The Things They Carried is a collection of stories by Tim O'Brien about a platoon of U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam war.
I like the title, as those of us who have spent a lot of time carrying things in the field know that choices get made and sometimes, even as we are cutting the edges off of maps and snapping the tags off of tea bags, other weight is added that seems entirely illogical.
And so, it was with some interest that I read this piece about the items that the Ernest Shackleton Expedition decided to carry with them after their ship, the Endurance, got caught in the ice during the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Their only hope was to travel west over extremely tough ice, and in bitter cold, to Paulet Island, where stores were cached. Because they were likely to find open water between themselves and their final destination, they had to drag two, one-ton lifeboats with them. Aside from the boats, food, group equipment, and 69 dogs, Shackleton informed his men that nothing but the bare necessities could be taken on the planned march. The men were only to carry the clothes on their backs, and two pounds of personal items. The plan was to eat the dogs along the way.
So what did the men leave behind?
- Money, jewelry, and gold
- Scientific instruments
What did they take with them?
- Small religious items -- a few pages torn from a Bible, a cross, a medallion
- Medical supplies
- A banjo
This last item seems crazy, but goes to the point, which is that what you carry is not entirely rational when looked at from the outside.
Shackleton saw the banjo as spiritual medicine, and it seems he was right, as crew sing-alongs were vital to keeping up moral.
So how did it end?
The Endurance got locked in the ice on the 19th of January 1915, and sank on October 24 with Shackleton and his crew less than a mile away.
Initially thinking he could walk his men to Paulet Island, Shackleton abandoned that idea after several days of marching showed that his men had made less than a mile and a half of progress a day, on average. Paulet Island was 346
miles away; they would never get there.
What to do?
Shackleton and his crew camped for months on two large flat ice floes, hoping they would drift towards Paulet Island.
On March 30, 1916, Shackleton ordered his crew to shoot the remaining dogs, and they feasted on the younger ones.
A week later, the ice floe that they were camping on broke up, and the men took to the life boats and ended up on Elephant Island, about 346 miles from where the Endurance sank.
Now desperate, Shackleton and a few of his men embarked on an 800-mile journey in one of the 20-foot open whaling boats. Their goal was to reach the whaling station on South Georgia. Twenty two of Shackleton's men where left behind on Elephant Island
After more than two weeks at sea, and after surviving a hurricane, they landed on the wrong side of South Georgia and traversed the island nonstop over 36 hours, arriving at the whaling station at Stromness on the 20th of May, 1916.
Shackleton set out to rescue the rest of his crew on Elephant Island, which he managed to do with the help of the Chilean tug Yelcho and the British whaler SS Southern Sky.
On August 30, 1916 all 22 of Shakeleton's men were evacuated from Elephant Island alive.
Today, you can buy a Shackleton banjo (made in the UK) and there is even a South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands coin featuring Ernest Shakleton.
It's worth two-pounds. Of course.
And what do I carry with me on a regular basis? That changes around a bit, but this morning this is what is in my small canvas "coffee bag".
What things do you carry?