Special Stowaways

Gene Levy

One of my favorite explorers is Ernest Shackleton.  He was a great fundraiser finding capital to fund his expedition to the South Pole in Antarctica during a time of war, he was a superb logistics guy, calculated explorer, but most of all, he was an extraordinary leader.  If you don’t know the story, read Shackleton’s Way or watch the movie called The Endurance.  You won’t be disappointed. 

This month’s Stowaway has an interesting link to Ernest Shackleton.  He is a man named Gene Levy.  Who is Gene Levy?  He is one of our family friends dating back to the 60’s.  He and my parents spent many good years “hanging out” and he has seen my siblings and me grow up to be adults.  Gene is now 80 and seen his share of life.  For many years, he was a meteorologist and to my recent surprise I found out he was stationed at Hallett Station in Antarctica in the winter of 1963 and the summer of 1964-65.  Needless to say I was fascinated and had to know more.

Now, you might say “big deal” it’s cold and dark in the winter, it’s cold and light in the summer.  In talking with Gene, I have found out…

Penguins…I didn’t know there are 17 species of penguins but only six are found in Antarctica.  Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo, Rockhopper and a funny one called a Macaroni…yes like the pasta.  They actually get their name by the ornate yellow plumage above each eye. They were named after flamboyant dressers in the 18th century who were called “Macaroni Dandies”–just like in the song “Yankee Doodle.”  I didn’t know that’s where that term came from.

 Summer in Antarctica would be a balmy 40 degrees on a good day.  And daylight, how about 24 hours of it?  There would be a total of 30 people during summer and they enjoyed all the delights that a Navy chef could provide including gourmet pastries, swordfish and steak.   

 Winter on the other hand would bring temps of -40 and colder further inland.  The chef and others would leave thus leaving only 18 to stay cozy.  They would take turns fixing meals and fresh foods were scarce…it gave new meaning to “freeze dried” foods.   In Winter though, the skies would open up to the Aurora Australis (in the North Pole it’s the Aurora Borealis).  And, when the full moon was out, it would reflect off the snow and light up the tundra.  There was no mail delivery for six months in winter.   A funny story was hearing about the doctor and how bored he got because nobody got sick…guess germs don’t like the cold.  The doctor’s assistant “Sly” was also known as “180” since he would get in to the 180 alcohol (to be used in case of surgery because they had no anesthesia) or 90 proof and mix it with a little Tang from time to time.  Yes, Tang…drink of the astronauts. 

 Thinking about all the technology we have today that would make a trip to Antarctica fun and exciting made me think about what they didn’t have 50 years ago.  No Netflix, but they did watch reel-to-reel movies, no texting, no Skype, no e-mail, but they did have teletype machines and Ham radios.   In the winter, the team would radio up friends in California and have people there send postcards to friends and family telling them they were ok.   Working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week left little time to be bored.

 In learning that Gene lived and worked in Antarctica, I also found out that he has a peak named for him…Levi Peak.  A perhaps non-descript peak in the middle of nowhere, but how cool is that?   It is two nautical miles from Mount Stanley on the Grindley Plateau.  The Grindley Plateau is on the Queen Alexandra Range which was named by Ernest Shackleton for Queen Alexandra of England. 

The South Pole is approximately 8,190 miles from Orlando.  I say that it’s still “a small world after all.”  Take time to learn more about people…when you least expect it, they may surprise you with an interesting story. 

(In addition to The Endurance, other suggested movies about Antarctica include:  March of the Penguins and Encounters at the Edge of the World)