Never far afield from the Ice
Kevin Field keeps the USAP on the move as a lead mechanic at McMurdo Station
Posted February 4, 2007
At first glance, Kevin Field does not look like someone who should be reminiscing about “the old days” in Antarctica.
But the shaggy-haired lead mechanic at McMurdo Station has spent 18 summer and three winter seasons in the Antarctic since 1980, when he came down to the Ice for the first time. He had just finished his apprenticeship as a qualified Caterpillar mechanic with a New Zealand company.
“I came down here as a 20-year-old kid, and now I’m a 46-year-old kid,” said Field, an expatriate New Zealander with a home in Great Falls, Mont.
The station looked different in those days, when most of the operation was still in the hands of the U.S. Navy. Many of the buildings consisted of Jamesways (tent buildings) and Quonset huts. Scott Base still kept huskies in the 1980s.
(The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty banned dogs from the continent by April 1, 1994, because of health concerns for the native wildlife, particularly seals.)
“The dogs would come up to you [in the club] and jump on your lap,” Field said. “The huskies were good for morale.”
For an entire decade, Field split his time between McMurdo and Christchurch. He took a yearlong break around 1991 to work projects in a very different climate – Papua New Guinea. The jungle and lawless island didn’t much agree with him, so it was back to Antarctica and a new job.
For the next three years, Field put his gregarious good nature to use as the station’s first “recreation dude” when the Navy decided to put more of an emphasis on extracurricular activities with the formation of a local Morale, Welfare and Recreation department.
He introduced bingo and karaoke into the local culture, events still popular today. During his tenure, the Acey-Deucy Club dumped the libations and joined the health craze, becoming today’s aerobics gym. The Officer’s Club received a double shot of Starbucks-like ambiance when Field helped convert it to a coffee bar.
“I created this thing,” Field said, gesturing to the wood paneled walls of the Coffee House as he chatted about the past.
The stocky mechanic sported a leaner physique in those days and was even a certified aerobics instructor. One of his students, Karen Joyce, still works at McMurdo Station and runs her own fitness class, Gutz-n-Butz.
“He never stopped moving,” Joyce said of the energetic Field.
Field does not look back on those early years with rose-colored glasses, however, noting a number of lifestyle improvements. McMurdo Station, though still dusty and muddy during the austral summer when the snowdrift melts, is much cleaner these days.
The community is also healthier, as recent campaigns to stamp out epidemics of flu have proven effective.
“When I was here 10 years ago, the crud was a major player,” he said. “Everyone got the crud.
“There’s not an old-timer here who wouldn’t say the place is a lot nicer than it used to be.”
Like many “old-timers,” Field expressed some ambivalence about the prevalence of the Internet and e-mail. The advances are welcome, he said, but the social atmosphere seems to suffer.
“You couldn’t just pick up a phone in your room and call the world. Things were a lot more remote,” he said, recalling a Christmas Day mountain bike ride to New Zealand’s Scott Base to call home about a family emergency.
Regular phone calls had to be booked two weeks in advance. You only had one chance to get through, he said, so you kept your fingers crossed that the line wasn’t busy and hope someone was home to take the call.
“That was it. Your next call was in two weeks.”
Despite the remoteness, Internet capabilities made an early appearance at McMurdo Station with the help of NASA, according to Field, before the Web spun out of control in the late 1990s.
“I saw the Internet being born down here,” he said. “That was fun, being on the cutting edge of technology.”
In 1997, Field quit the Antarctic and moved to Montana, where he ran a workshop for a construction company and owned a restaurant. But the Ice was never far from his thoughts: he would look wistfully at the calendar during deployment times.
“I missed it from day one,” he said.
Not surprising, really, since he grew up in the shadow of the U.S. Antarctic Program, living only a couple of miles from the Navy air base in Christchurch. He would ride his bike to the nearby airfield and hang out with the American squadron mechanics as their “token Kiwi kid.”
“I always knew one day I would go [to Antarctica],” he said. “That was always a goal of mine since I was about 10 years old. To at least come down here and see where the planes went.”
The indefatigable Field returned to his home away from home last season after about a seven-year absence. He’s back in the heavy shop and seems to have plans to stick around for a while longer.
“I love the program, and I really love the equipment,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of this equipment come down here brand new, and I’ve been a big part of babysitting and maintaining that gear for 20 years.
“I’m a big Caterpillar man, and I love the fact that we have a fleet of aging Cat equipment that’s still in good condition.”
It’s not an easy job. The cold, volcanic dust and aging machines aren’t the only challenges. Logistics sometimes require 15 months before needed parts arrive. A mechanic in the Antarctic has to be an innovator.
“We have to MacGyver things. That’s a challenge. That’s fun,” he said, referring to the resourceful television hero who would use common household items to save the day in every episode. “Anyone can change parts … but cobbling something out of nothing is a challenge.
“It makes you far more versatile. You’re not just a parts changer; you’re a troubleshooter, you’re a welder, you’re an electrician, you’re a machinist – you’re everything.”