My grandmother, Florence Wright Ferguson, had no idea how far-reaching was her recommendation to read a book by Admiral Richard E. Byrd when I was in 7th grade. She suggested Alone (1938), the story of Byrd’s sequestering himself in a 9 x 12 hut 123 miles south of Little America in 1934 to study weather patterns in Antarctica. Byrd almost died there of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Reading this book led to other Byrd books, Little America (1930) and Discovery (1935), the stories of the First and Second Byrd Antarctic Expeditions. After Byrd it was on to Scott and his fateful Last Expedition.
I became enthralled with pictures of Little America, Byrd’s frontier town, with its 3 radio towers beaming news dispatches to KDKA in Pittsburgh, and its tunnels dug into the Ross Ice Shelf linking all of the administration and work buildings snugly safe from the howling blizzards of winter.
Reading led to writing letters all over the world to obtain answers to many questions about the men on these expeditions: What did they discover? What were their leaders like? (to Frank Debenham, geologist with Scott in 1910-12 at Cape Evans); Plans for future explorations and why didn’t some of them return (to Byrd’s Second-in-Command, geologist Lawrence M. Gould).
And, at my mother’s urging, I wrote Admiral Byrd; waited for weeks and weeks for a response and then one day at 23 Webster Park in Needham, there on our dining room table, my mother had laid out a response from Byrd Polar Expeditions to “Master John F. Barell.”
Written on bond paper in blue ink with an original signature, Admiral Byrd answered each and every one of my questions: “You are entirely right about the possibility of discovering oil in Antarctica. We found enough coal [in the Transantarctic Mountains] to supply this country for many years.”
Imagine the thrill of being a seventh grader used to the endless school lessons, searching for the elusive-who-cares?-unknowns in a pre-algebra problem or writing tedious essays about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Here was a correspondence from America’s foremost polar explorer, leader of four expeditions with as many ticker-tape parades up Broadway. He sent a personal letter to “Master JFB” and said, “You are entirely right”!
The letter led to a meeting at 9 Brimmer Street in Boston with my mother and two little sisters. He treated all of us as if we were members of his own family.
We watched a full color film of his 1946 Navy onslaught on Antarctica called “Operation High Jump” and Byrd shared his amazement at discovering ice-free lakes on the frozen continent. Imagine!
Byrd invited me to explore the continent at some future date. And after many, many hours of figuring out how best to do this, I joined the Navy, through a Harvard NROTC scholarship and, eventually, sailed south on Byrd’s flagship, USS Glacier (AGB-4) as Operations Officer.
What are the lessons we derive from this story I never tire of repeating?
Reading is so fundamental as to be without a qualifier in terms of leading us beyond the limits of our homes, our neighborhoods and communities. Had my grandmother not suggested a book by Byrd, this adventure would never have happened. And had my mother also not gently requested that Byrd respond to her son, this story would have never been written.
While I was about to depart Christchurch, New Zealand for the Ross Sea in 1963 as a member of Operation Deepfreeze , I wrote my grandparents a letter thanking them for their encouragement. My grandfather, Llewellyn Ray Ferguson, subsequently wrote friends at Christmas time:
“Our chief news is that Lieut. j. g. John Ferguson Barell leaves New Zealand this week on the good ice-breaker S.S. Glacier for Antarctica. This is the culmination of a dream. He wrote us that Florence’s advice when he was a young boy to read Admiral Byrd’s book ALONE set him off on this polar hobby. He visited Byrd several times in Boston along with Betty [my mother]. Needless to say when Florence read this she burst into tears, read it to Anne [my aunt] over the phone. . .and they both had a real good cry. Little do we older folks realize how we sometimes influence the younger ones.”
My aunt, Anne Ferguson Cooper, recently found this letter amongst her family papers, shared it with me and now I share it with you. A testament to the influence “we older folks” have with the “younger ones.”
A book. . . a letter. . . a visit. . . a dream. . .a Destination. . .
(The full story is available in Quest for Antarctica–A Journey of Wonder and Discovery, 2007)