforgiving classroom. Every year, at least one person dies on the continent for failure to appreciate that Antarctica Does Not Care About You. Humans are only the apex predator at South Pole Station because absolutely nothing else except, maybe, bacteria can live there. On the coasts, you can get your ass handed to you by the goddamn penguins; the little bastards fly through water so don’t think for a moment that they aren’t a hell of a lot stronger than they look. The bruises I got on my shins from a 18″ tall adelie lasted for weeks; I’ve been told of the 4′ tall emperors breaking bones. The lack of fear of humans in all the animals of the Antarctic isn’t necessarily just because they have no experience of us, but rather that the average human isn’t much of a threat down there. We are a frail and feeble ape that is a few hours away from death in the environment that they happily live.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - Last Flight Out, Valentine's Day 2003

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – Last Flight Out, Valentine’s Day 2003

All that and more went running through my head as I watched this through the viewfinder of my camera before the battery froze up.

I invite you to look long and hard at this picture. The VAST white expanse with a bunch of footprints I made. You can see something that looks like buildings in the background beyond the skiway that my last escape to civilization is leaving on. They aren’t buildings, they’re pallets of supplies on raised berms that can survive the average -85F temperatures that are coming in the winter. Almost enough equipment to rebuild the entire station. There’s enough food on those berms to survive three to five winters without rescue, depending on the size of the winter population (fifty eight questionably damned souls when I was there). Mind you, there isn’t enough fuel to keep the lights on, buildings warm, and water liquid for more than about 18 months…maybe.

So, it is vitally necessary to keep in your mind that YES, a plane is coming back for you to maintain sanity. Actually, that’s not true. Most of my compatriots weren’t thinking more than a day or two into the future, focused on the task at hand and whatever hobby they’d chosen. If there was ever a moment of existential crisis where someone started losing it because they were afraid they were going to be stuck at Pole forever, I never saw it. Maybe I did and that was one of the nights as Station Bartender that I served alcohol until someone reached sweet oblivion and killed one more day of winter which they didn’t have to remember on the way to Station Opening. It’s hard to say.

But what helps most people through hard times are customs. The Antarctic traditions run back to the early explorers with a strong naval slant, which means many of them are dumb, most of them involve alcohol, and some corporal punishment. After the last flight leaves, everyone goes back to their rooms to get ready for the Station Closing Dinner, something that’s happened every year since South Pole Station was established in 1957. I want you to all understand that the desire for adventure that brings people to the bottom of the Earth also brings some truly fantastic cooks. The man in charge of the food for the continent as whole while I was there was a Michelin starred chef from New Orleans, Cookie John. Despite the limitations of being at Pole, Closing Dinner may have been one of the finest meals I’ve eaten in my life. People bring tuxedos for this dinner despite the limited weight allowance. It is, in a word, a soiree.

After that, a more modern custom that dates to the early-1980s happened: the full station viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing. This movie is grossly inaccurate about how an Antarctic station looks like and is run, but let me tell you the mindsets are spot on. You want to know how are things are a few months deeper into winter, you need only watch this MacReady’s thousand yard stare as he fumbles with the bottle of whiskey. At the end of the movie, I turned to the station manager and pointed out that we were woefully under armed, particularly with respect to flamethrowers, for an American station. I’ll treasure the look he gave me for life as he realized he was trapped with me for nine more months.

You might have thought we’d watch The Shining. Goodness no. We saved that for Midwinter, along with Dark Star (not surprisingly, also by John Carpenter).

NEXT TIME: Winterizing the station, because you’re still not quite ready for it to get really cold.