Top of the World
My Labor Day at the North Pole
A faulty engine turned a routine flight into an unexpected Labor Day trip to the North Pole.
Is north of the North Pole south?
To the ancient Romans, it was Ultima Thule, and to me it seemed about as Ultima as a place can get. Luddite travel snobs often complain that in these days of lightening swift transportation, travel no longer holds the surprises and adventures that it did back…When? In the days of chariots? Stage coaches? Frigates? Early railroads and crank-up autos?
But on Labor Day weekend 1960, air travel held a big enough surprise for me: Flying from Copenhagen to Tokyo, I spent two-and-a-half unexpected days ten miles north of the magnetic North Pole. It marked the start of a four-month tour mostly through Asia and the Middle East to gather material for my book, City Portraits: A guide to 60 of the World’s Great Cities. Because I was doing this in cooperation with Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), I departed Copenhagen to fly the Polar Route to Tokyo, a 26-hour flight pioneered by SAS in 1954 and by 1960 serviced by the commodious 4-engine DC-7C.
I had a first-class ticket that included a sleeping berth but being the only one in first to have a berth, I was shy about undressing and crawling behind the curtain. So I stayed up as usual dozing in the very comfortable reclining seat. It proved to be a lucky choice all around. Looking out the window at about 5 in the morning, I saw one engine sputter out, wondering what that might mean. Soon came an announcement from the captain that two engines were out and that we would make a landing in Thule, Greenland, at a U.S. Airforce base that was the site of the gigantic BMEWS (Ballistic Missiles Early Warning System) radar screens.
Happy that I would not land in a nightgown, I had a silent laugh at one very large, very blonde mid-Westerner farmer-turned-student. He was wearing a complete, very tight lederhosen outfit that he had purchased in Bavaria and wore on the flight to amuse his friends who would meet him back at home. That it amused a good number of servicemen was perhaps not what he expected.
Because we were due to land in Anchorage to pick up more travelers, this plane was not full and, as I recall, had only about thirty or forty passengers.
I still remember a spectacular cathedral of light that flashed through the window as the plane dipped for a landing, catching a flash of light from the tip of an iceberg that seemed to dive deep and reflect in the water below. It was an auspicious entry for what would be a rather other-worldly experience.
Japan can be very hot and humid in September, so all of the passengers were in summer clothes and this being early, chilly fall in Thule, we were all issued parkas as we left the plane. Rarely have I experienced a more hospitable greeting upon deplaning as visitors from the outer world were most welcome diversions for the men and women stationed in the remote outpost.
It would be necessary to get a new aircraft we were told, and because of the busy holiday weekend extra equipment was scarce. We would be there for a while and so luggage came off the plane and we were assigned to comfortably outfitted private rooms in a super-sized Quonset hut meant for visiting V.I.P’s such as politicians and entertainers.
Once settled, groups were taken on tours to see the terrain and to be shown the Officers’ Club where we would be served meals. And what a weird looking world it was, bathed in an unchanging 24-hour twilight that suggested New York on late afternoons, mid-November. The ground looked like brown-gray compacted mud but was really what is called permafrost (permanently frozen) and it was explained that if anything had to be anchored into the earth, there would first be drilling then dynamite to blast open a hole.
We were shown into the spookily bright, strangely translucent office space that was carved out from under a polar cap, and, outdoors, remnants of last year’s small igloos, that would be rebuilt with the first round of snow and ice. I caught a glimpse of what looked like a small round moving snow ball and learned that it was a snow rabbit, and as we approached a wiry pale gray arctic fox fled, leaving a half-eaten Hershey Bar behind. Still there the following day, we visited a few of the ten or so Danish families working and living in Thule on behalf of the Danish government that then owned Greenland. One family I visited invited my group to stay for an afternoon of open sandwiches and beer.
That the Officers’ Club served about as juicy and plump a hamburger as one can imagine proved a bonus as did the very charming, gracious officers who escorted us around. Always they obeyed the local law stating that one man and one woman could never be together without the presence of a third person. After a long conversation about Italian pasta with a food-loving helicopter pilot-captain whose name I only knew as Britt, I had this offer: If I were there the next day, and could prepare linguine ala marinara from ingredients in the commissary, he would take me up in the helicopter and fly me over the polar caps.
What could I say, but, yes, and then, alas, we were rescued by some busybody plane from Stockholm.
Knowing that I had wanted to bring a souvenir back for my young son but could not buy one because the PX was closed for the holiday, Capt. Britt met me at the departing plane and handed me a slim, curved letter opener with THULE carved into the handle of what had been a walrus tusk. (Quiet, PETA. It was a long time ago.) It still rests on my office bookshelf as the only tangible evidence of my stay in another world.