Sunday, December 24, 2000

Warm bodies, warm hearts: A day with McMurdo's GAs

Published in the Antarctic Sun

It’s early morning. Most folks are struggling to get to work with coffee in hand. But several brighteyed, low-paid men and women are bouncing off the walls in the GA shack next to the carpenters’ shop at McMurdo.

Led by former general assistant Sally Lyon, this season’s operations GAs are ready to work. Lyon doles out the day’s tasks.

"Heather, you’ll go to waste. Lynn, you’ll go to the galley, but it’s just for the morning," Lyon says. She also sends two GAs in a Spryte to replenish the Penguin Ranch fuel supply. The remaining two head out to Williams Field to re-flag a route on the ice shelf.

These operations GAs are not the only ones in town. But the work of several other GA's assigned is with designated departments in town, such as facilities maintenance and fuels department, is bit more specialized.

The nine operation GAs are the ones out shoveling snow, moving boxes, entering data and generally helping out all around McMurdo Station.

It doesn’t take a lot of training to be a GA, though they do go to happy camper and sea ice schools early in the season. But it does take a certain type of person.

Lyon picks her crew carefully from a pool of applicants that by far outnumbers the number of positions available. They're all seeking a job with adventure. "The variety is what attracts most people," Lyon said.

Most of the people she picks, Lyon said, are flexible and have a sense of humor as well as
a broad range of life experiences. This year’s GAs include a former Peace Corps volunteer,
a former tour director with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and a person
who worked with delinquent youth.

But there is one characteristic that pervades all else in the application process, Lyon said: "Somehow they’ve made it clear that they will do anything to get here."

This means Lyons doesn't have to sell the job; she even tries to discourage applicants. She starts an interview by telling them about the worst parts of the job. If they still sound positive, she tells them the good parts.

As the season progresses, work varies a bit, but not always enough. Sometimes GAs end up doing the same thing for several days. Though from the beginning they were told that this would almost certainly happen, it is still sometimes difficult.

When the job does change every day, on the other hand, there’s different challenge. "You don’t see the big picture," said GA Lynn Keating. A day-long task for a GA may be part of a month’s worth of effort for everyone else; having a sense of closure about a project is rare.

Lyons tries to mix up the tasks among the group a bit, to keep them interested in what’s going on, and to keep them learning about how the station operates. "My goal is that they’re as excited to work on January 20 as October 20," Lyon said.

She reminds them to be aware of where they are and how amazing it is. "When you’re shoveling, don’t forget to look up," Lyon said.

In addition to becoming well-rounded in operations, being a GA is a good way to make a good impression on people who will be hiring for next season. "It’s a great springboard," Lyon said.

All of last year’s McMurdo GAs came back for another season, whether for winter at Palmer or in town this season. Many more ex-GAs work all over town and throughout the Antarctic program.

"Everywhere you go, there’s former GAs," said GA Heather Reider.

From those former GAs and the quality of work of each year’s crew, the word is spreading
that GA labor is valuable, Lyon said. "People are starting to recognize that there’s an incredible amount of talent in this group," Lyon said.

Lyon’s combination of practicality and motivation works out well for her and for the GAs. Most of them are active most days, and they are able to work without much supervision. "They exceed my expectations," Lyon said.

And even outside of work the GAs stick together as a team. "A roomful of strangers become the best of friends in four months," Lyon said. In the morning, they trade jokes and stories,
as well as tips and thoughts about previous work or that day’s upcoming projects. At lunch, they rally around each other, asking, "How’s your day going?" and exchanging reports of how life and work are in different departments.

The bottom line for most of the GAs is that they’re here on the Ice and experiencing a range of ways to work and live. "If you’re going to work your butt off for not very much money, why not do it here?" Lyon said.