Aurora Australis/Trials of a Messman

Aurora Australis (1909)
Trials of a Messman by Messman
2151434Aurora Australis — Trials of a MessmanMessman


RISE and shine! Rise and shine! All hands lash up and stow hammocks! Show a leg there, you’re the man of the moment;” followed by a few remarks on my personal appearance and habits, as I try to lie and seem to be asleep, and I awake to the realisation that I am “Messman.”

Until a few weeks ago I didn’t even know what the name meant, except that he was not a man who was expected to make messes, and that unpleasant personal remarks were made to him if he did. Now, however, I have learnt by experience that he is expected to do everything and to do it all at the same time. Finding it impossible to impress on the night-watchman the fact that, having a delicate constitution, I ought not to be expected to turn out with the temperature at 20° Fahr., I gave him my candid opinion of his powers of stoking, and said I was pretty sure that in a future sphere, he was likely to give dissatisfaction. Having turned out and donned a fair supply of clothes, I reported myself to my chief, and was told in very concise terms to go to a warmer clime; it afterwards turned out that he expected me to do my duty as messman first, and I laid the table for breakfast.

A meal in the Antarctic is a very diflerent affair from one at home, and a description will come better from the messman than from anyone else, for as the saying is, “The onlooker sees most of the game,” and as far as my experience goes, the messman at a meal is very much in the position of a spectator.

At a quarter to nine he gives the order, “Boats crew,” and four men proceed to unsling and let down the table, which between meals is kept slung above our heads, occupying much the same position in our imaginations as the sword did in that of Damocles. I have not liked to walk underneath it since the supports gave way, and landed the majority of the tin-ware on the heads of one or two members of the party.

The table in itself is a curiosity; it is built rather ingeniously of the lids of cases, and in one place a legend informs the diner that the table contains a theodolite, some ranging poles and other surveying apparatus, while another legend remarks that it is only “To be opened on Christmas Day,” etc.. Laying the table is an art in itself. The tastes of all members have to be catered for, and that means that it is necessary to have two or three different kinds of jam, marmalade, honey and golden syrup, dripping and butter. I have seen men spreading chutney on their bread, and putting honey in their porridge, and from the way it has disappeared, I have reason to believe that they take worcestershire sauce with their fruit.

At nine o’clock I serve the porridge, distributing it about equally between the inside and outside of the bowls, and at five or ten minutes past, the company condescend to turn out of bed, and the first thing they do is to find fault with the laying of the table.

On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion I forgot the pepper. Now the menu for the morning was porridge, fruit and preserves; what use anyone could find for pepper in that breakfast, I do not know, but within ten seconds of their arrival at the table, every other man had asked for it, and told his neighbour what he thought of me for not putting it on the table. If it happens to be a fruit day, i. e. a day when for second course fruit takes the place of meat, the next order given is, “Bowls up and lick spoons,” there being only about fifteen of each article on the Continent, and the bowls and spoons which have been used for porridge, are cleaned in this alfresco way and used for fruit.

For about a quarter of an hour everybody is too busily engaged to be captious, but about the time tea or coffee are being passed round, they begin to find their tongues, and I sit down to my breakfast, which is stone-cold, beneath a fire of criticisms as to my fitness, or rather my lack of fitness for the post.

After breakfast I wash the crockery and tinnery, being allowed a pint of water and a couple of lumps of soda to do it with. Volunteers have been known to assist in getting the grease off the plates and in drying them, and it is possible to get through the work in about an hour.

It is a sight for the gods to see a well-known F. R. S, drying a wet plate with a wetter cloth, and looking ruefully at the islands of grease remaining, after he has spent five minutes hard work on it. I suppose that nowhere else in the world is it a common sight to see two geologists and a meteorologist washing up dishes as if they had been used to nothing else.

The above programme is repeated three times in the day, with slight variations at lunch, tea, and dinner, and is in itself, in my opinion, sufficient work to last three men and a boy for a week.

The messman also enjoys quite a number of other privileges. He is allowed to go out into the cold, and obtain enough ice to fill both the boiler from which we ourselves drink, and the eighteen gallon melting pot which provides the fresh water for the Cavalry Commissariat Department, and he may do this as often as he likes. He is allowed to fetch bags of coal and strips of frozen blubber for the fire, while on Sundays as a great treat, he may dig out the frozen mutton, from the snowdrift on the roof.

With everything apparently united to afford him plenty of employment and make him happy, yet, strange to say, he has his moments of despondency. No other occupation could cause a man to have such a low opinion of his own powers.

To a casual observer stoning raisins appears to be easy enough, and until my first day as messman I had been a very casual observer, and when the autocrat at the head of the Food Department gave me some raisins after lunch, and told me to stone them, I looked forward to a restful interlude in what had so far been a strenuous day. I washed my hands until they were of a colour which I thought could not show on the raisins, even if it did come off, took a tin of raisins and a basin, settled myself in a comfortable position and started.

At the end of half an hour there were seven whole raisins and forty-nine pieces in the basin, stones scattered all over the hut and myself, raisin in my hair and in everything else within reach, and about two hundred raisins inside various members of the Expedition. There was raisin in everything at dinner from the soup to the tea, and I meet raisin stones in my bed, on all my clothes and in all my books.

Last but not least I retired from the fray, with my respect for all people who make cakes and puddings greatly enhanced. In the words of a prominent scientist on the Expedition, “To a man of my refined and sensitive nature, it is singularly repulsive to be beaten by a fruit.”

Another duty new to me is making tea, and it is by no means a light one. The capacity of this Expedition for tea is simply marvellous; some of the members take it in a bath, and among the many things I have learnt is that some Scotchmen take more tea than ‘whuskie’, (though that may be because they can get no ‘whuskie’,) and that they are more particular about it than even Australians. It is either too hot or too cold, boiled too much or not boiled at all, too
sweet or not sweet enough, and whether it is good, bad, or indifferent, there is never enough of it. Like most other messmen, I have decided now to make it to suit myself, and have ceased to pay any attention to criticism.

I should not like to finish without expressing my gratitude for one thing. To a lover of human nature it is very gratifying to see artists, geologists, biologists, meteorologists and other ‘ologists’ and ‘ists’ fighting in vast numbers and with earnest purpose, for the privilege of sweeping out the hut after dinner, and relieving the messman of this exercise. I have not liked to thank them to their faces, but thought they might blush unseen when they saw in print my appreciation of their eagerness.