Just a few days ago Mike Blachut got a haircut. The back and sides are
now trimmed so they sit snug against his neck and under his ears.
Before that, he'd let his gray hair grow a little long, so it hung
like a silver curtain around the sides of his head, the top all still
smooth and bald. He reminded me, the first time I saw him, of someone
out of a Charles Dickens novel, with his hair the way it was and with
what I'd call a mutton chop mustache, the ends curling down around
the edges of his mouth and connecting with his sideburns which swooped
down from his ears along the edge of his jaw. The mustache and
sideburns came off too, with the haircut. Mike is tall and thin, and
kindly, with a soft voice and a nervous excitement about him, as if
nothing in the world could possibly bore him.
sat the other day talking about what he does in Antarctica, this
highest, driest, windiest, coldest place on earth. In the coldest place
on earth, Mike Blachut, or Uncle Mike to those who know him well
enough, is in charge of making sure things are cold enough. He is,
during the winter months anyway, McMurdo Station's one and only
It's a funny job, he says. An odd job. A job he's done here for
three seasons. A job in which he wears many hats. "A refrigeration guy
in Antarctica," he says, describing himself, "is a physicist, a
chemist, a machinist, a blacksmith--down here, a tamer of mules." He
laughs about the "tamer of mules" part, having slipped into the
conversation a stray bit of some funny, interesting material from the
filing cabinet of his mind. He seems to be like that, the kind of
person who often slides a remark in under his breath, sideways into
something you say that is remotely related. He sits across from me in
the uniform of McMurdo, tattered brown Carhart pants, the kind with
copper rivets at the stress points. The knees of his pants are
particularly worn. You see, he says, mostly every freezer he needs to
fix or look at means he has to get down on his knees. His black shirt,
rolled up at the sleeves, has a breast pocket that is full of pens.
The irony of being a freezer man on a continent made of ice makes him
smile too. "We're sitting here with this abundance of cold," he says,
and we're sending down a refrigeration mechanic and a bunch of
units." In the Crary Lab alone, he says, there are 150 refrigeration
and freezer units. One walk-in freezer, in particular, holds an
interesting item that Mike and I will later go investigate-an Emperor
penguin, three feet tall and all golden throated, preserved after an
unfortunate natural death. I take a picture of him and the penguin, the
big bird half wrapped still in a huge black plastic bag, and later the
picture appears on my office door with the words "A Testimonial From
Mike's Freezer Service," written under it.
Mike says he wonders sometimes about how this place could be harnessed
to do the job all the refrigerators and freezers are sent down to
do--after all it is ALL ice, all but about 2 percent of it anyway. And
for most of the time it never gets above 40 degrees F. He brainstorms
for a moment--remembering how dorm residents used to keep juice and pop
cold in boxes set in their window sills. That was before each room had
its own small refrigerator. Heck, he says, "We're sitting on top of
permafrost! If someone put their mind to it, we could save 600
As Mike and I talk, it's getting colder and more blustery out. In the
hallway we hear excited voices saying that that a condition one has
been called, which means either one of three things (or perhaps all)
that the temperature is at or below minus 114 F, that visibility is
less than 100 feet or that the windspeed is 55 knots or greater. It's
this, just this, the cold, that is the hardest part about working in
Antarctica, Mike says. "Even plus 20 is cold and usually there's wind
going on. It's hard on your body, " he says, then repeats himself, as
if he is remembering a day that particularly stung. "It's hard on
your body. It's cold."
One of Mike's main jobs around here is taking care of the frozen food
warehouse -- a barn stacked from floor to rafter with pallets of frozen
peas, cherry cobbler, sausage and steak. The freezers get turned on in
the warehouse November 1 when the temperature in McMurdo hits anywhere
from between 0 to 40 degrees F. The frozen food has to be kept at minus
10 degrees. His other main job, besides the freezers and refrigerators
that keep the food service running (feeding more than 1,000 people a
day in the summer) is to take care of the freezer needs of the
scientists who work at McMurdo. He jokes, though, and says the
following is his real list of priorities:
Again, it isn't true, but he jokes, telling me he'll do an
experiment and go into the galley and hang a sign on the machine saying
that it is broken and that I'll be in charge of watching what happens
and taking notes.
One of the most important science projects that require Mike's
expertise around McMurdo is the kind of work that will happen this
season at Siple Dome. Scientists at this remote field camp are involved
in an ice-coring project, taking samples of ice from the ice sheet.
Each sample has to be carefully tended and kept at minus 20 F until it
is adequately analyzed.
A lot of his job concerns maintaining a stock of parts. Antarctica
isn't the kind of place where you can get up and run to three
different hardware stores when you've got the wrong bolt. I ask him
to name part that is absolutely essential to his job and it takes him
less than a nanosecond. Why, a compressor! Suddenly it is as if he were
talking about a new grandchild. A compressor does all the work in a
refrigerator. In fact, says Mike, leaning forward in his chair with his
eyes lit up, "I think of it as the heart -- I take its pulse. The
refrigerator's heart starts beating when that thing starts to tick."
He makes a drawing for me on a board beside out chairs-in green ink he
draws the box that is the refrigerator, and inside the box on the upper
left, the evaporator, along the back of the box a system of coils, and
snug in the lower left corner a round dark thing -- the compressor.
He takes a moment to explain to me how a refrigerator actually works:
in the refrigerator factory, gas is put into the compressor. The
compressor, once a unit is up and running, compresses gas so that it
becomes high-pressure warm gas. The high-pressure warm gas goes through
the tubes at the back of the unit and in the process cools to room
temperature. At that point, it becomes a liquid. As a liquid, it goes
inside the refrigerator and enters the evaporator. In the evaporator,
it changes state again from a liquid to a gas. When you expand a liquid
into a gas you absorb a high number of BTUs. A BTU is a British thermal
unit, the amount of energy it takes to heat one gallon of water one
degree F. It's about the amount of heat you get when you strike and
burn a paper match, says Mike.
So, Mike says, what happens in the evaporator is that heat is absorbed.
A refrigerator does not generate cold, it sucks up heat. Once the gas
has absorbed all these BTUs, it goes back into the compressor. It
returns to the compressor at 35 degrees F. The compressor starts all
over again, compressing the gas and raising the heat to 140 F.
You see, he says, all that ice out there, he gestures as if he is
indicating the entire white continent, holds a lot of energy. In fact,
he says, one ton of ice holds 12,000 BTUs per hour or 288,000 BTUs per
day. Those calculations come from the old ice masters, who used to
harvest ice to bring to people's houses for home refrigeration.
Nowadays a little refrigerator rated at 3,000 BTUs per hour is
equivalent to one quarter ton of ice--500 pounds of ice--a day.
Mike wants to take me upstairs to show me what he calls "his babies,"
the big compressors that keep the big freezers running in the lab --
the big freezers like the one the frozen penguin was in. He and I go on
a journey upstairs and into a low-ceiling mezzanine full of conduit and
silver air vents, where the humm of the heart of the building is warm
and comforting. He stops by a low metal box and unlatches it,
carefully, as if there was something delicate inside, or something
small that might hop out. These, Mike says, these are my babies, and he
opens the lid and shows me, right there in the corner, the compressor,
the thing that does it all. "You see how boring refrigeration is," he
says, smiling. "Sometimes down here I feel like the Lone Ranger. I
don't have anyone down here. Nobody talks my language. They don't
want to hear about Freon."
- The ice cream machine in the galley
- The ice machine in the bar
Analysis:In this piece I tried to paint a word picture of a
person who in some ways characterizes this place. I spent some time
with details of what Mike looks like, what kind of a person he seems,
talked about his hair, his clothes, the sound of his voice, the shape
of his body. I also tried to include things that might give a reader an
idea of his personality--that he is a man with a sense of humor, that
he smiles a lot, the he has a quirky mind in some ways.
Writing Exercise:Focus on a person who is somehow related to
a place that is important to you. Paint a picture of them with words,
for starters, using as many details as you can to describe their
physical self, their personality. Include something that they say that
indicates what kind of a person they might be. Then try to think about
what makes them special to THAT particular place. You don't need to
write a lot, just try to make a sketch of the person.