Sunday, October 12, 2008


Toast           Listen to the pronunciation of 1toast
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English tosten, from Anglo-French toster, from Late Latin tostare to roast, from Latin tostus, past participle of torrēre to dry, parch — more at thirst
Date: 14th century
transitive verb

: to warm thoroughly
: to make (as bread) crisp, hot, and brown by heat
3: the unique sort of insanity caused by spending far too much time in Antarctia

Being toast, toasty, toasted, or however you want to put it, is at it's core an extreme version of cabin fever. It's a very special version if it, though, and while it manifests itself differently in all people, there are a lot of fairly universal symptoms.

In all reality, we don't have as much of a problem with it here at Palmer as they do at the other US stations, McMurdo and South Pole. We have monthly resupply ships that bring in freshies, and contact with other humans outside of the 20-40 that we're locked up with here on station. And in the summer, cruise ships stop by, giving us a break from the day-to-day of work, and interaction with people who somehow manage to exist in the real world.

The other two stations, though, are cut off for the winters with no physical contact with the outside world. McMurdo is usually open for 6 months of the year, but South Pole can only be accessed for about 4 months per year, sometimes even less. So people doing a winter there are mostly locked in a single building for 8 months on end, with the same 50 people. It's dark for six months (well, twilight for two, fully dark for four), the freshies run out after a few weeks, it's -80F outside, you have very slow internet for only 12 hours per day.

It gets to people.

You just end up getting more and more removed from the world, and living deeper and deeper in your own head. People end up walking around in sort of a perpetual daze, like they never really wake up in the morning. If you've ever had the strange experience of pulling into your driveway when getting home from work and realizing that you don't remember actually driving home, you know the basics of the feeling.  Now stretch it out so that it lasts for weeks at a time, and that's the epitomy of toast.

People have described in to me as that you don't have the ability to concentrate on very much. If you're lucky, you'll have just enough concentration to get your job done, but after that, you just don't notice the world around you.

A few years ago at Pole, a bunch of guys buzzed another guys head in his sleep as a prank, and he didn't notice it until someone pointed it out to him . . . three days later. There's a myriad of other stories like that, people completely disconnecting. People walking into the wrong bedroom, undressing and going to sleep in it, not noticing that it's not actually their room. People going to the galley, eating lunch, but if you grabbed them walking out and ask them what they just ate, they'd not be able to tell you, if they could recall eating at all. Someone here related a personal experience to me of simply not being able to remember anything he'd done for days at a time when he was wintering at Pole.

Toastieness can get worse. Very frequently, I'm told, you'll see people randomly start crying, sometimes mid-sentence, for no particular reason at all. There's plenty of stories of random people walking into the galley, getting a plate of food, sitting down alone at a table . . . and just sitting there for half an hour quietly crying, not touching their food. When lunch is over, they get up, take their untouched plate of food to the garbage, and go back to work.

It can also give people a very quick temper. A majority of the emergency medevacs from McMurdo and Pole over the winters are injuries due to fights; our current doctor here on station has worked a while at Pole, and had a number of broken jaws, hands, and a lot of other fight-related injuries. There's more stories then I could remember of people completely flying off the handle for the most comically minor of reasons, like the cook putting too much cheese in the lasagna or something.

Some of the more extreme cases of toast would be hilarious if they weren't so indicative of something really wrong in these people's brains.

The most famous incident was a couple years ago at McMurdo, when a guy bashed in the heads of two other guys with a hammer. A few people here with me at Palmer now were at McMurdo when it happened, and while the back story is complicated, it wasn't a drunken brawl or something like that. This guy had just been here WAY too long, had been trying to leave for a while, but was in a fairly important roll and they didn't want to do without him. As a result of this incident, there were rules put in place stating that if someone wants to leave, you HAVE to let them, ASAP, no exceptions. But this guy simply walked into housewares, checked out a hammer, walked into the gally, gave each of these other two guys a good swing to the head . . . walked back to housewares, and turned the hammer back in.  The guys he attacked with the hammer both survived, and he's doing time in Hawaii last I heard. 

There's been quite a few people who've tried to leave Pole mid-winter. Keep in mind that South Pole is something like 750 miles away from McMurdo, it's frequently nudging -100F and it's the most desolate area on the planet.  Trying to make your own way out from Pole is not a decision that a sane mind makes

A few years ago, one guy decided that he had to leave Pole and tried to ski to McMurdo with nothing but a tent and some Hersheys bars. He made it 11 miles before people realized he was missing. Pole is completely flat for 500 miles in all directions, so all they had to do was go up onto the roof and look, and say "Oh, over there". He'd set up his tent to take a nap in, they went out on snowmobiles and brought him back to station.

One guy did try to leave on a snowmobile. He just strapped a couple jerry cans to the back, and left. He didn't dress properly, though, and kept getting cold, so he had to stop every so often to warm his hands back up, that was how they were able to catch up to him and bring him back.

Will I be that crazy by the time I get out of here? Probably not, but depending on who you talk to, I was crazy to begin with. But you could say that about almost everyone on station right now.

I think it's why we're all here.