comments_image Comments

Before the World Forgets Antarctica's First Great Author: The Fascinating Life and Death of Nick Johnson

The author of "Big Dead Place" cut his own life short, but left behind a gripping personal story.

Continued from previous page


With a single stroke of her pen, the psychologist could have me removed from Antarctica. The blue-collar worker therefore wished to make the white-collar subject comfortable in her new environment by introducing her to unique environmental and social phenomena that she may not have previously considered when temporarily adjusting to a new locale. His experiment consisted of relating geo-specific anecdotes, to facilitate her feeling of acceptance and thereby allowing her response to unfamiliar stimulus to be one of pleasure and nurturing rather than one of hostility and distance…. She would be full of glowing ideas about rough isolation and scientific progress and stark romantic beauty, so I did not tell her that Larryville, otherwise known as the pipe yard, is so named to honor a Navy guy who once managed to fly down a couple of prostitutes…. I told her about penguins and weather. “Isn’t that something!” she shrieked. “Isn’t it!” I screamed.

Big Dead Place is a good primer on the communications strategies of defense contractors. Raytheon warnings of disciplinary action are addressed to “employees,” while exhortations to chip in are addressed to “the community.” Johnson was tickled black when those who handled trash for an hourly wage were encouraged to think of themselves as part of the private but bloated-with-government-money Raytheon “family.” A holiday message from the CEO thanks its Antarctic employees for their contribution to company successes like the AIM-9X tactical missile and advanced technology for missile defense. Back in Washington, Johnson received a health newsletter distributed to Raytheon employees. Titled Taking Care, it included articles such as “Kindness Is Its Own Reward” that suggests Raytheon employees “Tape coins to a pay phone with a note saying that anyone who needs it can use the money… These random acts may lead to a new way of living — one that is positive and full of compassion!” Another article distributed by the missile maker recommends dealing with anger by engaging in “slow yoga-like exercises to relax muscles and ease tension.”

Johnson wasn’t the yoga type. He wrote with distance and deadpan, but he never tamed his spleen. His writing buzzed with an undercurrent of disdain. “Since the culture at the U.S. stations has been imported from the United States, the small polar society is by default structured so that any scheming pecksniff will feel comfortable making a lunge for the reins,” he wrote.  

And since the average American community regards “freedom” as any state of affairs other than being trapped in a tomb without food, the obedient and the unscrupulous find a welcoming place to play drug dog. Privilege [is] dispensed by bureaucracy like food pellets at the end of a maze. Any departure from the nickel-and-dime bureaucracy is met with howls of official protest. Without these comforts exported to Antarctica from the homeworld, we would no doubt be crippled by the culture shock, but after a season or two, whether on Mars or on the brightest moon in the belt of Orion, we will set up shop with the same bag of tricks. Why not go back to the homeland, then, where at least there are fresh California oranges and New York steaks?

The answer, in Johnson’s case, was the attachment he developed to Antarctica’s history and its bizarre version of American civilization in a bottle. According to his friend and fellow Antarctica writer Jason Antony, he felt at home in desolate whitescape: “ Big Dead Place is first and foremost an expression of love. He loved the place and its history so much that he wanted to make it better. And he did.”

See more stories tagged with: