What do basketball player John Stockton, a sheepdog, Colonel Schultz from “Hogan’s Heroes,” the Secret Service and I have in common? We are all guards. This is something I’m sure my mother never thought she’d hear me say, but this morning, I carried a shotgun on a space mission just in case we ran into a polar bear.
InsertArt(1958318)NOW I’M NOT ordinarily a shotgun-carrying woman, but when circumstances warrant it, I guess most people will do things they don’t ordinarily do. As guard, I accompanied this morning’s extravehicular activity team (the first of the 2003 Flashline season, composed of Steve McDaniel, Ella Carlsson, Digby Tarvin and Jan Osburg) and scanned the horizon for approaching bears, ready to take action if necessary. The likelihood of seeing a bear this far from the coast is pretty remote, but we want to be careful. On every EVA, one member of our crew will stay out of sim and accompany the team as a guard. I’ll talk about this some more sometime, but for now I’ll just say that the EVA suits, our simulated spacesuits, are pretty restrictive, and with helmets on, it’s hard to look from side to side. A bear could easily surprise an EVA team; additionally, someone in a suit cannot move quickly to take defensive action or run away. Our decision, therefore, is to send a guard to protect the team.
In preparation for this, Steve set up a firing range yesterday and offered a workshop on gun safety and shooting, in case we should encounter a polar bear up close. Late in the afternoon, we all went out to the range and practiced loading and unloading the shotgun safely. When time came, I hefted the weapon and loaded it carefully. Then I stepped into the range and settled the gun on my shoulder.
“Lean forward,” Steve said. “Release the safety, line up the bead on the waffles at the target, and fire when ready.” I have shot skeet for fun (or shot at skeet would be more accurate) in the fields of Long Creek, S.C., but I have never aimed at a target for the practice of shooting a live creature. It was unnerving to take aim at the outline of the polar bear Steve had drawn, especially with my crewmates behind me watching, several of whom have served in the military. I have a soft place in my heart for these handsome animals, but the many documentaries about them I’ve seen have shown me how powerful they are. My colleagues here have read that a polar bear can run faster than our all-terrain vehicles can go. With these facts cementing my purpose, I sighted my target and pulled the trigger. To my satisfaction, I hit the target — the cardboard bear’s neck — and I felt more confident.
In fact, we all hit the targets Steve set up, but some of us at least are hoping that any hostile bears we meet, or as my crewmate Ella would say, “isbjörn,” will be ambling very slowly at the same angle.
InsertArt(1958319)So there I was in my jeans and T-shirt (it’s shirtsleeve weather here in the Arctic) outside the Hab loading a shotgun, supervised by Digby wearing a spacesuit. No one will load or unload one of the guns alone; our safety measures require that two people be present to assure that the guards follow proper procedures. Especially once it was loaded, I felt weighed down by the heavy gun (John Wayne never acted in his movies as if shotguns were heavy, but let me tell you, they are) and by the responsibility for the safety of my crewmates. I carry the gun pointed down and crooked in my right elbow, my right hand balled into a fist at my waist. This position, however, gets wearing after a while, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have bruises on my forearm tomorrow where the gun rested against it.
Once the crew left the Hab compound, I followed as they made a pedestrian EVA to mark cardinal points outside the Hab by building cairns. While watching the crew, I became so absorbed in what they were doing that I had to remind myself that I was the lookout and should be surveying the horizon for dangers. The only encounter we had of any kind, however, was a procession of ATVs driven by the only other inhabitants of Devon Island, the researchers at the Haughton-Mars Project.
This afternoon, a different team went out to do some exploring at the edge of the nearby crater — Steve, Peter Lee and Jody Tinsley, with Digby serving as guard this time — and I stayed behind with Ella and Jan to do work in the Hab. Ella and Jan traded Hab comm duties, keeping track of the EVA team’s activities by radio. They kept busy, so I tried to do some work, too.
Feeling tired after the morning’s mission, I sat down a while and took a human factors test — this is a part of Jan’s ongoing research. I can’t say what results my test will show when it is analyzed, for Jan put on some happening music by Barry Manilow, Madonna and Barry White, among others. Soon Ella was dancing in the common room, and I was thinking more about the Copa Cabana than the test questions I was trying to answer. We were in good spirits when our EVA team returned safely to the Hab.
© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to MSNBC.com.