Jello wrestling in Antarctica: A culture clash



Carol Fey | Aug 05, 2015


I don’t know about you, but I never gave the topic of jello wrestling much thought until I worked at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, for four months as a furnace and boiler mechanic.


Not only did I look after furnaces and air handlers in 10 of the 40 or so buildings at McMurdo Station. I also worked on the commercial cooking equipment in the galley that can feed 1,200 people, changed light bulbs, and learned that jello wrestling can be a major moral issue! Is it right or is it wrong?


Of course the correct answer depends upon several factors, including who you are and the frame of reference you come from, the context the event, and so on. But if you had to choose black or white, no gray, which would it be?


What this makes me think of in the HVAC world is unspoken rules, and statements such as “Everyone knows …”   It seems that “everyone” does know something, but not everyone knows the same thing.


Everyone knows you gotta wear clothes to work. But does the new-hire 18-year-old know that does not mean shorts, muscle shirt and flip flops? Turns out that some do, some don’t. If you’re the boss it’s a good idea to tell them. If you’re the new employee, you might want to ask.


Here’s a story about jello and knowledge of right and wrong in Antarctica — and in America.


It was early on a Sunday morning at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Most everyone was asleep. After all, Sunday was the only day off in the relentless work week. And like anywhere else in the world, Sunday morning follows Saturday night.


All was normal, except that during the night, bundles of flat gray ribbons, the right length to tie around an adult wrist, had been tacked onto the bulletin boards in all the dormitory hallways. Everyone would see them when they rolled out of bed and migrated to Sunday brunch. Inked in large letters on each ribbon was “WWDD.” What was this about?


It was about the outcome of the employee meeting that was held the afternoon before. And the meeting was about what happened the Saturday night (or possibly early Sunday morning) the week before.


It was about the jello fight. Yes, you read that correct – a jello fight.

The person in charge of McMurdo Station, known as Mac Town, is usually like a benevolent mayor. He or she keeps things running, yet doesn’t look too closely. But this season the station manager was a newly-retired navy commander named Donald. Sheriff Donald roared into town with both guns blazing, so to speak.


Talk about a cultural mismatch! Donald was accustomed to being in command. But instead of “Yes Sir!” the Mac Town’s population of oil-field castoffs and 19-years-olds partying their way through their first time away from home, were more likely to respond to Donald with the question, “Now why would I wanna do that?”


Add to Donald’s culture shock the parade of traditional events that kept the workforce motivated from one arduous work week to the next. These included the Halloween costume contest, Santa arriving at the heavy equipment maintenance shop, the carpenters’ ice art show, the chili cook off, the Icestock outdoor music festival and, of course, the Jello fight.


All station managers occasionally call the several hundred employees together for an employee meeting called a Town Meeting. A good reason to attend was that instead of working you could sit in the warm galley and drink coffee, and gave a cookie or a banana if “freshies” came in on today’s flight from New Zealand. But this time Donald had declared the meeting an “emergency” meeting. Curiosity rather than the word “mandatory” enticed more than the usual handful to show up.


Donald began the meeting loud and strong. “This station is full of people with no moral judgment. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows right from wrong. You people choose to ignore that.”


Huh? Along the back of the room burly arms crossed over substantial bellies, in the classic “closed” position.

Donald continued, “Last Saturday night there was a jello fight. A jello fight!  Do you have any idea what position such behavior puts me in?”


Pinky the plumber asked, “Were you in the fight?”

Donald charged ahead. “I have collected the names of all of you who were in the fight, and disciplinary action will be taken. You will be relieved of your jobs and sent back to stateside on the next available plane. There is no room at this station for this type of behavior.



We all knew there was supposed to be stunned silence. But not so here.

“Um, I’m wondering,” said Barbara, a supply clerk, “You know, we’ve been having the annual jello fight here for years. Nobody knows how long. What’s suddenly wrong with it?”


Donald said, “If you have to question what’s wrong with jello wrestling, you need to do some thinking. This activity has an unsavory reputation. People — the American public — see it as, well, associated with other immoral activities.”


A mechanic cleared his throat and said, “Well, hate to ask, Sir, but how’s the American public going to find out about what happens here in Antarctica if we don’t tell ‘em?  What happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica.”


“That may once have been the case, but it’s not now,” countered Donald. “What our bosses in Washington D.C. fear most is bad publicity. jello wrestling is bad publicity.  How did they learn about it? Some fool posted pictures on the Internet. Yes pictures on the Internet! American tax payers pay for you to support science, not to roll around in jello. And as I said, those participating will be disciplined. And the rest of you, start thinking before you act. Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong.  If you’re in doubt, just ask yourself, ‘What would Donald do.’ That’s all.  You’re dismissed.”


And so the next morning’s Sunday brunch was full of wrist bands saying WWDD (What Would Donald Do)?  And frankly, we had no idea.


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