This time of year is full of almost. Yes is great, no is easy, but almost is hard. Station close is almost here. I almost had a different job, then I almost lost my current one. At the end of the day, it worked out, but it wasn’t fun getting there.
Let’s start at the beginning. Early on in the season, when I was still trying to find a winter position, I connected with the University of Chicago about the possibility of working as the winter over machinist for SCOARA. I talked with several people who either had wintered here in that capacity or were working on hiring for this year. We eventually decided that they had enough candidates that I didn’t have good reason to apply for the position, but they would keep me in mind as an alternate should something go terribly wrong in the hiring process (which often happens, more on that later). At the same time, I accepted an offer as a primary candidate working in supply. I was guaranteed the thing I really wanted, which was to winter at Pole.
The hiring process for winter is notoriously complex and riddled with little troubles and gotchas. I was on ice because I had both been hired for a job and then been physically qualified to work here by a panel of NSF-sanctioned tests. This whole thing is called the PQ process. There are several distinct PQs from which to choose. They vary in scrutiny depending on which station you choose to work at and at what time of year. For all of these criteria, Pole is the most intense because of its remote location, harsh climate, and general inaccessibility. To come down for the summer, I had to have a large number of blood tests done, a dental exam, a physical, and an EKG. There are more things I didn’t have to do because of my age. When I signed my winter contract, I received another (rather hefty) packet for a second PQ for winter. In addition to what I had already done, I had to have more blood work down, a different and more thorough dental exam, chest x-rays, and a gall bladder ultrasound. And that’s just the physical portion. The tricky part is the psychological evaluation. In the summer, some people learn that they really can’t handle the environment here. That’s not an issue, because they can get on the next plane out and go home. In winter, that doesn’t work so well. There are no flights between mid-February and early November, so if something goes wrong, you’re stuck. It’s important to note that there have been cases in the past of people getting do badly injured or falling so ill that the NSF commissioned medevac flights, but these flights are extremely dangerous multi-million dollar affairs and don’t happen often at all. So to prevent people from going crazy from living in a very small group in darkness for nine months, you have to take a test. Really, the psych evaluation consists of two written tests and an interview with a psychologist. The written tests are about 600mmultiple-choice questions, and the interview is about ten minutes long, if that. It really doesn’t seem alike enough to get to known a person and make a judgment on what they should or should not be allowed to do with their life, especially considering that the tests (MMPI and 16PF) area only really of any use for generating a hypothesis about career placement or any psychotic disorders. A psychologist I spoke with told me that’s on the MPI, a real estate agent scores almost identically to a dangerous sociopath. But anyhow, that’s how it works and we all deal with it because we want to winter badly enough to jump through all the hoops. And at the end of it all, you don’t get a result or any information. You receive an email telling you that you are either “restricted” or “unrestricted.” I was lucky enough to pass both my physical and my psychological tests. Many others were not so lucky.
Three weeks before station close, I found out that three of those unlucky fellows were the three candidates for the winter machinist position. It was too late to start the PQ process for anyone new, and since I was already on location and ready to go for winter, I was asked if I was still interested in the job. Since that’s about as close to a dream job as I can think about, I believe my response via email was a very enthusiastic “hell yes!” Over the next week, I struggled with losing sleep staying up to catch the satellite so I could fill out all the online forms at night, while being torn apart during the day by the science support portion of the station trying to get me into that job while the logistics group berated me for leaving them without enough time to find a replacement. It was not a fun week. And then I found out something really fun. Logistics was trying to qualify an alternate for my position so if I ended up working as the machinist’s they would be able to fill my spot. But what that meant was if this dragged on any longer and I didn’t get the job, the alternate would get my spot anyway and I would be out a job and out a cold, winter dream. So it was both fortunate and unfortunate for me that Saturday when I got an email informing me that the current machinist candidate had physically qualified after all. I didn’t have my dream job, but I still got to winter in materials. The almosts hurt, but it was much-needed relief for me to know what I was doing.
And with that over, things settled into a nice groove. I’m finishing up my time in the VMF cleaning and receiving large quantities of cargo so the winter over mechanics have parts to do their projects. It feels like the whole station is getting antsy. A lot of the summer population is counting the days until they leave, and the winter overs are counting the days until they have the station to themselves. I don’t feel much of a rush to get the summer crew out, but I seem to be the exception in that regard.
One thing I really haven’t mentioned (ok, there are a lot of things, but you can blame the satellite for those) is the people I worked with. This is the summer 2014-2015 VMF and equipment operators crew I was a part of. We’re standing on top of Fargo, the trash shredder we built this season. From what I understand, it’s the world’s first shredder on skis.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few more days’ worth of crates to unpack.