3,000-year-old Ice


By Sally Holland

This is a fictionalized rendition of a story told to me by both Dave and his daughter Emily. The basics are true but the details are completely fabricated. 

Water sloshed over the sides of the large metal tray that the flight attendant carried toward the business class cabin. She leaned over to talk to the passenger in seat 14B.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Rust, but our freezer stopped working,” she said. “I’m afraid your ice has melted.”

She showed him the tray.

“Oh,” he said. Her apology had interrupted thoughts of his daughter Emily who had just gotten her first real job.

“I’m really very sorry,” the flight attendant repeated careful not to spill on him.

“It was 3,000 years old,” he said.

“I know. You told us.” She smiled. “Perhaps you can refreeze it when you get home?”

Dave Rust had come into possession of that particular chunk of ice less than a week earlier in Antarctica. He’d visited a research station as part of his job as a television videographer where he’d photographed stories about seismic readings and melting glaciers. The scientists there warned that the ice shelf would be greatly diminished within the next decade.

The video he had shot was stunning: jagged peaks caused by mountain masses underneath and glaciers that had drifted to alter that topography, vivid blues created by light absorption in the compressed ice, and icebergs floating like rafts on the cerulean sea.

The new research station where Dave and his correspondent had stayed was modern and functional and on stilts that could be extended or retracted depending on the snow level. Dark curtains covered the windows to provide a false night in a place that didn’t see one for months at a time.

Even though it was considered summer, the temperatures had been well below freezing. When outside they wore thick, insulated coats with heavy hoods and wraps around their faces that had blocked everything but their eyes and their mouths. The cold, dry air had still made his eyes water. The mittens that the researchers had provided were of minimal use as he needed his fingers separate to operate his camera. The frigid temperatures had played havoc with his camera batteries sometimes deadening them within minutes.

The scientists took the weather in stride. One evening during what they called the official cocktail hour, they had opened a bottle of vodka to share with the television crew.

“I usually take my vodka on ice,” Dave had said when they handed him a glass. He gestured toward a window where the bright, snowy surface was interspersed with shades of blue ice. “Ice, ice everywhere and not a drop in my drink,” he said with a smile.

The scientists all laughed and one said, “I can take care of that.”

Before he knew it, one of them had bundled up and was outside the window. They watched as he powered up a small drill that dug deep into the surface and pulled up chunks of ice. Smaller pieces were soon dropped into Dave’s glass.

“That ice has been frozen for around 3,000 years,” one scientist said.

“So, it’s antique ice?” Dave said.

“Older,” said the scientist. “Antiquity might be a better word.”

Dave wondered briefly if dangerous microorganisms could live in ice for 3,000 years. Then again, the scientists had clearly done this before and they looked fine. He took a sip.

As the bottle of vodka was quickly consumed, Dave entertained the scientists with stories about the news events that he’d experienced throughout the years. He’d covered wars and natural disasters and crazy despots and different world civilizations including his own quirky culture. He told them of his collection of news memorabilia. He had M&Ms from Air Force One. He had rescued the giant metal boot from a statue of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein but later lost it during the post-war turmoil. He had a piece of the Berlin Wall and a twisted sign from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“What will you take from here?” one of the scientists asked.

“Maybe some 3,000-year-old ice?” he laughed. Someone made a toast to the ancient ice and they finished off the bottle.

In his bed that night, Dave couldn’t stop thinking about the ice.

The scientists were concerned that the ice shelf was melting so Dave felt a certain pressure to preserve some of it now. It could be decades before he made it back to Antarctica. The shelf could be completely gone by then.

Most people in the U.S., or the world for that matter, were never going to go to Antarctica, just like they were never going to fly on Air Force One or watch citizenry destroy a statue of their leader. The ice carried an exclusivity that made it a perfect fit for his news memorabilia collection. To preserve that uniqueness, he would need to keep it frozen. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted some.

Dave spent the next three days photographing researchers, emperor penguins and ice formations, and plotting to transport a block of ice halfway around the world.

The night before he was to leave the research station, Dave asked the scientists to cut out a large chunk of ice – larger than he would need in the end. His access to freezers over the four day trip home was going to be limited and he needed to start with a fairly large piece so that he could stand to lose some as it melted en route. For insulation, he wrapped the ice in plastic, then newspapers, then shoved it in the middle of his dirty clothes on one of his carry-on bags.

The helicopter ride from the research station to the coastline was cold so the ice held up well. It also held up fairly well during the next leg to Auckland although it did start melting a bit – losing about a quarter of an inch of mass. At his hotel that night, Dave slipped the front desk clerk an additional twenty dollars to store the ice in their freezer.

During the twelve-hour flight from New Zealand to Japan, the ice lost a solid two inches. Dave drained off the excess water and tried to work out the same deal with the Tokyo hotel that he made with the Kiwis. The formalities of Japanese culture had him dealing directly with the hotel manager. After a pointed reminder from Dave that he was an employee of a company that frequently used that hotel, he still had to pay handsomely to get them to put the ice in their freezer.

The flight from Tokyo to Atlanta lasted fourteen hours. Add on the two-hour drive to the airport, plus the three hours before he actually got on the plane and his ice was going to be out of the freezer for nineteen total hours.

This amount of time was worrisome. Once he was on the plane, Dave leveraged his Platinum frequent flyer level status to elicit a promise from the lead flight attendant that he could put his ice into her freezer once she had space. This happened soon after she used a bag of her contemporary cubes on the first round of drinks.

Once his ice chunk was safely below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, Dave slept.

Hours later he woke up and began to mentally tick through what he needed to do once he got home. His oldest daughter Emily had recently gotten a full time job in DC and would be leaving a few days after he returned.

He thought back to when she and her sister were little and they had joined him in Santa Barbara when he covered the Reagans on vacation. One year, when they had been especially cute, he had them do news reports. He wondered if that was why she had chosen journalism for a career.

He was both proud of her and excited for her. He loved the life of a photojournalist so much that they would have to pry the camera from his fingers to get him to retire. He wanted the same for her.

He would need to make sure she changed the oil in her car and that she had enough money to cover her expenses until her first paycheck came in. Her mother was planning a special dinner for the night before she left.

That’s what he had been thinking about when the flight attendant interrupted with her apology for the broken freezer and his 3,000-year-old melted ice. Her smile was broader than the one that flight attendants plastered-on for normal customer service.

“I’m kidding,” she giggled. She stepped out of the way so he could see another flight attendant behind her holding a tray with his ice still intact.

ice two“Oh,” he breathed a sigh of relief as the passengers around him chuckled. “You really scared me.”

“We were just teasing,” she said.

“That was a good one,” he replied.

A few days later his daughter left home so excited that he wasn’t entirely sure she would even miss him. She began her future with a clean windshield, a fresh oil change, a cooler full of cold drinks, and a sandwich she wouldn’t eat until she reached North Carolina. He was happy for her. The hand that waved goodbye through the car door window was that of a young woman on the verge of a fulfilling life.

She called home that night to let them know that she made it to DC and was fine and the weather was beautiful and the drive was easy and that her new boss had called to tell her what time to show up to work and where to park and that she was nervous but thrilled to be there. She quickly said “goodbye” and “I love you” and sadness settled over him.

He tried to shake it off by organizing his collection in the garage.

He had gathered quite a bit of news memorabilia over the past few months. He kept two storage units down the road: one was completely full and the other well on its way to capacity. Before he put items in storage, he marked them with where he had made the acquisition and what its significance was to journalism. He loaded his car that night with plans to drop it off the new memorabilia in the morning.

Organizing his collection made him feel better. The news items were permanent reminders of his life’s work. The memories associated with them were his forever. They would never grow up and move away.

The last thing he did before calling it quits for the night was to write a note about his 3,000-year-old ice. He was looking for it in the kitchen freezer when his wife came in.

“It’s ten o’clock,” she said. “What are you doing? We’re out of ice cream.”

“I left a chunk of ice in here. I can’t find it.” He held his hands about eight inches apart. “It was about this big.”

He looked behind a frozen dinner and moved a bag of peas to the side. His wife sat down at the kitchen table.

“Emily used a chunk like that in her cooler this morning,” she said yawning. “It’s probably long melted by now. I’ll find you a plastic bowl to fill with water so you can make another one. It’ll be frozen by morning.” She began searching through the cabinets for the right-sized bowl.

The cool air brushed his cheek as he closed the freezer door.

Emily had melted both his heart and his 3,000-year-old ice, and there was nothing he could do about it.

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