Posted by: johnbarell | April 22, 2011

Reading is Fundamental

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. . .

Just imagine!

(The full story is available in Quest for Antarctica–A Journey of Wonder and Discovery, 2007)



  1. The words of our grandparents as described in this Antarctica story brought tears to my eyes as I too hope fervently to influence my own grandchildren in their voyage through life.

  2. Antarctic Dreams:
    Unlike my shipmate John Barell who posted above, I left for Antarctic with little or no set of mental preparations or expectations and certainly no prior dreams/desires about traveling to the South Pole.
    Being a recent graduate of the Navy’s Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport Rhode Island, I had filled out my top three “wish list” of desirable duty stations per the Navy’s custom at the time. The “old timers” told me to list the duty I really wanted in third position because you never got the top two and this way you could outfox the Navy … what did I know?
    What I really wanted was to just go to sea on a front line, blue water Navy ship and see the world and what I was assigned to was an Icebreaker going to McMurdo Sound Antarctica (78 degrees South Latitude) to open the ice covered resupply channel to the USA’s main scientific research base … so much for the “wish list” strategy! As a 22 yr old Ensign in the early 60’s fresh out of college and OCS going to the South Pole was about as far remote for me as going to the moon.

    As many of these kinds of things do however our trips to the South Pole turned out to be a life changing event and although I had not prepared much for the adventure it quickly overtook me as I now look back on it, it was an adventure of a lifetime. A sage once said “… youth is wasted on the young” and that is true to some degree. I maybe did not appreciate it as much at the time as I have later in life when realizing the things we did and experienced and how we quickly grew from boys to men.

    Floating ice glaciers as big as mountains, penguins, elephant seals and killer whales living in their natural habitats and a sun going round in a circle all day and never disappearing below the horizon stick out in my mind. Also we learned values and life skills that contributed to who we are as adults. Early responsibility, taking actions when necessary, overcoming personal fears, being accountable and responsible and to never, never be late for your next bridge watch! (45 years later my wife still complains that I must now arrive 15 minutes early for everything.)
    Most of all however I think we learned interpersonal skills and how to work together as teammates, how to respect authority and do what you were told to do with no backtalk or grumbling (at least not publically). How to get along in tight quarters for long periods of time and how important a sense of humor is and how important you own personal integrity is and to do the right thing no matter the situation.

    Even though I never dreamt about going to the South Pole before I went, I now dream about being at the South Pole after having returned. How quiet and bright it is outside at 2AM in the middle of the “night”. How magnificent the glaciers were and how beautiful and smart the animals were surviving in the icy waters. Very few other human beings had ever been there when we worked and explored there – it was very pristine, one had a chance to not only connect with nature but also see the footprints of the early brave explorers, e.g. British explorer Robert Scott’s hut is still standing, supplied and ready for new explorers a 100 years later protected by the frozen tundra. Tour operators now highlight trips to Antarctica as “once in a lifetime” adventures and they truly are. My advice now … dream about Antarctica and don’t miss the opportunity to go if you can!

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