Brian Birkenstein



There were lots of opportunities to partake in sports down there. On top of fitness rooms and taking hikes on your own there were many one-off activities or ongoing team sports organized. Some of them I knew about better than others. Sometimes I was semi involved or knew people that were and sometimes I just saw the winners list posted on the recreation board. Two onetime events that I didn’t know much about were the golf match (farthest drive) and the cyclo-cross race. I think I was coming back from Happy Camper when the cyclo-cross race was happening and the golf I ignored, because, well, it’s golf. However there were also those that I knew a little more about.

Bowling (and other) Leagues -it’s a sport, they show it on ESPN.

Back in the early days of McMurdo station they didn’t have women but they had bowling. I suppose when the lanes were first put in they actually were not warped and you could actually bowl a proper game. These days however, the lanes are quite old and not what you would call ideal. The lane on the right always steals strikes from your well thrown ball and the lane on the left usually gives strikes to the undeserving. Or was it the other way around? I can’t really remember which lane was which but they were messed up. I suppose you can’t expect much from an alley that still has manual pin set up, a duty which fell upon volunteers that worked for tips.

It was still fun to have a few rolls though. I usually showed up in my best Lebowski/Dude outfit. I have now mentioned him and the movie more than once and may do it again. If you want to understand the references, stop reading and go watch one of the best films of all time. Then, do yourself a favor, and attend a Lebowski Fest for bowling, costumes, White Russians, trivia and what have you.   I also usually came with a handful of beers but was sometimes industrious enough to make myself a White Russian or two, the beloved beverage of the Dude.

I did join a league that was set up by the Recreation Department. In the beginning I was the team captain but only because I put my name first on the signup sheet. That role tended to rotate between Jesse, Travis and myself. My teammates were Janitors Jesse, Jenny and Travis. I had a few rotating teammates depending on other commitments of the main four. I think I missed one night because I was sick. We were one of the worst teams in the league but we just did it for a little fun. We actually even won a few but our only wins were when the other team didn’t show.   If we ever rolled against anyone, we didn’t even come close. It was something to do one night every other week for a little fun, not to be competitive. Well at least that’s the stance you take when you always lose.

Aside from bowling there were actually many other leagues set up. In fact I think there was something going on just about every week night. I thought about signing up for a few but didn’t have the energy. As far as I can remember, there was darts, soccer (indoor) and I think basketball and volleyball. There may have been more. It’s hard to believe I didn’t even have the energy for darts but I worked long hours and was busy enough.

Ob Hill Up hill

I certainly did not take part in this one. I don’t really enjoy running races, especially when they are ALL up hill. Observation Hill was one of the main landmarks of the station, a prominent hill, overlooking our base. Normally it took about 45 minutes or so to walk to the top, but the Ob Hill UP Hill was a race. I think people could do it in less than ten minutes. Even if I was running I think it would have taken me 45 minutes because of all the pauses I would have had to take for air.

Lead Janitor Peter told me that one year he vowed to go up Ob Hill every day for the season to get some exercise. I think he made it into the 80’s before a twisted ankle kept him from going up again. I don’t think he ever did the race though. Janitor Jared wanted to take part in the uphill race.   He told me he was sure he could win. He had heard the winning time from the year before, and was 100 percent positive he could beat that. He had in fact already beaten it on several trial attempts. After the race, I went to congratulate him but he did not win. Apparently on his trials he had started from the wrong place, misunderstanding what the race’s course was. Who won I’m not sure, but I have a guess. It was most likely Ian, as he won all such things. He was young and fit and you’ll see his name again.

Polar Plunge

There was a lot of talk about jumping into the seawater that was below freezing, also known as the Polar Plunge, and I wanted in. There was also talk that it may or may not be allowed. There are some dangers involved in doing the plunge. Americans don’t like to allow anyone to do anything remotely dangerous anymore, lest someone sue someone. So it was a big question most of the season as to whether it would go off or not. At one point I got wind of three of my friends doing an unsanctioned plunge and I was jealous. I was partly jealous because the two guys got to see the girl with her shirt off. It was something I figured was quite a sight by the look of her, but one I got to see anyway when she flashed me one night in the bar.   But the main reason I was bummed that I missed it was because I wanted to do the plunge and there might never be an official one.


Off-base excursions were prized possessions and we all tried to get them. But there was the official way to get them, which was to sign up through the Recreation Department, space permitting. Or there was the unofficial way, which was talking friends that had off base access (usually scientists) into taking you along. We as janitors were told not to encourage or accept these offers of unsanctioned trips off base. As I told you it created some controversy. We didn’t all listen to the rules and I found out about another friend who got a cool excursion off base that included a chance to polar plunge. I was so jealous, as the time to go home was nearing and I had not yet jumped in sub-freezing water. Crazy that I was jealous, I know, but you only live once and I knew the plunge would make a good story. I regularly teased my friend that she had not done a “real” polar plunge because she was wearing clothes when she did it, and that a real one should be naked. I think I just teased because I was jealous and I wanted my turn. Finally it came.

One day we got called to line handle, my voluntary service to catch the lines for the incoming ships, which I will go into later. It was not an ideal day to do so because it was a Sunday, our day off. For some reason though, after we got down to the dock, there was to be a delay and we weren’t needed until a few hours later in the afternoon. That’s when I got the word that they were doing the polar plunge over at Scott Base. Being Sunday, the shuttle service was sporadic to non-existent and I didn’t have much time to spare. I was supposed to be back on the dock in a few hours for my line handling duties but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. So I set out on foot to cover the three kilometers to Scott Base. I didn’t even make it a few hundred meters out of the base before a truck came by and I hitched a ride to the plunge.

It was all set up when I got there. They had a large hole in the ice with a ladder sticking out. There was a   metal platform about 10 feet long, leading to the ladder. There were two Kiwi helpers waiting to assist the plungers.

There was also a hut set up for changing purposes and it was packed. I showed up around the same time that a bus load of NAV CHAPS had arrived, all “eager” to jump into the sub-freezing water as well. The base was full of NAV CHAPS (Navy Cargo Handling Personnel) this time of year, because they were there to help with the annual ship unloading. They weren’t going to miss their chance to brag to their friends what a stupid and brave thing they had done so they were all keen to do the plunge.


So in the hut packed full of young male and female NAV CHAPS, I proceeded to strip. The others around me were busy as well either getting dressed or getting undressed. There were cold, naked pink bits of skin sticking out here and there. We all had blankets to cover up with once we had taken our clothes off. We also were required to wear shoes. I almost had to plunge in my boots because I didn’t even think to bring other footwear. Luckily a guy I knew named Jim was there, he had just done it. He loaned me his way too small Teva’s and I waited in the hut until it was almost my turn.

Then I made my way out to the platform (in 10 F weather) wearing nothing but a blanket and tiny Teva’s.  I gave my camera to Jim so that he could document the event and the walked the plank. When I got to the end, I opened my blanket to the Kiwi helper so that he could help put on my harness. I knew there was no reason to linger so I dropped the blanket and plunged. Yes, it was cold!

Oddly though, when looking back, I don’t recall the cold really. Mostly what I remember thinking was “where the hell is the ladder?” I think I was actually in the water for all of about 5 seconds but that was enough. I wasn’t planning to do any laps and now I had my bragging rights. So I quickly climbed up the ladder, naked and cold, and they threw the blanket over me.

On my walk up to the hut, Jim informed me he hadn’t gotten a photo of it. He had me walking the plank but then my camera malfunctioned. I was bummed but there was no way in hell I was jumping back in that water. I had done it; that was good enough. I didn’t need photo evidence. Life still happens even if there is not a photo of it, which may be hard for some people to grasp these days.


A few days later I bumped into one of the NAV CHAPS in the hall. He recognized me from that day and told me he had a video of the whole thing. He had recorded the whole group of them doing it and I was about in the middle. So I did get my hands on a copy of it and now I do have that photographic evidence. The funny thing is I was one of the few guys to do it naked. I didn’t realize it that day but after watching the video I realized only one other guy plunged in the buff. That didn’t include the NAV CHAP girls though, they were more daring. There were about five of them, and I think all went naked but one. She for some reason did it wearing a Roman Legionnaires outfit. I don’t know what the guys were worried about. They could always claim: “it’s not me, it’s the cold. It’s the shrinkage!!!”



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Daily life in Antarctica can be a bit dreary, if you let it. One week, The Antarctic Sun (the weekly paper) had a little side section that asked three people what they would be doing if they weren’t on the Ice. The options in the outer world are much greater as indicated by the three responses.

The hair stylist from McMurdo said “I would be studying massage on Maui, while hopefully living in a yurt that is as energy efficient as possible. However I currently am very satisfied with life here at McMurdo.”   Not a surprise that she was happy, because that is the same hair stylist that I mentioned who may be the best paid (with tips) person on the base.

Phil from Palmer said “Brewing, skiing and curling” He must miss the winters while here in Antarctica.

Will from the South Pole said “I would be helping to open a Mexican restaurant in Perth, Australia.” Apparently Will likes isolation. After leaving the remote South Pole he will go to Perth, the most isolated major city on the planet.   Maybe he should go to Tristan da Cunha next. When flipping through the Lonely Planet Antarctica (2005, 3rd Edition; Author: Jeff Rubin) I came across this sentence: “People are much more isolated in Antarctica than they are almost anywhere else on earth, save perhaps those people living on the remote mid ocean Islands, such as Tristan da Cunha.” Having an insatiable love of the globe, maps and geography, I couldn’t let that one go without looking it up. Apparently the Island group is a dependency of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena and has less than 300 inhabitants. It is in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, more than 1500 miles from South Africa and more than 2000 from South America. It is remote to say the least, maybe Will should go there next… I’ll bet they do not have a Mexican restaurant there.


So those are some of the activities people were looking forward to taking part in when leaving the Ice. On the flip side of that though, I heard a lot of people say they never had enough free time down here. At first glance, people would think that there would be nothing to do and we would be sitting around twiddling our thumbs. But someone must have realized that because the activities department does a great job at keeping idol hands busy, especially the thumbs. After all, they are the devil’s playground. Idle hands that is, not the Recreation Department. We also had to create some of our own fun down there and people were quite creative. Some of the things we got up to would seem very odd in the real world but we kept ourselves entertained and that’s what’s important. I have often been asked by outsiders what we did down there besides work, how we filled the free time. Even after my whole season on base, there were many buildings I had not seen, or whose function I did not know. But I tried to explore as much as possible. Very early on in the summer, this was my assessment of what comprised the base.

My journal tells the tale.

On base, we have a two-lane, manual set up bowling alley. We have a coffee house (which is my task to clean in the afternoons)) a smoking bar and a non-smoking bar.  A mini movie theatre, in the coffee house and a church.  A gym, two weight rooms and a library.  A dining hall, a greenhouse (with a few hammocks) and a helicopter pad.  Several science buildings, since that’s why we are down here, after all.  One of them has a stuffed penguin.  I may have to go take a picture, if that turns out to be the only one I see. There are many other random (to me) buildings, but I have yet to explore the whole base.


Interestingly, the church had Catholic, Protestant and Mormon services but nothing else. Fortunately, despite having a Jewish background, I am not religious and was not in need of a Rabbi.  I did find it interesting to hear that during its lifetime the church had burned down on more than one occasion.  I guess if you are searching for which religion is the true faith, you might take this as a sign to rule out the three religions practiced there.  Or maybe it is one of them but that God doesn’t care to share the church with the other two.  Or maybe the fire crew was just too hung over to get there in time.  Hard to say really; we’ll just have to wonder.

We all would have liked more free time down there. With so many hours a week filled with work, another bunch used for sleeping, a handful spent on eating, showering and misc. activities, it doesn’t leave much.  What is left is filled with activities and social life.  For that amount of time leftover, there was certainly more than enough, or even too much to do.

There are a lot of diversions down here to keep you busy. In fact most people are heard to complain that they are too busy.  I mean we work 60 hours a week and then try to have a social life down here.  Between dorm style living (which leads to a lot of impromptu stuff) trying to see and do as much of Antarctica as possible and partaking in the activities that the Recreation Department has planned, it’s hard to keep up.  Speaking of what Rec has planned, I became a contestant in the beard-growing contest.  I entered the beard-growing contest because essentially what you have to do to participate is nothing.  I excel at that. I figure that if I may get a prize for doing nothing, why not be involved?  In fact there are only 9 contestants and there are supposedly 5 categories (including best overall, thickest, heaviest (weighed to the gram), worst and something else, so my odds are pretty good.  As I write this in fact, I am doing my darndest to grow the beard; I only have six weeks left.  I also need to start studying for the Geography Bee that Rec is putting on.


This is one week’s listing from the Little Mac section of the Antarctic Sun, which told us what was on.

Sunday Dec 10

LDS Service, chapel

Catholic Mass, chapel

Protestant Service, chapel

Coffee House Cinema- A History of Violence

Crary Lab Tour

Community Christmas Choir, chapel

Arts and Crafts Fair, dining hall

Swing Dance Class, Gallagher’s

Coffee House Cinema- Capote

Burger Bar, Gallagher’s

Coffee House Cinema- Dancer in the Dark

Science Lecture- dining hall

Monday Dec 11

Tap dance classes, Laundry room

Alcoholics Anonymous, chapel

Chess Corner, dining hall

Travelogue- Columbia with Isaac, Dining Hall

Tuesday Dec 12

Open yoga, 203B lounge

Morning Coffee, coffee house

Outdoor Safety Lecture, Crary Lab

Stitch and Bitch, 208 second floor lounge

Guts and Butts, laundry room

Wednesday Dec 13

Yoga, chapel

Burger Bar, Gallagher’s

Intermediate tap class, laundry room

Science lecture, Crary Lab

December Birthday Bingo, Gallagher’s

Thursday Dec 14

Morning Coffee, Coffee House

American Night, Scott Base

Guts and Butts, laundry room

Coffee House cinema- Richard Prior Live, coffee house

Karaoke, Gallagher’s

Live Music, Coffee House

Friday Dec 15

Yoga, chapel

Burger Bar, Gallagher’s

Saturday Dec 16

Outdoor Safety lecture, Crary Lab

Women’s Soiree pre event social, dining hall

Women’s Soiree, dining hall

Sounds like a lot to do, and it was for our limited free time. Within the limits that were forced upon them the Recreation Department did a good job filling our plate. But with a few exceptions, it was the same stuff week in and week out.   It was good for a while but people did start to get a little stir crazy by the end. We wanted new stimuli.


So the Recreation Department was responsible for a lot of what we had to do down there. However, a lot of our activities were self-created. Some of the things to do we created on our own are as follows:

Beer Pong

I think it was my first weekend down there that we had a beer pong tournament. After all, it was like college all over again in that we did live in dorms, so we might as well fill our time with silly drinking games. For those of you who don’t know beer pong, it involves trying to throw ping pong balls into the opposing teams beer cups, forcing them to drink the glass down in one long gulp. The team with any full beer glasses left at the end is the winner and moves on to the next round. When my mother was proofreading this part she had a lot of questions about beer pong. Maybe I didn’t explain it well or maybe my mother has never been to a Frat party, probably both.

Oddly, there were no girls involved in the game. It gave the night the feel of a frat party, early on before the sorority girls arrived. Sadly the Delta Delta Delta sisters never showed up. The event was organized by Janitor Travis, again.   Come to think of it, a lot of my drinking stories down on the Ice involve Travis. He was just out of college (University of North Carolina) and apparently well practiced at the art of social drinking. Most of the participants were from the fire department, they loved to drink, but there were others as well. There were probably about 25 people in total. We got put into teams by Travis, I was paired up with Night Janitor Nick. Nick was wearing a shirt that said “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian’” or something like that, so our team name became “The Lesbians.”   We didn’t do very well, losing in the first round, but we had fun just the same.

A couple of the firemen won and they got a certificate and everything. Well, by certificate I mean a piece of paper that I printed in the computer lab that said “First Annual McMurdo Beer Pong Champs.” I think they cherished the title while they were down there. The award ceremony is even immortalized on video and displayed on You Tube. I didn’t know it got put there and found it randomly one bored evening of surfing about a year later. Of course the two new champions knew just what to say when asked on camera what they were going to do now. They simply replied “we’re going to Disneyland.” In reality they weren’t going to Disneyland, they weren’t going anywhere for a while.

Writing Club

Not surprisingly, I like to write. My first week on the base I saw a sign up sheet for a writing club and I put my name down. I figured it would be a good way to meet some people and give myself some motivation to write. I think I made it to the first meeting and that’s all.

First of all, I joined it to meet people. But at the first meeting I think there were only five writers, including Josh the guy leading the club. Two of them I already knew and that sort of defeated the purpose. One of the two I already knew was Josh, as he was my next-door neighbor. Then there was Rob who I flew down with and I had sat next to on the bus from Raytheon Headquarters to Denver Airport. Then there was Jim and some lady from the

galley who I didn’t already know. Jim and I actually ended up saying hello a lot after that but I didn’t really connect with some lady. She was a night crew baker and seemed to forget who I was at a certain point. So much for the meeting of people.

Then there was the fact that Josh turned out to be more of a specialist in poetry, not prose. I have little interest in poetry and I wasn’t sure what I could learn from him. I am by no means an expert on the subject of writing (I got you to buy this book-but you’re probably related to me) but I wasn’t enthusiastic about Josh’s take on writing. I also didn’t really care for the pressure to write. I thought it would be good for me but I didn’t know that first week (when I signed up) how tired I would always be. I didn’t need the pressure of homework down there. If you recall, Josh left the Ice early, after only six weeks. His small class was obviously disbanded and I didn’t feel as bad to have left it.

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In the early years of man on the continent, an expedition took place that is now called “The Worst Journey in the World.”   In 1911, three members of the Scott party undertook a separate mission, in the name of Science.  While the rest of the party was hunkered down, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Bill Wilson and Henry “Birdie” Bowers traipsed all the way across Ross Island in search of Emperor Penguin eggs from the rookery at Cape Crozier, in the dead of winter.  It was dark almost the whole time, it got as low as -70 F and they had to manually hall all their gear.  They lost their tent (it was later recovered) to a huge storm and only miraculously survived the ordeal. The whole account was later penned by Cherry-Garrard who eventually made it back to England.  In the account, titled The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry-Garrard tells that one of the biggest problems was lack of sleep and that they would often fall asleep while marching and bump into each other.  Part of the problem for Cherry-Garrard was that he was severely near sighted, but could not wear anything to correct that because his goggles kept fogging up.   It was too cold and too harsh to fall asleep – what a nightmare.

I sometimes had trouble sleeping. Sometimes it was too hot in my room; the central heating was turned up too high and I couldn’t adjust it.  Sometimes my roommates were snoring too much or setting their alarms for too early.  Sometimes when I came in for my lunch hour to have a 59-minute nap my roommates were already there, watching TV while having their lunch.  Sleep was hard to come by even though I was often very, very tired.  Do you think Cherry-Garrard would have had sympathy for my plight?


The US Antarctic Program has two other main bases (apart from McMurdo) in Antarctica as well as various field camps and research vessels. There is the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, named in honor of the two expedition leaders of the “Race to the South Pole.”  One of the two (Scott) not only lost the race but died in the process.  Talk about a bad year.  Another base is located on the Antarctic Peninsula (the South America side of the continent) and is named Palmer Station after Nathaniel Palmer, an American seal hunter who was one of the first people to ever see Antarctica.

I don’t know much about those bases because I did not visit them. I know that at the South Pole they need to conserve water and are limited to only two-minute showers.  I know this because longer showers were a popular topic for Pollies (inhabitants of the South Pole base) returning from months at Scott Base.  I know that at the South Pole it is cold (duh), averaging between -18F in the summer and -76F in the winter.  Palmer, on the other hand, is much “warmer” with a temperature range of 36F in the summer and 14F in the winter.  I know that the other two bases are much smaller with Palmer having about 44/20 inhabitants (summer/winter) and the South Pole having about 225/80.  I also know that the South Pole station has a radio.  I assume any base in Antarctica has one but I know for a fact the South Pole does because I called them.  When I went to Happy Camper School one of the exercises was to figure out how to work the emergency radio.  As a test, we called the South Pole.  Lacking another question or reason to communicate with them, we asked them how the weather was.  Not surprisingly, it was cold.  Other than that, I know little about the other bases.


McMurdo, where I lived, is a downright metropolis in relative terms. Approximately 90 percent of USAP participants reside in or pass through the base.  Essentially it is Downtown Antarctica.  As a result, the bulk of the American facilities are located at McMurdo.  Again, I cannot really comment on the other bases but I think McMurdo has the widest array of activities.  The base has many distractions from the cold, bleak continent.  The continent itself is huge and should offer plenty to do and see.  But in reality your average worker gets to see so little of it and is mostly confined to base, hence the distractions.

Sometimes in order to break the monotony, to stop the insanity, you just had to laugh. Anything to take our minds away from the doldrums of cleaning was welcome. You had to do something silly or off-the-wall to make yourself not go crazy- stir crazy, I guess.  Every so often, at our daily 15-minute stretch break, Anna would unofficially lead us in the fake laughing exercise.  The theory being that if you start out fake laughing in a group it will eventually turn to real laughing and real laughing is good for your overall health.  It worked, well the turning to the real laughing anyway.  I really don’t know if it helped my overall health.  The funny thing about Anna leading it was that her disposition normally was (and before I say this, let me say that liked her a lot) well……..bitchy or grumpy, I can’t decide.  But it was part of her image, I think, and I didn’t hold it against her.


Also sometimes in order to get yourself to smile you had to do what Roxanne did one day. She had read that a smile helps your overall mood, even a fake smile.  The brain can’t tell if the smile is real or not.  So she decided during a particularly taxing day of work to walk around with a pen in her mouth forcing the corners of her mouth up.  She hoped that by doing so all day, she would force a smile even if it wasn’t real.

One day Jared and I decided it should be silly hat day. We were in charge of buffing the hall near the gear issue room.  That day some Recreation Department workers were doing an annual cleaning of the room and Jared and I peaked in to see what was up.  Because among other things gear issue was a costume shop, Jared and I saw what we needed to brighten our day.  He put on an oversized top hat (like the mad hatter) and for me it was a Viking hat.  We finished buffing the floor with a smile and we brought smiles to others passing by in the hall.  As I said, if you didn’t go a little insane, you risked going insane.

So the Recreation Department was responsible for a lot of what we had to do down there. However, a lot of our activities were self-created.  Some of the things to do we created on our own are as follows:


Ice before Christ

I don’t really have all the details on this one but it was an excuse to drink. Janitor Travis produced some ice near the end of the summer and said it was really old and that we should drink with it.  I was sold, and didn’t really listen closely for the rest of the details.  One of the main research projects down there that year was a company called Anadrill.  Their goal (I think) was to drill deeper than had ever previously been drilled (by someone other than Harry Stamper/AKA Bruce Willis-while saving the planet from asteroids) in hopes of obtaining cores that would give them some sort of information about something, or possibly something else.  Like I said I really don’t have the details about the project.  They did give a few lectures, but as you will see later I never really got into the science down there.

All I knew is that Travis showed up with baggie full of ice (not a drug metaphor) that he said had come from deep, deep down. It had been frozen before Christ was born and that seemed pretty cool (pun not intended).  So what else do you do when you are given something so old, other than pour scotch over it and drink it?  Shane, Gretchen, Joe, Travis, a few others (I can’t recall) and I proceeded to get nicely sauced on Scotch and old ice.  Incidentally it was the first night I noticed that Shane and Gretchen had at some point gotten together.  It was like that down there, new couples popping up all the time but not always advertising it.  If you wanted to know such things you had to really keep up with your gossip or pay close attention to the subtle clues.  That night, the Scotch chilled by old ice, made Shane and Gretchen a little less subtle and I realized they had a little thing going on.

Freezing Man

We tried to get Freezing Man going but it never really took off. In the summers of 2005 and 2006, (before the Ice, but actually seven times total) I attended the popular festival in the dessert of Nevada called Burning Man; the same festival that I told Oliver about on the plane.  There were about 10 (that I discovered) or so other “Burners” on the base and we tried to get things going to have a mini festival on the Ice.  The event is so unique that many people around the world have smaller events throughout the year that emulate the festival.  The events are in an effort to pass the time until the next year’s festival and they are called “decompression” events.  As far as we could tell, there had never been a decompression event on the Ice and we tried to get the ball rolling for one.  Coincidently, at Burning Man they do have a gathering for all people that have been on the Ice, which I attended in 2008 and 2009.  We even had one planning meeting for our Freezing Man but only a few people showed up.  It never really got off the ground, for one main reason I think.  The finale of the week long Burning Man Festival is the burning of a 50 foot tall image of a man, made of wood.  We had little hope that we would get permission to even burn a 50 centimeter tall man on the base and it sort of crushed the project.  I don’t know why we didn’t think of it, but it has since been pointed out to me (by my mother) that we should have simply built a Freezing Man of ice and allowed him to melt.  In the winter of 08/09 I heard some people did actually have enough motivation to get an event off the ground.  Good for them, I wish I could have attended but its sort of hard to fly in to McMurdo for the weekend.


Brian Birkenstein’s book “Cleaning up After Science” was published in August 2015 and is available on

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A few years back my 15 minutes of fame came to me in England. In this case, it might actually be known as infamy, but I’m not picky. About 10 million British people have seen me naked, which is not a statement a lot of people can make. For my honor or shame, I am in a fairly elite group.

I worked for nine months for a travel company in medium sized English town called Banbury. It took me a little while to get immersed in British culture, but it happened. Generally Americans and Brits have a different sense of humour (and spelling), so comedy TV took the longest to get into while of course visiting the pub came the quickest. There was however a show that struck my funny bone from the start. I don’t even know the exact name of it, but the host was Graham Norton.
The show was of the nighttime talk show variety, with an opening monolog, a skit or two, a celebrity guest or two, and a closing musical act. But Graham’s show was different than others of this genre. For starters Graham is flamboyantly gay, as camp as a row of tents (as they say). Secondly, the show has the distinct advantage of NOT being on American TV (or at least he wasn’t then). They didn’t have to worry about blacked out nudity and bleeped out swear words and general censorship that plagues “America the free.”

I had wanted to go see the show live the whole time I was in England, and finally about four days before I was set to fly home my friend got us on the list to see Graham in studio. Of course, it was filmed in London, so on a Wednesday night we headed south for the show. As we waited in line to get in, some of the production assistants circulated through the crowd. They asked us to write down a crazy story that may be shared on the air. We all did. I can’t remember what I wrote but my friend Tim had a winner. Also while we were in line a producer said to me, “you, you look like you’re up for a laugh, would you do anything?” I instantly said yes, to which he quickly replied “anything???!” Because I had seen the show many times before, and knew of Graham’s crazy antics I more hesitantly gave an affirmative the second time.

Our group of five was placed near the aisle so that Graham could “randomly” select us for Tim to tell his story. I had decided to wear some crazy patchwork pants (that my mother made) and an authentic San Francisco policeman’s shirt. I wanted to stand out, as I knew Graham often picked audience members to do something crazy. During the “mingle with the crowd” segment, Graham headed up the stairs into the audience in our direction. He was on a hunt to find audience members with crazy stories, and he “wound up” asking Tim. Tim and I (and the others with us) all worked for a camping tour company that has trips all over North America. Tim (prompted by Graham) proceeded to relay a story about when he had been a tour leader out and about in America. He was with his group, sitting around the camp fire, enjoying his dinner of fried chicken. About midway through his meal he looked down and realized he had dropped a little chicken skin into his lap. He decided to retrieve it and stabbed the skin with his fork. Much to his dismay, he realized the skin did not belong to a dead chicken, but rather a very alive set of family jewels, his own. This is a great story, just the kind of thing Graham usually looks for, and brought roaring laughter from the crowd. It would be even better if it were true. Tim admitted to us later that he ALMOST stabbed his own sack, but realized what it was at the last moment. BUT, Graham, the studio audience and all of the show’s viewers never knew the story was inaccurate, and it was a very funny segment of TV.

After the laughter died down, Graham wanted me to stand up to see what I was wearing. My costume decision worked, and he proceeded to ask me a few questions. He then moved on, but didn’t forget about us. He kept referring to Tim as “bollock man” as in the British slang for testicles. Several times mentioned us as Bollock Man and Brian, like some sort of super hero duo

Graham has various segments on his show before the guest comes on. One standard of his is where he looks at some kooky website. He decided this night on one called “molesting statues” or something like that. After having a brief look around, he proclaimed “We have a lot of statues in London, and we think it would be funny if a member of our audience molested some. We also think it would be funny if it were Bollock Man or Brian!” The camera zoomed in on Tim and myself and showed our shocked faces. After a brief moment of back and forth indecision between Tim and my self, somehow we decided that I was to be the statue molester.

A producer rushed down the stairs and grabbed me by the arm. He led me through the studio and out the back door. He had a camera in his hand and we headed to the parking lot, in a hurry. They don’t film the show live, but it is taped nightly with only a few hours to edit it before it goes on the air. We hoped into a car that had a ladder sticking out of the trunk (or boot) and sped out into the London evening.

Our first victim was a statue of Nelson Mandela. We quickly got out and the producer put the latter up to Nelson’s head. For what I was about to do, I figured Nelson and I could be on first name basis. I quickly had a French kissing session with his ear as the producer filmed away. As quick as we got there, we were away, zipping off to our next statue.

After another short drive, we wound up at the Thames. There was a statue of a topless woman sitting by the river bank in an area that was a lot more crowded than the first one, but I hoped on the lady and did my duty. The producer wanted me to put my hands and mouth on her breasts as he filmed. Of course people were looking at me oddly as they strolled by, but I kept tonguing away at the bronze lady.

Again we hurried away, but this time we pulled back into the studio lot. I was a little confused, but assumed that was all we had time for. Then, I was led (now with a security guard in tow) to a back lot statue of two wrestling Greek men. It was supposed to look as if it was also out and about in the city, but this one was actually private. At that point the producer said to me, “we think it would be funny if you got on the statue, and we think it would be funny if this time, you were naked!”

I was stunned. I had seen the show before and I knew they did some crazy things, but naked! To my recollection I had never seen anyone fully naked on the show before. People had shown their butt or the pubic hair, but not fully naked. The producer could see I was hesitant, so he (like a good sales man) said “not to worry, Graham will hold his thumb over, they won’t really see anything.” As I considered dropping my drawers I thought to myself that I had already told them I would do “anything” and this part of the show was counting on me. Also I thought (being American) there would certainly be black lines or fuzzy spots covering my junk. So how could I expect they would show everything. I decided to just go for it and my clothes came off, as I joined the naked wrestlers for a three way photo shoot.

We hurried back to the set, and I waited back stage. Graham was busy with the guest, finishing up the interview. I was a little disappointed by the choice of guest because I had never heard of him before. The week before, Darryl Hannah and Burt Reynolds where both on, and I would have liked to be on stage with either of them. Instead, I got someone who was more or less a third rate British soap opera star. Most English people when they hear who it was say “Ohhh, Him?” Before the show started there was some delay and they made an announcement about the guest being late. The guy who did come on eventually was doing a play (rehearsal) nearby and we think he was a last minute fill in guest. It was Paul Nichols, and you’ve only heard of him if you are English.

Finally the interview finished, and Graham said “I hear Brian is back, lets get him out here and see what he got up to.” I went out on stage and sat in between Graham and Paul. Graham asked me a few questions but more or less got right into the photos. They were still photos, not movies, up on the big monitor above the stage. That’s right, way above Graham on a giant TV. There would be no thumb of Graham’s saving my dignity. I was in a daze.

First they showed the picture of me and the topless woman. Nelson Mandela was on the cutting room floor; apparently the man is not important enough. Then all of a sudden I was naked in front of millions. My friends who have been watching Graham for years say they have never seen him so shocked. He was almost speechless, which is not a good quality for a ‘talk” show host. The crowd whopped and hollered for quite some time my friends leading the cheers.

The photo was not a flattering one, but there it was, and there it stayed. First of all, I am not the skinniest guy in the world, but I am by no means obese. The way I was sitting had my belly jutting out at a weird angle, and looking rather large. Secondly, (guys will back me up here) sometimes your “stuff” looks more impressive, sometimes it looks less. Well today, mine defiantly looked less. I was mortified, Graham and the crowd were ecstatic. It’s a good thing I was set to leave England in a few days as I probably wouldn’t be getting any more dates.

When all the laughing settled, I got up to leave assuming my 15 minutes of fame were over. Paul said how brave I was and that I needed a hug, so he hugged me. Graham told me to sit and stay a bit while the musical guest came on. I sat back down, still in a daze. The Pet Shop Boys (of whom I am a big fan) came and played a set 10 feet from me. I began to somehow forget about what had just happened and enjoyed being on TV.

The show was almost over and it was time for Graham to tell me what I had won. I knew from watching the show that the audience idiot (me this time) always was awarded with a prize. Graham asked me if I liked golf. I tried as hard as I could to put on a good game face and smile, but I don’t think I was successful. I hate golf. The prize was 6 tickets (two each day for three days) to the British Open golf tournament in Scotland, which of course the Brits just call The Open. Along with those tickets came 6 tickets (same as before) to the British Telecom hospitality booth at the Open and 3 nights at a 5 star hotel in Edinburgh. All in all, it actually sounded like a pretty good package even though I didn’t like golf. Later my friends and I tried to price it out, and we decided on a little over 3000 pounds value. So I took the envelope and headed of stage, hoping I could actually attend the tournament that was over the coming long weekend, of which Sunday I was supposed to fly home.

On my way off stage, I (me and my friends) were invited to the after show party. It was great fun to go there for free drinks and snacks and mingling with the cast and crew. Graham and Paul were both really nice people off stage as well. I even got to meet Betty. If you are not a Graham Norton follower that doesn’t mean anything to you, but regular viewers should know her. She is an older lady that for some reason goes to every one of Graham’s shows and is used as a punch line quite often. I asked her if I could have a picture with her, and that saucy old bird replied “if you take your clothes off again.” The cast party was a lot of fun and topped off a great evening, except for about 10 minutes of horror.

The next day at work, I quit. Actually it was Thursday and I was supposed to be done Friday, but I explained to my boss what had happened and that I was heading to Scotland. He was fine with it, and Tim got two days off as well. We only planned to go for one of the three nights as it was a long drive and I needed Saturday at home to pack. I gave the rest of the tickets to the others (Lee, Molly and Andrew) that had gone to the show. It took Tim and I 11 hours (horrible traffic) to get there and in the end we stayed until early Saturday morning, two nights.

I didn’t really see any golf, but had a great time. On the one day that Tim and I attended we headed straight to the hospitality booth and didn’t leave there until they closed it up. The golf was on the TV in the background, but we were more intent on the never ending steaks and scotches. All our table mates were quite interested in the story as to how we got there. During one of my many bathroom visits a man came up to me and asked me about the show. He was in the middle of several questions when another man came up and asked if when I was done, I could come by his hospitality booth, the ladies in there wanted to meet me. It couldn’t be because they were impressed with what they had seen. I went in and everyone clapped. Tim, seeing what was happening wanted to share the limelight and ran over. I shouted “hey everybody look its Bollock Man,” to which they all cheered. We were minor celebrities for the day.

By the time we left the booth, we were quite drunk. As I said, we really didn’t see much golf. We did look around a bit for Tiger Woods, but apparently kept missing him by a few minutes. We also tried to steal (or borrow) a golf cart to get around but got told off in the process. It was a great day and we topped it all off by spending another night in a 5 star hotel. Lee, Andrew and Molly arrived late and shared the room, ready for their fun the next two days, but Tim and I left early in the morning.

That night, my friends and work mates had a going away party for me. It was inevitable really, but out came a video tape. We had realized that Graham’s shows are often audience participation, so we set up the VCR before we left. The tape was played over and over and over again. I thought it looked bad the first time, but with pause and rewind it was much worse. I eventually had to leave the room from embarrassment, and thankfully the next day I left England as well.