“Come and Listen to a Story ‘bout a Man Named Bjrn”

 

My frigid companion and noble ascetic: Roald Amundsen, who twice led me to the South Pole. Once in 1911 and then again in 1911. That noble ascetic Roald Amundsen. My frigid companion who twice led me to the South Pole. Once in 1911 and then again in 1911.

It happened quite naturally – like light waves propagating from a source or Meryl Streep getting an Oscar nomination or, in this case, yours truly gaining access to his past lives. With faith in the precept that those who fail to heed history are doomed to repeat it, I’d resolved to learn from my past and apply it to the future. I had beseeched God regularly for access to my past lives and he finally sent my guardian angel Cyrus to facilitate the matter. Although I really think God just wanted me to stop pestering him so he could address more pressing issues like the possibility of a Rocky 7 movie. I even had the audacity (chutzpah if I was Jewish) to request access to my future incarnations, but Cyrus reminded me, “You can’t see what hasn’t happened yet.”

“What about the movie Back to the Future,” I queried?

“Listen David. Don’t be so cute. We can arrange for you to pass a kidney stone very easily. Is that what you want?” Cyrus warned.

“Well yes,” I affirmed. “I mean if I have to pass a kidney stone, I would like to pass it very easily.”

“David, you try my patience,” Cyrus intoned.

“Oh really? Well you should try mine some time,” I countered.

“Do you want to see your past lives or not?” an exasperated Cyrus declared.

“Yes, yes of course I do,” I exclaimed.

The Deed is Done

Cyrus instructed me to relax in my comfortable bean bag chair and chant the word “nostalgia” while gently looking at the blank screen between my eyebrows. A giddy sense of anticipation began to percolate throughout my body. This was a moment I had waited for my entire lives. The blank screen slowly pulsed with animated images. But just before any incarnations were unveiled, someone told me to turn off my cell phone and then asked for a donation to some kind of Will Rogers Motion Picture Fund. In any event a stentorian humming pervaded my consciousness as I plunged deeply into surveying my past lives. Navigating was easy and intuitive. Like riding a bike after a good blood-doping. Cyrus had even provided safeguards. A couple of times when I delved too deeply into a particular life, I’d hear his guiding voice say gently, “When able make a legal U-turn.” Someone was looking out for me; or so I thought. Most of my lives were fascinating and took place right on the fringes of history. Here’s a summary of the more prominent lives I’ve lived. I saved the best for last: 

  1. Circa 420-300 million years BC. Around the Devonian-Carboniferous Period (a happening time if you were a sea creature). I was the first fish to breathe air. My name was Gil and I found the courage to stick my head up into that taboo dimension called “atmosphere” and experience its gassy splendor. My whole school shouted, “Holy mackerel! Look at Gil man. He’s doing air.” Of course their shouts were muffled by the water, but I knew what they meant. In no time everybody started leaving the water for this crazy little thing called “land,” and the name calling soon began: “Oh look at those amphibians. Water is not good enough for them.” Truth be told, the only reason I left the water was to find a towel.
  2. 1517. Well before Post-it Notes, I held the spike Martin Luther used to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg (I’m just going to assume you know the event). Martin Luther had agonized over splitting with the Catholic Church which may account for his errant hammering and my broken thumb. He was a theologically rigorous man of uncompromising principle who simply could not countenance the Church selling indulgences (I’m just going to assume you know what an indulgence is) and I was his stalwart confidant Rolf. In an bizarre twist his wife’s name was Eva Braun (I’m just going to assume…).
  3. 1622. I was an overly philosophical Native American Indian named “Dances with Self.”  Mine was the only teepee in all of the Cherokee territory with a poster reading: “If We Don’t Like It Here, We Can Go Back Where We Came From.”
  4. 1762-1816. I was Tobias Lear, George Washington’s friend and private secretary. Nothing ironic here. General Washington was a great man of inestimable character – at all times and at all levels. Made Martin Luther look like a juvenile delinquent.
  5. 1940-1962. I was Stuart Sutcliffe. As an early member of the Beatles, I died of a brain aneurysm in 1962 brought on when I tried to spell the word “aneurysm.” This was before anyone beyond Liverpool or Hamburg had ever heard of us. I was surprised to see that I had been Stuart, since I (David Hardiman) was born in 1961 and therefore our lives overlapped. Then Cyrus explained to me that during your first year, God sometimes employs stand-ins as body placeholders (like they do at the Oscars when someone goes to the bathroom) till the ideal karmic specimen is located for your soul’s enlightenment. And my ideal specimen was me (who I am now). So after about a year they whacked Stuart (with an all too convenient “aneurysm”) and put my soul in David. Quite a metaphysical accomplishment. And now I’m right where I’m supposed to be. And so are you. Imagine that. Imagine all the people, living for today. (Stuart’s line that John coopted).     

Oops!

And all was well and awesome while I surveyed the fleeting images and fond remembrances associated with my past incarnations. The lives rolled by like episodes of Mad Men. Some exceptional, others merely stylish, and all very smoky. As I hopscotched reincarnations and cherry picked only the best moments, I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I really didn’t know what the word chagrin meant. I also noticed that the entire time I watched these lifetimes I was on the outside looking in. That is until it came to my Norwegian incarnation, where I recognized myself as a central figure in polar explorer Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911. As I examined this life I was preternaturally drawn into it, to the exclusion of all else. My focus dilated and telescoped and I failed to heed Cyrus’s warning: “Make a legal U-turn.” By now the observer became the experiencer. And the next thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire. And the next thing you know, by a metaphysical process fully indescribable and as a result of focusing too intently on images and remembrances, I’m sucked back onto the timeline and begin reliving this past life with no discernible means of escape.        

Wait for it. Wait for it. OK now: “Come and Listen to a Story ‘bout a Man Named Bjrn”

Shiver Me Timbers

Good morning from the Ross Ice Shelf, dear readers, and I am in mourning. It’s been morning here for three months now and I’m tired of eating breakfast for every meal. In this lifetime my name is Bjrn Svrgbjrn and I come from a long line of vowelless Norwegians. We lived in the city of Mnsk and…well you get the pnt.

The point is, here I am. How could I have allowed this to happen? One minute I’m running roughshod over my past lives with a feral abandon usually reserved for grocery shopping while stoned. And the next thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire (Sorry. I can’t seem to help that.). And the next thing you know I’m marooned on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, doomed to relive my part in Roald Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole. I couldn’t have gotten stuck in a Roman bacchanalia? No. I wasn’t even on land. I’m on ice. Jesus. How far is this place from civilization? Well you know how they call Patagonia “The End of the World?” This place is 1200 miles from there.

Since I’m stuck here, allow me to impart some of the flavor of this polar landscape. First of all there is no flavor – it’s unflavored. It’s cold. Pluto cold. Biting cold. Frostbitingly cold. Bone chilling awfulness. No, bone chilling is too mild an expression. It’s marrow chilling. If we were French they’d call us Les Miserables. If we were English we’d be The Miserables. But as we are Norwegian, we simply call ourselves Frusen Glädjé.   

Do Over…Please?

Despite Cyrus’s warning, I had clung too fervently to this past life and, as is the result of identifying so closely with any one thing, I became it. Or in this case got planted in it in 1911. I should’ve listened. I am trekking to the South Pole with its first conqueror Roald Amundsen. Straitened circumstances indeed. Especially for someone who keeps the heat at a balmy 70° when he lays down on his Tempur-Pedic bed in 2013. Cyrus was thoughtful enough to allow me to take one article from the future, back with me to 1911. And after careful consideration, I selected a March 1973 article from the LA Times describing Cesar Chavez’s support of migrant farm workers. I figured it might not help much, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Where to begin?

As I felt myself populating this era, I pleaded with Cyrus for a reprieve.

Me:   I don’t want to be a polar explorer.

Cyrus:        You’ve already been one. You’re just going to relive it.

Me:   But I don’t want to be a polar explorer again.

Cyrus:        It’s important to have a destination in life.

Me:   Yeah but my interest in the South Pole is absolute zero. Which, I’m told, is also the temperature there.

Cyrus:        You’re funny. You should stick to writing.

Me:   You’re absoulely right. And I will if only you’ll let me return.

Cyrus:        Nice try Nanook. It’s just karma. You committed to it. Now it’s yours.

Me:   Did the concept of Acapulco ever come up?

Cyrus:        Acapulco is a city and not a concept. Relax. I’m letting you bring one article from the future to help you.

Me:   Yeah but it’s a newspaper article. How will that help?

Cyrus:        You’ll see.

Me:   You evolved souls have all the fun. Sometimes I think you just like to watch the great unenlightened twist in the wind.

Cyrus:        It’s not what you think David. It never is. Have faith.

Me:   Have faith! How about we trade my faith for your awareness and you go down there on that freezing expedition?

Cyrus:        Believe me. I’m there with you. It’s your time again. You’re already transcending it. 

I Have Such a Man Crush on Roald Amundsen?

I’d surrendered to the experience and was at least mentally prepared to fulfill my obligation, but I sure wished I had a cyanide tablet in my mouth so I could bite down hard and end it quickly if circumstances warranted. Our frigid journey would soon begin and our leader was unquestionably that noble ascetic; Roald Amundsen. In describing the first man to reach the South Pole, words like cocksure, barren and herring come to mind. None of them particularly reassuring words, but as Donald Rumsfeld said to the nattering press while referencing the Armed Forces lack of readiness for the Iraq invasion, “You go to war with the army you have.” And that’s what we did in 1911. We went to the South Pole with the men we had – Me, Roald, Strdvn, Svnhrd, Srgj and Donny.

Roald soon inspired me with his supreme confidence and unflinching bravado. And I, on the other hand, worried him with my supreme hesitation and flinching bravado. I remembered how he led us magnificently before and took solace in the memory of our successful mission so many years ago (which I was re-experiencing now). The entire situation was preposterous and strained credulity, but like one of those dreams where a host of realities are fully operating in the background and completely self-evident, there was no denying or escaping this moment. BTW as a child one of my favorite foods was mashed peas with strained credulity.

Roald’s Early Life

Born Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (try saying that fast 3 times or even once slowly) on 16 July 1872 in Østold, Norway, early on Roald displayed a strong penchant for all things Polar. His mother, Fanny Amundsen, was perhaps his greatest asset. She had descended from a long line of asses. Many of them quite prominent. A self-reliant woman of great resource, she was the only lady in all of Scandinavia who gestated her children in a brood patch instead of a womb. This may account for Roald’s polar predisposition. She was an indomitable woman – she could “snow write” better than most men. 

Roald’s father Turgid, was a wealthy magnet magnate, who made his krøne through the cunning application of his magnetic personality and sharp business skills. Roald’s father was never really there for him. Roald once remarked, “One day an empty carriage pulled up in front of our høuse; and my father got out. Knowing you only get one father, I løved him anyway. Mind you, I didn’t love him. I løved him. We would go for long walks, usually magnetic north, and he’d listen while I’d tell him my frigid dreams of conquest etched against an icy landscape of desolate tundra. My pragmatist father always encouraged me to conquer Agnetha instead of Antarctica.

“Dad was a great supporter of the Norwegian timber industry and would gaze often at a roaring fire in our hearth and remark, ‘Isn’t it good? Norwegian wood’.” Somewhere Stuart Sutcliffe was smiling.

From an early age Roald seemed destined for success in northern climes. For example when puberty reconfigured his body, he developed facial sleet instead of a beard. And when he cut himself shaving, ice water flowed from his veins. Many said he was a cold hearted son of a bitch, but he employed that pitiless logic to our advantage. And yet he was a sympathetic figure whose sangfroid we all found reassuring.

I met Roald when we were classmates at Quisling Middle School in 1885. We formed a lifelong bond when I forgot my lunch and he shared some of his herring with me. He was the first one of our group to travel to that taboo dimension above the Arctic Circle. Roald did this for pleasure. We were all comfortably warming ourselves in front of our Norwegian wood and he’s up in Lapland camping in a snow cave. We all cried, “Hellige reinsdyr! Se på Roald mann. Det er noen kalde sh*t.” Translated from the Norwegian: “Holy reindeer! Look at Roald man. That’s some cold sh*t.” 

 

Three year journey. Free air conditioning. Three year journey. Free air conditioning.

We remained close and from 1903-1906 Roald and our crew of 5 became the first expedition to sail the fabled Northwest Passage. This is a man who spent 3 years trying to find a shortcut through the frozen Northwest Passage  thereby adding almost 2 ½ years to the regular route. We could’ve knocked 2 ½ years off the trip had we just used the newly opened Panama Canal. In those days, however, enduring this kind of hardship was considered an accomplishment. And in recognition of this singular achievement King Haakon VII of Norway awarded Roald a brand new 1906 Fjord Model T. Fjords have always been very popular in Norway. 

Long Before Star Trek We Resolve: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

After our “success” in the Northwest Passage Amundsen turned his icy stare to some place colder and more forbidding. To some place offering the opportunity of being ice-locked for ever longer stretches of interminable winter. As American Rear Admiral Robert Peary had attained the North Pole in 1909, the unconquered South Pole was the natural destination. Like the moon, no one had yet been to the South Pole and we were proto-astronauts, racing to the Pole against the formidable Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the British Royal Navy. Our ever resourceful Amundsen outdid his courageous competitor and ill-fated explorer. Captain Scott died tragically only 2 miles from his base camp on the return journey from the South Pole which he arrived at a scant 33 days after we conquered it. As frostbite crept up Scott’s leg, amidst desolation and hardship, he penned a final poignant note: “We shall die like gentlemen.”

Considering that no human set foot on that spot in 15 billion years (6,000 years for my Creationist friends) and two explorers arrive there within 33 days is absurd and on par with the only 2 Presidential signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams & Thomas Jefferson, expiring 50 years to the day of its anniversary on July 4th. 1826.

We Prepare for our South Pole Expedition

Aboard the Norwegian ship Fram (Forward) Amundsen and our intrepid band of brothers set out for this god forsaken place. God wasn’t alone in forsaking it. Every living creature on Earth had forsaken it. Being men of a singular disposition with a clear goal in mind, we stout hearted men press on. I, of course, had no choice but to press on, having accidentally reassumed this incarnation. I didn’t even bother to tell the others, fearing they might brand me a lunatic and set me off on an ice floe. As it was, a few of the members were a little peculiar anyway and drew unaccountable motivation from waking up next to the manly tang of unwashed males as opposed to waking up next to the womanly scent of washed females. Put another way, the group eminently enjoyed the company of females, however their polar wanderlust was powerfully stoked by the catnip of expressed virility.  

We affected repairs and resupplied the Fram in Brazil and eventually landed on the Ross Ice Shelf where we created base camp at Whales Bay, 60 miles closer to the Pole than Scott’s base camp. Fittingly, the pace of our preparation can best be described as glacial. As we commenced our trek by setting up a string of strategic supply depots deep into the frigid Antarctican interior, the situation grew chaotic and disconnected. The sun wouldn’t set. Everything was white and frozen. It was -40°: so cold no one cared if it was Fahrenheit or Celsius. The wind chill factor was: “Dear God Help Us!”  

I grow delirious and become convinced some of the snowflakes are identical. I know the food is. Pemmican everywhere. Pemmican it’s what’s for dinner. Brown pemmican, green pemmican, cream of pemmican. A tremendous amount of pemmican. We had packed plenty of pemmican, but were dismayed when we opened our canned heat only to find it had all gone bad. Although we had enough food, many days were still like The Hunger Games and at times, all I really wanted was The Life of Pi. Especially Lingonberry Pie. My urine freezes before it hits the ground. I have to move around so it won’t back up into my urethra. And forget about snow writing. It looks like a frozen lasso when I’m done. Well at least I could say I had boldly gone where no man had gone before. Why did I ever agree to this? Oh wait. I didn’t agree to this. Roald soothes my jangled nerves by rehydrating me with fortified birch bark tea. Just like in the old days, the chieftain offers me some of his herring and all is restored. 

I Still Have a Man Crush on Roald Amundsen 

Whales Bay, Ross Ice Shelf. Fram in background. Rarin' to boldly go where no man has gone before - for the second time. Ross Ice Shelf. Fram in background. Rarin’ to boldly go where no man has gone before – for the second time. Note: All the boats in this picture are now dead.

Our advantage was in the way Roald prepared us for the expedition. His formative years and time spent with the native people of Greenland and Canada rendered him uniquely suited to superintend our journey. In the days before REI he outfitted our group with superb minimalist skill as opposed to the Englishman Scott who brought along his train of servants, and in typically hidebound British fashion, insisted on High Tea in the Antarctica tundra in -40° weather. His English resolve and stiff upper lip was actually due more to frostbite than anything else. And while Scott felt he had scored a coup in procuring ill-suited Siberian Horses to haul his necessities, Amundsen brought nimble and industrious Greenland Huskies which would tenaciously pull our lightweight sledges while the men skied alongside. On the return trip from the Pole, as the load lessened, the dog pack was thinned and efficiently used for nourishing both the men and the other Huskies. Instead of heavy wools, he employed animal seal skins for clothing and boots. We’d learned a number of survival skills from the resourceful Inuit, including eating raw seal meat for the vitamin C necessary to fend off scurvy.  

 

Our round trip trek from base camp to the Pole and back lasted 99 days and only 3 nights during the Antarctic summer. We trudged some 1800 miles, although in those days we trudged in kilometers. Our party traversed many icy mountains and bottomless crevasses and we suffered greatly. Apart from Roald we all grew disoriented. As altitude sickness wearied us, Strdvn hallucinogenically blurted out, “I have never seen the Vagina Monologues. But think I heard one talking once.” “What did it say,” I asked. 

“Meow,” he said.

And then Svnhrd says, “Yeah well I’ve never seen a hormone, but I heard one once.”

To which I said, “In the meadow we can build a snowman.” Roald slapped us all back into sobriety and we soldiered on.

 

Finally! We achieve the South Pole. I'm inside finishing up while the boys politely wait their turn. Finally! We achieve the South Pole. I’m inside finishing up while the boys politely wait their turn. (Amundsen on extreme left)

Even though we were the most stoic of groups and our energy level ranked only slightly higher than lichens, we managed a little celebratory dance upon conquering the Pole. We were the original pole dancers except, it being so cold, our Monty’s were fully frozen. Sadly when Captain Scott and his party arrived 33 days later to find the Norwegian flag flying in the spot he coveted, he was crestfallen or whatever dashing Royal Navy types experience when they’re disappointed. Amundsen had left this historic and famously understated note for his rival:

Dear Captain Scott — As you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you to kindly forward this letter to [Norwegian] King Haakon VII. If you can use any of the articles left in the tent please do not hesitate to do so. The sledge left outside may be of use to you. With kind regards I wish you a safe return. Yours truly, Roald Amundsen.           

Ouch!

 

Epilogue

We made it back to base camp in record time. But only because no one else had ever returned from the South Pole, so of course it was the fastest time. But it was also the slowest time. Either way we were grateful to be back and eating kippered herring again. Although, I must admit, to this day I sneak down to Korea town for the occasional canine BBQ. By this time, after the many travails and privations, which I had now experienced for a second time, I just wanted to get back home. Not Norway, but to 2013 with my DVR and all those fabulous toothpaste flavors. A place where the instruction on the Q-tip box warns us: Do not insert into ear canal, which is of course what we all do immediately. A place where some people actually make a living selling grout dye and Fiddle Faddle. A place where teenagers give their parents so much grief, the parents have to go to grief counselors. Yes 21st century America the beautiful. I’m coming home to you. But how?   

 

King Haakon VII and Queen Maud in 1906. Just kicking back on a lazy Sunday morning.. King Haakon VII and Queen Maud in 1906. Just kicking back on a lazy Sunday morning, still wearing their robes.

Upon our return to Oslo, King Haakon VII awarded each of us a brand new Victrola phonograph on which we listened to ØBBØ, a crude precursor of ABBA. And when, over some imported table grapes, I showed the King my stashed LA Times article he was thunderstruck and understood immediately its significance. For he too had beseeched God to view his past lives and had gotten stuck as King Haakon for the second time. He knew I yearned to get back to the future. We discussed the event (all translated from Norwegian): 

Me:   You’ve surveyed your past lives like me?

KH:   Yes. Look. (He removes from his crown the same article from the LA Times)        

Me:   But how did you know?

KH:   I didn’t know. But I had faith.

Me:   Same here. I pushed and prodded and yearned and… (without prompting we both simultaneously sing)

KH & Me:   The next thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire. (Peals of heartfelt laughter reverberate throughout the hall)

Me:   Can you get me back to 2013?

KH:   No. But Cyrus here can.

Me:   Cyrus? Cyrus! What are you doing here?

Cyrus:  I decided to try your patience.         It’s pretty good.

 

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