SONDRESTROM, Greenland - High, barren hills of the arctic desert loom over this tiny half-American, half-Danish base, hills speckled with brave but foolhardy scrub vegetation and occasional musk-oxen. These latter mostly snort, peer about nearsightedly and look stupid, which for all I know they are. Or, maybe they just aren't interested.
It gets chilly here, and in the summer the sun never goes down. From the hills the base looks temporary and flimsy. The runway, used by the big C-130 transports that supply scientific groups on the ice cap, looks small in the vastness.
The social hot spot of Sondrestrom is the Raven's Roost, the shaky bar and restaurant of the 109th Tactical Airlift Group of the New York National Guard, out of Schenectady. The 109th, whose guest I am, has come here to ski. The skis, however, are on the airplanes: The C-130s have to land on the open ice, there being no snow-free ground where the scientists are. Digging down to bare earth to bulldoze a runway would be difficult, since the ice cap is 10,000 feet thick. Several times a year the 109th comes to carry many tons of food and supplies to the otherwise inaccessible regions.
The Roost is comfortable without being excessively elegant. Beer, which the guys bring with them, is 50 cents. Every night the unit barbecues chicken or chops, sits around hoisting brews and talking shop. Tonight -- night here looks like 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon -- I shot the breeze with the cook at the grill out back while an arctic fox circled ten feet away.
Then catastrophe struck. Suddenly, a sergeant announced that it was "bluenose time." Tradition insists that newcomers to Greenland, which I was, must be bluenosed. Uh-oh. About five of us neophytes, including a young schoolteacher from Alaska, were duly lined up at the bar. Bluenosing consists of the recounting by one of the unit of the tale of some fellow who allegedly traveled around Greenland by sled. Whenever he reached any destination in this tale -- and Greenland, it turns out, consists mostly of destinations -- those being bluenosed have to toss down a shot of schnapps. Remember, I didn't want to do this; I was forced.
I didn't mind as long as the purported traveler went only to major cities, since there are few. The towns didn't bother me too much, although the shots of schnapps were beginning to add up. Soon, however, the traveler was visiting obscure camps, former camps, bushes, rocks, and molecules.
Anyway, I had a wonderful evening -- I'm sure of it, because the air crew told me so in the morning. When we turned in it was, as always, 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon.
*Editor's Note: Aquavit = Schnapps in Greenland.
Fred Reed, a Marine veteran,
is a syndicated columnist based
in Washington, D. C.
The Shreveport Times
September 14, 1989