Brrrrrrrrrrrrr … Been There!
By Jeff Salter
It’s an appropriate week to yak about inclement weather: I have friends in both IL and RI who’ve had recent blizzards with nearly 10 inches of snow.
As a toddler, I spent a couple of years in Chicago, and one of my few vivid memories of that time was gazing at the snow, piled up along the sidewalks — those drifts were taller than I was.
But I’m mostly a product of the mid-south, where (in my early years) the rare snowfalls were met with a sense of surprise and delight. Later, I spent a year in Iowa, where snow and frigid temperature was plentiful.
But none of that compared with the nearly 11 months I lived in the Arctic. Yeah, that region which surrounds the North Pole. I was stationed at Thule Air Base in NW Greenland during the Vietnam Era when many of my buddies were in Southeast Asia. I didn’t complain.
I thought I would show you what my base was like.
The main complex was nestled in between two (rather low) mountain ranges and it fronted North Star Bay, which (at that time) was the Free World’s deepest cold-water port.
I had deja vu from my Chicago years: the snow drifts were STILL taller than I was!
Midnight Sun and Arctic Night
As many of you are aware, the extreme polar regions experience extended periods where the normal day/night rules are suspended. At our latitude, we had approximately 10 weeks of ‘Midnight Sun’ when it was NEVER dark at night … and approximately the same duration of ‘Arctic Night’ when you NEVER saw any sunshine.
Some guys used the Arctic Night as excuse to go bonkers.
I watched a lot of movies and played a lot of ping-pong. And I wrote. Poetry, mostly. Here’s one which partly captures the sense of isolation and unforgiving cold:
By Jeffrey L. Salter
A walk in the snow at forty below
in the flesh-freezing Arctic Night;
the wind is the only friend that I know,
my only companion – its bite.
This wasteland was surely forgotten by God;
nothing’s in ninety miles’ sight.
It was spit like old tobacco chew wad
and forsaken by warmth and light.
Right now as bloodless wind gnaws and blows,
warm shelter’s my passionate dream;
I have no feeling in my face or nose
and my mouth’s too frozen to scream.
There’s no one left, so perhaps I’ve been chosen
to wait for the promised sunlight,
and so I’m alone in the dark: cold and frozen
in perpetually stark Arctic Night.
The wind howls like hungry wolves in my ear,
my body is burning with fever;
my thoughts are drugged with the numbing fear
that the night will last forever.
A walk in the snow at forty below
in the flesh-freezing Arctic Night;
the wind is the only friend that I know,
my only companion – its bite.
Winner: Joel L. Fletcher Award (First Place & Cash Prize)
1975 Deep South Writers & Artists Conference
Thule was an interesting experience. I certainly didn’t want that assignment — but it was a whole lot safer than Vietnam / Thailand. There was a saying in the Arctic, when someone fretted whether he might get into trouble for whatever: [when you cleaned up the language] it was, “What’ll they do … send me to Thule?”
For people who need reference points: Thule was at nearly 77 degrees latitude … about 930 miles from the North Pole. While there, I rode over 400 miles north in a C-130 cargo plane to a Royal Canadian Air Force Station called Point Alert, which was only 515 miles from the Pole.
It was said, gleefully, that “there’s a woman behind every tree.” Of course, there are no trees that far north. In fact, the only plant-life at all was a very hardy type of grass/weed which could grow in the perma-frost (ground that never completely thawed).
It was also said there were no insects at Thule. Supposedly they can’t survive in that environment. I debate this maxim because (at a remote, abandoned outpost) I was attacked by some invisible stinging SOMETHING which made microscopic bites all over my body.
What’s the most extreme weather you’ve ever been in … for any length of time?
You’ve led a great life, Jeff!! I’m not a big fan of HOT HOT HOT or SNOW SNOW SNOW. I guess living in KY I get a great spring and fall. I like a little snow and a little warm. I probably should talk to Mother Nature;) I don’t recall being some place where the climate really got to me.
Thanks, Tonya. EXTREMES of climate are awful. I feel so sorry for people in N. Dakota and upper Minn.
Of course, the humidity in Louisiana can be debilitating at times, too.
I’m just glad I didn’t have to STAY in Greenland! My actual assignment was for 12 mos, but we were allowed / encouraged to take a 30 day leave in the middle. Plus, I had a TDY to Wash. D.C. for a few days and even was allowed to leave two weeks early because my replacement was already present and trained. So, I guess it was more like 10.5 months on-station.
WOW, Jeff!! Awesome poem, awesome post about Thule. I bet you could write a great sci/fi story about that stinging insect — hoo boy! or would that be horror?? ;-D A woman behind every tree, LOL!! good one.
Thanks, Meg. Glad to see you here … hope you’ll come back often.
Maybe that would be a good movie/story, but it would be difficult to convince anybody. I was with 3 or 4 other guys — the Chaplain’s asst. had access to the chapel station wagon, which is the only way we could have wandered off that far. This was an abandoned complex and I don’t even know which direction or how far. But the part we were in was, as I recall, a gymnasium. Some parts had snow which had broken inside and the place was a mess. But we found a few mats or blankets or some type of covering which we put out on the snow and we took off our shirts and ‘caught rays’ for a few very cold mins. [This was during the very brief summer and it was possibly mid-50s outside. Not bad if you can get behind a barrier where the wind doesn’t chill you to the bone.]
So whatever got all over me and bit the @#$% out of me obviously came from those mats or blankets. But … if no insects can survive in the Arctic, what WERE they?
I’ve never experienced an extreme like that–and never composed formal verse. I’m in awe. Again.
Aw, Chris. You’re very kind.
Thule was great for my poetry. Something about being isolated in a strange place really turned on the creative juices.
An awesome post, Jeff. But reading about all that cold and dark almost sent me into a panic attack!! I love HOT, HOT, HOT (unlike Tanya), and I’ll take humidity over snowdrifts anytime. Thirty days of no rain and sweltering temps and blazing sun might be considered extreme by some–just sounds like home to me! But then there’s the Gulf of Mexico to make it worthwhile.
I loved your poem!
Thank you, Sandra. Yeah, the Gulf breezes can certainly cool you off. I had relatives in Biloxi & Ocean Springs and as kids we spent a good bit of time visiting them on the coast. Of course, at that time the Biloxi coast practically REEKED of dead fish and whatever else they processed at those old wooden buildings on wooden piers.
I gather they’ve cleaned it up quite a bit since the 1950s.
Loved your poem! You are such a gifted writer and take inspiration from where ever you are. It must have been extremely interesting and boring maybe at the same time to have been stationed at Thule.
Our foot of snow has already melted, but it was fun while it lasted. Last winter’s two feet of snow for two months really introduced us to winter in the Northeast, but my neighbors assured me that it wasn’t a normal winter for them. We had an exceedingly mild summer which I hope WAS normal.
I have been fairly lucky as I have not been anyplace colder than here in RI or hotter than in Louisiana, but Louisiana can be really sultry in the summer. Ronny talks about his two years in Northern Japan where the snow drifts could get to be as tall as rooftops and he made a couple of 6 month TDYs to Vietnam where the heat was really miserable. He went to a festival in Japan where they built huge ice sculptors and he captured it in beautiful photographs.
Thanks for sharing your memories!
You are very kind, Sug.
You know, it’s funny in a way, but I’m not a person who is often bored. I have to really strain to recall times when I’ve been bored. It seems like there’s always something that interests me.
Maybe the closest I’ve been to boredom was when I was addicted to TV and would watch for hours even though I couldn’t always find anything ‘interesting’ (to me). But even then, I was diverted by channel surfing Ha.
I’m more for moderate temperatures. And soft breezes. Here in the Pacific NW the only extreme is usually rain. This year we got a grand daddy snow, ice and wind but we missed it all as we were in the Dominican Republic.
Jeff I love your posts. The poem was wonderful. I am so ready for a book from you.
Thanks, Lavada … I’m also “so ready” for a book to come out. maybe this year.
My wife has a cousin in the NW — can’t recall whether OR or WA. They talk about the rain, but also about the beauty.
Yeah: moderate temps and soft breezes. Sounds wonderful.
Loved your poem, Jeff! So descriptive. I had to put on a sweater 🙂
I have not experienced anything quite that extreme although we certainly got a lot of snow in upstate New York where I went to college. And the stupid kids we were, we always left our coats at home before heading out to party. I always wanted a hot chocolate by the time I got to my destination yet, somehow, always drank a cold beer instead 🙂
LOL, Meredith! Thanks! That’s the kind of reaction I WANT when you read that poem.
I have some friends who spent sev. yrs. in Buffalo. Acc. to them, the weather was worse in NY than what I’ve described in Greenland!
I’m laughing as I try to imagine myself choosing between hot choc. and cold beer. In the summer, the beer would easily win, but never in winter.
Extreme weather? I’m not a fan of cold and try to stay out of the extremes. My hubby says he was most cold in the California desert doing military maneuvers, and I’m sure that doesn’t come close to your Arctic. I got chills reading the description!
Fantastic imagery in your poem — the frozen scream. I can see why it was a winner.
I can imagine the desert, at night, during winter — would be awful.
My dad took some training in Camp Roberts, which is somewhere in CA. He didn’t care for the climate, as I recall.
I don’t mind ‘dry’ cold, but not ‘that’ cold! I don’t mind ‘aloneness either, but that much, I think ‘would do my head in.’ Love reading about it though:-)
Loved the poem too.
Thank you, Sherry.
Yeah, I tend to be a rather solitary person by nature. So I guess it was a bit easier on me than on some of the guys who required constant company.
Other than movies and ping-pong, I did have a few pretty good buddies with whom I’d hang out and listen to ‘tunes’ — the emerging technology of that day being reel-to-reel tapes!
I was in the barracks with the deejays and newscasters from the Armed Forces Radio & Television station there. So, it was a pretty quirky bunch.
Loved the poem…love the humor.(woman behind every tree!).
You ought to try your hand at sci-fi with that insect thing of yours, Jeff.
As for me, I went from the green and beautiful Autumns of the Washington, DC area to the desert in Idaho…I don’t want to even talk about it! I escaped after a bout 16 months and moved to Denver to marry my old DC boyfriend. Cold…yeah, COLD out west.Dangerous cold, because it is dry and you don’t feel it coming. You stop to pump gas and suddenly, you find that you have lost feeling in your face.
We got married just before Christmas and we had nothing ready. The next year, Joe wanted me to get a tree and decorate.As I was having our first son,I said,”Look, it will be no-end after this year,I’ll wait”. But a major home improvement store was having a blow-out sale, so off he sent me.As I parked in the snow, the radio announced that it was 17 degrees. I said out-loud to no one,”What am I doing, 7 month’s pregnant ,out alone in 17 degree weather?” A couple of weeks later, we came home from a party and found that we had been out in 17 BELOW weather.
We would have very balmy, warm weather in February and then it could sleet until summer. I lamented at a party once that there were not 4 season there and one woman said,”We have four seasons, Tonette; they’re just interchangable!” We would go to Mt.Evans,(the highest paved road in the US), on my birthday, June 20 and then Joe’s, July 29th. Often it would be cold and even have snow on my birthday,(the last day of Spring), but on Joe’s, it would be their Summer, with every sort of Alpine flower in bloom.By Labor Day, the pass to Mt Evans and others would be closed, unless snow hit and they had to close them earlier
Wow, those are fascinating extremes, Tonette.
I tend to ‘over-dress’ (in terms of coats, gloves, hats) … possibly because I’ve been so cold in previous occasions. I’ve also been stranded, too, because of automotive break-downs of one kind or another, so I always want to be prepared to ‘walk out’.
You’ve been to some very interesting places.
Wow. That some interesting stuff, Jeff. I would definitely go bonkers during the Arctic Nights. I have to have sun. I’m such a wuss. Even down here in Southeast Texas where we hardly ever see snow and our winters mostly consist of overcast skies and temps maybe, and I stress the word maybe, levels out around 50 degrees, I go all nut-so. I want WARMTH. The older I get, the more I complain. GET ME CLOSER TO THE EQUATOR!
Thanks for sharing, Jeff. brrrr……
Jenn, it really WAS a challenge dealing with 24 hrs of dark and 24 hrs of light for up to 10 weeks … with no let-up. Not sure which was worse, but most people would say the 10 wks of darkness. At that time (early 70s) we didn’t hear much about S.A.D. — Seasonal Affective Disorder. But I can certainly understand how it could put somebody in a tailspin.
Getting up in the dark, going to work in the dark (on foot), going to all meals in the dark. At times it was easy to get disoriented when you looked at a clock and saw it was 6 — you needed other input to know if it was morning or evening.
But the midnight sun was also hard to cope with. We had to have black-out shades on our windows so we could get any sleep. Guys would party at the NCO club and come out in the wee hours and it was blazing bright!
That’s a great poem Jeff.
Thanks, Lindsay. I have a special fondness for that poem.
Wow. That’s quite an experience, being stationed at Thule. I got to set foot in Greenland a couple years ago as part of a cruise, but it was Qaqortaq on the Southern tip. I’ve often thought I’d like to go hibernate in the Arctic winter. I wonder, though. Would I get a lot done or succumb to the depression of the dark?
We stopped at the Sondestrom AB — both coming and going — each time we traveled. And I made that trip, let’s see … up, back down on leave, up again for duty, back down for TDY, up again for duty, back down for home. Six times, I guess. Sonde wasn’t much to look at but it was an oasis compared to Thule. The troops stationed there could have their families with them if they wanted … or at least we were told such (and I did see women in the terminal).
Laurie, I think you’d do just fine. It’s more about attitude and resourcefulness than about the darkness. Even though I was pretty young then — age from nearly 22 to nearly 23 — it wasn’t all that bad. Plus, as I noted prev., it was a lot better than being SHOT at by Viet Cong.
That poem sure drops you into things with a sense of immediacy, Jeff. Loved it. We only spent time in the UP and Canada, cold and snowy, but never those extremes!
The most extreme weather I’ve encountered has been offshore. I’ve ridden waves that made a 200 foot steel oil vessel feel as if it shrank up under your butt like a pirogue. Another time on a a fishing vessell, a 70 foot wooden shrimp boat, we were forced to run from Shell Beach, LA to Gulfport, MS, trying to stay ahead of a hurricane. There were times almost the entire of the length of the vessel would surge off the top a wave before it would slam back down into the sea. ‘Shiver me timbers’ took on a far too real context for comfort, as the poounding of impact would literally send a traveling shock wave shivering from the bow of the boat to the stern, and back up the length of the keel. That night I trulyI understood how old time sailors felt when they wrote about praying their vessels wouldn’t break apart on the seas.
Gosh, I would NOT, NOT, NOT wanted to be in either of those ships/boats in those circumstances you experienced. In the movie “Perfect Storm” I nearly drowned just watching Geo. Clooney and M. Wahlberg try to crest that wave.
ME, TOO! That movie exhausts me. Our largest boat now is made for the ocean and is more than capable of taking big waves and rough seas, but every time my husband mentions taking it to the Bahamas or even heading out to the Gulf stream for the big fish, my throat closes in.
Amazing poetry, Jeff, and a fabulous story to go with it! That sounds miserable, seriously. ARGH! I have to say my most extreme bout with weather has been in a hurricane (I believe cat 4 was the height of my experiences, thank goodness) although that was clearly not an extended visit. Long term, just the usual stint of 1-2 weeks here in July or August over 100 degrees at 98% humidity, thank you Southern summer very much! LOL. Of course now we jump in the boat and life’s a party, but back in the day all that humidity meant watching mosquitoes get stuck in the thick air and wishing we had a/c. ;c)
The hurricane I was closest to (proximity) was Camille in ’69 … though my particular area sustained only things like limbs down and roads temp. blocked. My aunt & uncle remained in Biloxi in their ancient rental apartment less than one block from the Buena Vista Hotel, which was completely gone the next morning. They survived without a scratch.
Hurricanes are very scary, Sarah. And quite unpredictable.
My mom was traveling with her parents and siblings to my great-grandma’s house in Louisiana when Camille hit. A family opened their doors to the whole brood (seven of them) so they could be off the road during the storm. My mom was around 13 at the time, so needless to say I missed that ride, LOL. But WOW were your aunt and uncle ever lucky! That’s scary.
Terrible storms and other disasters can bring out the best in people — as in the folks who helped your traveling family — or the worst… as in looters and other criminals.
Most of what I read about the Camille aftermath was positive.
I was a reporter for a small town daily in Hammond LA during that time and I wrote a story about a local aid effort.
Such an interesting post. Thanks, Jeff.
Thank you, Elaine. Pleased to have you here.
LOve the poem! I’ve been in Alaska when it was all day day but nver when all day night!
Which part of Alaska did you visit?
On a cruise? Or on the pipeline run?
Ice Road Truckers!
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