Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Polly Hansen
Observer Staff Writer 

The Only Gun in Antarctica Keeps the Peace, Enforces the Law in World's Most Remote Town

"Only the Station Master has the key to the only firearm for 2,000 miles, a shotgun in a locked cabinet. I only saw him take it out once ...."

 

December 27, 2021

IceStock is the annual summer music festival at McMurdo Station, a US Base in Antarctica. None of the people pictured were involved in any way with this story.

Some people call it the "The Manhattan of Antarctica." By far the largest of 100 or so bases in Antarctica, is McMurdo Station at McMurdo Sound. Located at the furthest latitude South that a ship can sail in the Antarctic summer, the 75 year old American base is the situs of important research. It is also a logistical facility that supports South Pole Station and other bases.

In a locked glass cabinet in the Station Master's office is the only firearm for 2,000 miles, a 12 gauge shotgun and ammunition. Only the Station Master, a lanky 50 year old man I'll call Hank, has the key. In the three summers that I spent there, 2018-2020, I only saw the Station Master take out the weapon once. This is the story of that one time he used his firearm.

Of the 1200 people who spend a summer at McMurdo, one third are "Unclassified Personnel." They are typically young people with no specialized skill, who volunteer for ideological reasons or to have an adventure. For two or three months or so, they perform menial labor or help with the airfields, maintain the facilities, etc. as the arms and legs of the station. Aside from a couple of bars, there's no place to spend money at McMurdo, and their room and board is paid for. After a summer working, they end up in New Zealand with $8,000 or so and they typically travel.

McMurdo looks like a mining town. The buildings are mostly barracks with pointed roofs that are elevated off the ground, with the exception of the Crary Science Building. The scientists are the whole point of McMurdo, and there are about 400 of them. They are all very fine people who know they are lucky to be able to perform research at the bottom of the world. They are as well behaved as scientists anywhere.

One third of the MacTown staff are Classified Personnel. These are folks with skills that usually qualify one for well paying jobs in the US. So they sometimes have a reason to live in a place where the average daily high is 35 degrees in the summer. A very small number of them have addiction or psychological issues. You'll never read about that anywhere else, though.

The sewage treatment plant at MacTown is a popular place to spend a day off. It's warm and quiet and has an earthy smell to it. On a day off, one can sit and read a book inside the building on the catwalks over the sewage tanks. There are two sewage technicians who run this important facility, and one summer both of them were from Alabama.

One day they constructed a still to make moonshine out of potatoes. A few weeks later, one technician chased the other man around MacTown with a butcher knife, shouting something about aliens from outer space.

Aerial view of McMurdo Station, a US Base in Antarctica.

The next day, Hank used the shotgun to march the formerly knife wielding technician, who was wearing a straight jacket, directly to an aircraft to be flown back to Colorado. That's what happens to you when you really screw up. They fly past Christchurch New Zealand, the closest major city to Mactown, and take you directly back home.

And that's the only time I saw the Station Master take the only gun in Antarctica out of its case. Peace, Out.

(Note: A story like this one would get me banned for life from returning to work at the station. They only want to see positive press about the US Antarctic Program, which by the way is awesome and well worth the tax dollars. None of the photos used with this article are mine, and names have been anonymized and I might have been at McMurdo in a different time period than I specified. But everything else is true).

 

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