I’ve been cold but in the cold winter weather I have encountered, I have never experienced anything which compares to the year I spent in Thule, Greenland. To say it was cold is an understatement. You haven’t experienced cold until you have been at a place like Thule.
From November 1983 to November 1984, I was stationed at Thule Air Base in Greenland while on active duty in the United States Air Force (USAF). An assignment to Thule was considered a remote tour. I would say it was remote wouldn’t adequately describe it. Thousands of miles from civilization and about 800 miles from the North Pole is pretty remote especially for a place that is nicknamed “the top of the world”.
“THERE’S A GIRL BEHIND EVERY TREE…”
Anyone that knew me then was probably very surprised that I volunteered for the assignment. At the time, I had this notion that I wanted a future working for the United States Post Office (USPO) so I applied for a special duty to work in the military post office at Thule to give me some experience to prepare me for the postal test in the years ahead. I had NO idea what I was in for. None whatsoever. While I was going through the process of checking out from my base before transferring to Thule, many people asked if I had pissed off the commander or what I had done to get an assignment to Thule, Greenland. Needless to say, folks had a negative feeling about going there. The common thing I would hear is that “there’s a girl behind every tree — there’s just no trees there.”
As a young, naïve 19-year old kid, I certainly didn’t know what to expect and all the negative vibes I was getting from people didn’t make me feel any better.
After the 12 hour flight from New Jersey to Thule, Greenland, we landed in the middle of the afternoon and it was already dark outside. My sponsor met me at the plane and tossed me a huge parka. She said, “You’re gonna need that” and she was right. I needed it from the moment I stepped off of the plane. The parka swallowed me up but was still not enough to prepare me for the piercing negative degree temperatures I met for the first time. In addition to the parka, I also got a pair of what they called “bunny boots” or “mucklucks”. I learned very quickly that my Air Force issued shoes were ineffective to the ice and snow of Thule. The mucklucks saved me from many falls on the ice. Those two items of clothing became my best friends during the year-long exile in the Arctic.
On my first night at Thule after I moved into my room in the barracks, the base encountered “Phase 3” conditions which was an extreme blizzard. I was told that temperatures dipped to -90 degrees at one point during the storm. No one was allowed outside. It was a total “white out”. Looking out of the window, I couldn’t see anything. We were confined to our barracks and although the dining hall was in the building next door, we were not able to go that short distance. My first meal was a box of C Rations. (It still makes my mouth water thinking about it.) Fortunately, that was the only extreme storm I experienced during the rest of the time I was at Thule.
Remember me saying I was assigned to the Post Office? Yeah, that was a mistake. I walked into a mess. The post office had recently had an inspection and three people were reassigned due to poor performance. Instead of walking into a fully staff post office, I became the third person to join a short-handed operation. I would end up working six days of the week during most of the time I was there. No, there was no overtime pay. Once I started my job, I began to notice a growing pile of outgoing mail on the back table of the room. When I asked about it I was told that it was first class mail to go out and no one was handling that responsibility. I was totally taken aback at that and I voiced my opinion how mail was not getting out to people. Somehow I ended up being volunteered for the responsibility of taking care of preparing outgoing mail.
GOING POSTAL AT APO 09023
I now have a little insight now on how people “go postal”. The post office is an awful place to work. The worst part for me was working the window. Even to this day I despise being on either side of a postal window. It was brutal. People are impatient and downright rude to postal employees. Several times I was accused of holding people’s mail and called many names. It wasn’t pleasant. I’ll add more to the postal experience later.
The saying I heard about “there’s a girl behind every tree there’s just no trees” was partially false. There were females there both military, civilian and Danish living on Thule but there were no trees. The only “tree” was some sort of man-made pipe thing to resemble a tree in front of base headquarters. In addition to having no trees, there was also no grass for the most part. When the snow melts in the summer, it’s just mud and dirt underneath it all. If you didn’t know any better you would think you were on another planet. It’s that different.
And the day and night thing….you have several months where it is total darkness and months where it is daylight all the time which really messes with your head. The biggest morale boost would be in late March when we would see a slither of sunlight over the distant mountain ranges. The warmest it reached was in late July when the temps soared to 40 degrees. Yes, it was quite the heat wave. In fact, our television guy was spotted jogging around the base in his shorts.
ADVENTURES (AND MIS-ADVENTURES) IN THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
One of the adventures most would take was the climb up Mount Dundas which was a small mountain near the base. In the summer the base would have a golf tournament at the top which was flat and littered with rocks. Again, no grass. I decided to take the trip to Mount Dundas one of my days off in May. Instead of the long way, me and a buddy of mine decided to walk across the bay which was still frozen. Halfway across we stopped to take pictures of icebergs which had been trapped in the bay. The walk across the frozen bay was somewhat safe. The ice road was still open but there were parts I stepped on where I remember hearing the cracking of the ice. Looking back now it was probably a dumb move on my part but we managed to cross and climb to the top of Mount Dundas.
I wasn’t so lucky on another adventure to the location where you could see the merging glaciers a few weeks later. I slipped an fell down an icy mountain side and ended up spending a few days in the hospital with some nasty bruises but thankfully no broken bones or anything more serious. That was the end of my adventures around Thule. It was good that I never encountered a polar bear and I never heard of any sightings of polar bears during my time. The only critters we had were Arctic Foxes. The “archies” were run around the base looking for food much like Raccoons do here. They weren’t friendly and we were cautioned that they were carriers of rabies.
I settled for my daily adventures working at the post office. As I said before, we were short handed most of the time I was there. Since I was so good at processing the outgoing mail, I also inherited the duties of handling the registered mail. The only good thing about this was that it took me away from the window duties but it had its own challenges. With the registered mail, I had to meet the plane every morning and wait for the plane’s loadmaster to sign for it. Some loadmasters would sign it right away but many would not. I would have to wait on a cold airplane on the flight line until they decided to accept the registered mail.
The arrival of incoming mail was quite the event each day. When the daily arrival of the airplane was 40 miles out, the radio station would make the announcement. I would normally drive the mail truck to pick up the mail. Sometimes it barely took up an entire pallet unless it was during the Christmas season. Since we were shorthanded we would usually recruit volunteers to help us with the mail and putting the mail up in the mailboxes. Our phone lines would be busy with people calling to ask if they had received any mail. We would repeatedly tell people that we were too busy to personally check their mail. Even when the radio made the announcement that the airplane was 40 miles out, people would still call at that announcement asking about the mail. The airplane had not even landed yet and they would ask! Yes, that was grounds to go postal I’m sure.
I have to say that I was very defensive about criticism people would have about the post office. They had no clue how hard we worked and everything we did being shorthanded. I developed a feud with one of the radio guys who publicly got on the radio and actually made negative remarks about the post office. I had nothing back and called him out on it. Then, of course, he played the rank card. He reminded me of this fact and I was forced to let it go. Working in the post office at Thule was very stressful and a very thankless job in the eyes of the military and civilian customers of the post office. I think I would have enjoyed my tour much more had I not been assigned to the post office.
DRINK OR FIND GOD
Being assigned to a remote base like Thule drove people to do different things in their spare time. Some would turn to alcohol and the opportunities available for that and others would turn to God. I did neither but I did have one guy that would knock on my door every Sunday (my only day off) to “invite” me to church. Church was either Catholic or Protestant services. I finally had to tell the Jesus guy to stop knocking on my door.
In the spare time I did have, I would go to the base theatre or watch movies. These weren’t current movies. It was also just one movie until a new one came in. I’m sure it is nothing like it was then. Our entertainment options were from the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. For the radio programs, we would have a different genre each hour. Our television service would not be anything current. While we would be able to hear live sports programs on radio, we wouldn’t actually get to see the televised until weeks later. So we heard the Super Bowl live but didn’t actually see the game on television until two weeks later. There was no internet, smartphones or even personal computers at that time. Yes, those were primitive times. In fact, I bought my first VCR at the Base Exchange. Yep, that’s the one with the tapes.
One of the entertainment highlights of the year at Thule was when the USO tour made a stop at the base. Of all the images you might have of the USO tour such as Bob Hope or other entertainers during that time we had a visit from the Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders. Yep, that was it. They came. They sang. They danced and they made a lame attempt at comedy. There was nothing else going on so most of Thule was there at the show. They kinda had a captive audience.
Besides the mail, we were allowed two “morale calls” to the states each week. These phone calls were 15 minutes calls at scheduled times during the week. You don’t know how fast 15 minutes goes by until you in these calls. The operator would break in and give you a warning when the call was going to be ended.
One of the things I learned during my spare time was how to play foosball. One of my co-workers at the post office got me hooked on the game. He was an excellent player who taught me the rules and tricks of the game. For the first few months I lost every single game I played against him but eventually I caught on and became competition for him. When he left, I took over as the king of foosball in our barracks. I still love the game to this day. I’m a little older and slower but I can still play.
In the years that have passed since spending that year in Greenland, I didn’t fully appreciate the experience. Every winter I think back to that time. Instead of taking it in, I spent my time counting down the days to leave it. It was the most unique experiences I have ever had. Yes, it was cold and remote but it was amazing.