Fifty years ago this Saturday, I was somewhere off the west coast of Greenland learning that authority backed up by ignorance is like a watchdog who doesn’t know “sit.”
They both keep snarling at you because they don’t know what else to do.
That would be on board the Coast Guard Cutter Southwind, a 269-foot ice-breaking beast that groaned its way through pack ice to get to places no one wanted to go.
We were engaged in oceanographic research, which involved low-level rope-chokers like me being out on deck freezing while hoisting and lowering a thousand-pound underwater camera through the ice so scientists in a warm cabin somewhere could examine photos of the seldom seen something wiggly.
I figure it cost several hundred thousand dollars to haul these oceanographers up past the Arctic Circle to search for proof that wiggly somethings existed on the bottom of Baffin Bay, although how anything wiggled in water that cold is beyond me, considering that nothing was wiggling anywhere else.
The only fish we saw was a sculpin, which sounded to me like the title of a semi-high official during the French monarchy of the 1700s, as in, “Hey! You three musketeers! Report to the Sculpin immediately.”
But regardless, whether you were scouring the bay bottom for signs of frolicking flatworms or the sculpin that apparently eat them, you were always burning daylight, as the arctic in July is the one place where you can’t say … “where the sun don’t shine.”
It more or less bobs around the horizon all 24 hours of the day until late August, when it rests for an hour before rising again.
To put it another way, if you were inclined to believe the earth really is flat, this would be a good place to begin looking for the edge.
On this particular day, July 20, 1969 at precisely 10:56:15 p.m., EDT, the sun was about 10 degrees above a horizon of white ice and blue sky, and everyone who was awake had seated themselves in the mess deck to listen to the lunar landing touchdown on the shortwave Armed Forces Radio Network.
Just as the critical moment arrived, in through the door came First Class Petty Officer Bill Doofus (not his real name), who also happened to be a first-class something else.
“What are you men doing?” he demanded. “You,” he yelled in our direction, “Get back out on deck! This is a 24-hour operation. And anyone else who hasn’t got the duty, clear out!”
“But we’re listening to the moon landing,” someone said. “It’s historical, it’s an incredible achievement, it’s …”
Petty Officer Doofus summoned his vast understanding of this great human enterprise, this quest for knowledge and the unquenchable spirit of adventure that propelled us to this triumph.
“Moon? Yeah, right. Now clear out.”
Somewhere in the back, you could hear a voice mutter, “… where the sun don’t shine.”
Then as now, I swear it didn’t come from me.