December 13, 2012

Passings: A man who understood the Antarctic

Hoosh - Nicholas Johnson, author of Big Dead Place and a close friend, took his life on November 28, 2012. Nick’s death is a heartbreaking loss to his family, to his friends, and to so many of us that knew him as an essential part of the Antarctic community. He had a voice and a spirit unlike any I’ve known, equally cynical and generous, funny and soulful. I loved him and I miss him.

No one has done more to change the way we understand Antarctica. Nick was unflinching in his critique of bureaucracy and authority in the United States Antarctic Program, but mainly he sought to create a dialogue within and about Antarctica that cut through cliche and hypocrisy in order to describe things as they really are, in all their glory and strangeness....

If you’re reading this without knowing Nick’s work, go and read Big Dead Place and explore If you don’t know American Antarctica, it will be strange going at first. It might help to be familiar with Hunter S. Thompson’s writings on American culture and politics, but Nicholas Johnson was a better writer, I think. And if you really want to understand, go wash dishes in McMurdo or operate heavy equipment at the Pole and fall in love with the place, the people, and the absurdity of life in a big dead place. At some point, you’ll think the same thing I will for the rest of my life: Hey, I really wish I could talk to Nick right now.

Feral House - A close friend and Feral House author, Nick Johnson, also known as Darin and Nicholas, blew his head off with a shotgun in the afternoon of Wednesday November 28 in West Seattle.

...Admittedly, I was concerned for Nick’s physical and mental health when he started working for a contractor in Kabul, Afghanistan a few years ago. The experiences sounded both sad and horrendous, and it seemed to rot his soul. Unlike his Antarctica experience, Nick had trouble turning his Afghanistan years into words, and he began drinking quite a bit and taking seriously the nihilist essays of Thomas Ligotti. This past year Nick got off the juice.

... Nick got “clean” and did quite well this past year keeping off the juice. But what might put him over was the fact that he was accepted to go down to Antarctica but at the last minute was rejected. I reproduce the rejection letter to him below.
Dear Mr. Johnson:

Please be advised that PAE Inc. hereby rescinds its August 1, 2012 primary offer letter and September 28, 2012 alternate offer letter to you.  It has recently come to our attention that, writing as Nicholas Johnson, you are the author of Big Dead Place.  It is our opinion that due to the nature and content of this book, you would not be a suitable candidate for employment under the Antarctic Support Contract.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.  PAE regrets any inconvenience this decision has caused, but believes that the decision is in both parties’ best interest.

Stacy Maddox
Vice President, Stability Operations
A Guidebook for Distinguished Congressional Visitors

This guide is intended to assist you during your stay in Antarctica. It briefly covers Antarctic culture to provide an overview that may help you through your exciting visit. You are going to be treated like a king. Maybe this is because of your engaging personality and your energizing conversation. Or maybe it is because you just recently passed a bill that doubles the NSF budget over the next five years. Whatever the case, enjoy it! Live a little! . . .

Many of the early explorers who came to Antarctica were underfunded buffoons who did not first consult Appropriations Subcommittees before facing the unique and exciting challenges that Antarctica offered for the future. As a result, they lacked innovative leadership, and died miserably of starvation while freezing to death.

This unique frozen heritage is visible just across the bay from McMurdo Station at historic Discovery Hut, built by Robert Scott in 1902. In that noble wooden hut, several men once spent four months, clothes awash with gore from their endless seal slaughtering, their faces black from the soot of their barely flickering blubber stoves, their faces and fingers blistered and pocked from slogging a thousand miles with a ripped tent and a salvaged stove, their spongy gums still bleeding from the scurvy incurred on their futile sledding journey to lay depots of food for Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic expedition that would never arrive because Shackleton's boat was crushed in the ice, he and his men fleeing the continent for their lives. In other words, their proud success for the future of progress encouraged the hopeful challenges of tomorrow.

In all likelihood, you are being served special food. The galley has worked overtime to prepare the fresh food that has been flown for you from New Zealand. One year some senators came down so that NSF could beg them for $125 million for a new South Pole Station. Those powerful senators were served a banquet by galley DA's (Dining Attendants) whose job descriptions do not include waiting hand and foot on elected representatives of democracy, but they didn't complain. They smiled, and hoped not to get fired. They make so little money that the rest of the station points at them and laughs in terrible mockery. Deep, long, belly-laughs that sometimes span minutes. Some of us feel sorry for the galley staff and their terribly low wages, but none of us feel sorry enough to stand up for them, not even their managers. . .

In fact, the main purpose of the United States Antarctic Program, as stated by an external panel report published by NSF, is to establish a physical and political presence. This presence is kind of like hopping out of the car to stand in a parking space so no one nabs it while your friend drives around the block. . . In Antarctica, science is a parking permit, and those who want to stand in the parking spaces must first be able to afford the permit to stand there. . .

Big Dead Place
Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica
Nicholas Johnson

Is it the pristine but harsh frontier where noble scientific missions are accomplished? Or an insane corporate bureaucracy where hundreds of workers are cooped together in hi-tech communes with all the soul of a suburban office park?

Welcome to Big Dead Place, a grunt's eye view of America's Antarctic Program that shatters the well-worn clichés of polar literature. Here the heroic camaraderie and romantic desolation give way to sterile buildings populated by characters like a crazed manager who fills his boots with antifreeze, the greasepaint obsessed worker Boozy the Clown, ghosts that haunt the food freezer, and horny employees who grab rare private moments coupling on the altar in the Chapel of the Snows.

The foreword is by Eirik Sønneland, who claims the longest unsupported ski trek in the continent's history. Also included is a glossary of Antarctic slang and bureaucratese, and 16 pages of color photographs.

Author Nicholas Johnson has worked as a fish-cannery cleaner in the Aleutian Islands, an office manager at a software company, a salesclerk at Banana Republic, a taxi driver in Seattle, an English teacher in South Korea, and as a valet at International House of Pancakes. He has spent five summers and two winters in Antarctica.

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