Grandma works in Antarctica
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent June 20, 2012 2:22PM
Jeanne Roppolo shows pictures of her trip to Antarctica in her grandson's second grade class at Arbury Hills School in Mokena. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 22, 2012 6:02AM
Traveling to the South Pole wasn’t on Jeanne Roppolo’s bucket list, but when she heard about an opportunity to work in Antarctica, she couldn’t pass it up.
“I knew, I just knew that I was going,” Roppolo, of Chicago, said after a young scientist who had just returned from a five-month government research stint encouraged her to apply for the next mission.
“I’m not a scientist, and I knew nothing about Antarctica,” Roppolo said. “People thought I was absolutely crazy to do it at my age. I thought, ‘Why not? Why not?’ ”
Roppolo, 57, wasn’t put off by the fact that 40,000 applicants competed for about 1,000 jobs, either. She had faced challenges before.
Fourteen months after announcing to her “shocked” family that she was going, Roppolo landed at McMurdle Station, the largest of the three U.S. research stations at the South Pole, in October.
Despite her excitement, Roppolo said not even training could prepare her for that first day of 36 degree below zero temperatures on “the ice,” the nickname the community gave to Antarctica.
“You suck in that first cold breath of air — now, I’m from Chicago and we know cold — and you think, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing here?” Roppolo said.
Extreme weather gear was the outdoor fashion of the day — every day — and layers of clothing were worn indoors. Roppolo said her dorm room never got warmer than 55 degrees. She slept in her parka every night.
White-out conditions were so perilous that community members risked frostbite and disorientation in the few minutes it took to move between buildings.
“If it got to zero degrees, we thought it was balmy,” Roppolo said.
Still, Roppolo thrived in the harsh environment.
Her job as a janitor put her into all the community buildings, experiencing everything from mundane chores to watching scientific experiments.
As a result, Roppolo made friends everywhere in the community.
“No matter what your job was, we were all in it together,” Roppolo said. “It was a true community. No one was better than anyone else.”
She used green notebooks, nicknamed the “green brain,” to help with memory lapses caused by the pole’s magnetic pull, dehydration and harsh conditions.
Roppolo said she wrote everything down.
“In the ‘zen’ of my vacuuming, I filled two green notebooks and two other notebooks,” Roppolo said. “I was writing eight to 12 hours a day.”
Those notebooks are the basis for slide presentations Roppolo has been giving at area schools and various organizations in the Chicago area.
During a presentation at Arbury Hills School in Mokena, Roppolo delighted her grandson Danny Roppolo’s second-grade class with a slide presentation that included the “globe-trotting” cardboard character, Flat Stanley, sent to Roppolo by Danny as part of a classroom project inspired by the series of children’s books by writer Jeff Brown and illustrator Tom Ungerer.
Roppolo and her friends on “the ice” took photos of Flat Stanley participating in all their adventures, often wearing the extreme weather clothing they made for him.
On one adventure, Roppolo drove Flat Stanley to the top of the active volcano, Mount Erebus. It was Roppolo’s first time driving a snowmobile and in white-out conditions, but it was going to be her only chance.
“I did it because I had the opportunity,” Roppolo said.
True to her adventurous spirit, when Roppolo left Antarctica, she and Flat Stanley took the long way home, visiting New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii with some friends from “the ice.”
Roppolo said she used her earnings for return trip, “about minimum wage if you add in room and board.” Traveling on a shoestring. Roppolo walked everywhere to save money, slept in hostels and often ate only one meal a day.
She loved the entire experience.
She plans to share her adventures in a unique children’s book she has been working on since her return — “Grandma Goes to Antarctica.”
Roppolo is planning a second, more autobiographical book for adults.
In each book, Roppolo hopes to encourage young and old to embrace the possibility of accepting adventure in their lives.
“If you get an opportunity … receive it with open arms,” Roppolo said. “You never know what will happen.”
To that end, Roppolo has already applied for a second Antarctica experience, hoping to land the social director’s position this time.
“If I’m going to go back and be in that harsh environment, I want to do something fun and different,” Roppolo said. “I’ll put it out to the universe. If it’s right, it will happen.”