America's last frontier town; Little America: Town at the End of the World, by Paul A. Carter. New York: Columbia University Press. $15.95.
I suspect that few of us who listened with wonder and fascination to the radio broadcasts from Little America in the 1930s realized that those early Antarctic penetrations represented the last major probes of the Earth -- and were, in fact, stepping stones to space exploration.
After all, those southern discoveries had come only recently. Although seamen had been approaching the Antarctic continent since 1773-1775, when Capt. James Cook ventured as far south as 71 degrees 10 minutes, it was not even known to exist until well into the 19th century. But in 1911-1912 Roald Amundsen, and then tragedy-bound Robert Falcon Scott, reached the South Pole in a celebrated race. After That, the Antarctic belonged largely to explorer Richard E. Byrd (especially in American eyes), and in 1929 Byrd became the first man to fly over the South Pole.
In "Little America" Paul A. Carter, a history teacher at the University of Arizona, re-creates Byrd's southern expeditions -- and shows how scholarly research can be fashioned into a story of great interest to a nonspecialist, and published with integrity by a university press. Although Carter indicates he had never even been to Antarctica before completing the text, he immersed himself in the published and unpublished writings of people who hadm been there, and his writing shows a skill for choosing the dramatic and significant for the narration.
Carter likes to call Byrd's Antarctic headquarters, Little America, the "last American frontier town," and indeed it appears to have gone the way of its North American counterparts: Life has improved to such an extent that today men and women can shower every day instead of having to go months without bathing.
But not all the changes have been progressive. When Byrd took his expeditions to the Antarctic he raised his own money and made every penny count, from necessity. however, when the government took over Antarctic work, administration was shifted from an on-the-spot observer to a deskman in Washington. In the 1950s, establishing the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole entirely by air drop, goods and equipment "rained from the skies" -- much of it smashed or otherwise lost.
Moreover, settlements such as McMurdo Station today struggle with environmental problems involving litter, smog, and even radioactive leakage from a nuclear reactor. And as the recent air crash on Mt Erebus showed, the Antarctic can still present formidable barriers to would-be visitors.