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Folding the American flag.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
From left, David Scheuerman, Andy Clarke and fireman Lt. Will Molidor fold the American flag at the geographic South Pole. At each stop along the flag's route from the dome to the ceremonial pole, it was handled by one person representing the support staff, one the science community and the third the military.

Polies pay final respects to dome, reflect on long road to dedication

Before the official dedication ceremony began in the afternoon, the station personnel, about 250 people, turned out at 7:30 a.m. to pay their last respects to the geodesic dome, which once sheltered a handful of orange buildings that served as Main Street, South Pole for the station since its dedication on Jan. 9, 1975.

Over the last two years, however, it has become an empty husk as each function, such as communications or power, switched to the new station. Constructed over five years, the aging dome today is merely a useful if quirky-looking warehouse until the new logistics arch facility is finished next year.

The group gathered for a final time in front of the structure, around the welcome sign that once hung above the entrance for nearly 35 years before a carpenter crew led by Mark Freeland brought it down earlier in the season. (See story Sign of the times.)

Four veteran Polies — Doug “Dog” Forsythe, Joe Crane, Scott “Scotty Bob” Smith and Chuck Speidel — donned harnesses after photographers snapped the final group photos. One by one, they scaled its curved surface, wearing hard hats and well bundled against the blustery wind that sent the wind chill to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The honor of lowering the flag fell to Forsythe, a senior construction coordinator, who began his career with the program in 1993 as a contract carpenter.

“I felt honored to have the chance to do that,” Forsythe said. The task weighed heavily on his mind, as he mentally rehearsed what he would say and do. Before unclipping the flag, Forsythe keyed his radio.

He said, “So, as we lower this American flag at the closing of this incredible station, here’s to the end of an incredible era, and to all the hard-working, dedicated women and men that worked and served here, as we look to the future and a great new era in our great, new station. At South Pole, Antarctica … in God we trust.”

Forsythe unclipped the flag at 8:07 a.m., slowly lowering Old Glory to savor the moment.

“It was mixed emotions for sure,” he said. “Here you have this awesome new station that we love living in and working in … but at the same time we’re missing our old dome.”

Ceremonial pole reflection
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The new station reflected on the ceremonial pole.

The flag was ceremoniously folded, and then passed hand-to-hand along a daisy chain of parka-clad Polies, to the geographic pole marker, which represents 90 degrees south. A procession then moved the ceremonial pole and its 12 flags representing the original Antarctic Treaty nation members to a new home near the elevated station.

Tears flowed freely from some Polies during the morning ceremony. It wasn’t clear whether emotion or the bitterly cold, 15-knot winds caused their eyes to water and then freeze against their faces. Polies are a tough bunch — taking a certain stubborn pride in the punishment the elements can dish out against the flesh — but even seasoned veterans conceded they were touched by the ceremony.

For BK Grant, the South Pole area director for the last six years and a Polie for about 17 years, finding the right words to express her sentiments was difficult. “It’s hard to really know what to say about the day — seeing the flag come down and watching my good friends up on the dome was certainly moving.

“The day was very much a reflection of South Pole for me,” she added. “For those of us who have been through the whole project, it was that sense of recognition of the efforts of so many of our friends through the years.”

Speidel, the station's science carpenter foreman, has spent 13 seasons on the Ice, most of them at the South Pole. Like many, he had mixed emotions about trading the iconic dome for the new building he and others worked so hard to build.

“It didn’t really set in until we lowered the flag and Dog made the announcement over the radio,” Speidel said. “It made me think about everything we did.”

Added Forsythe, “It’s been such a long process. … I’ve always thought the hardest part of being down here since the first season was missing my daughters, my kids, my family. … The extreme cold is hard, but missing family is harder.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs