Personal Essays

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Patrick Kelley.

When the Sun Is Constantly Setting

Eight years later, we continue to struggle with September 11, the day our city was attacked. A report from a more remote position: aboard a military vessel in the Arctic Circle.

It’s around this time of year that the sun begins to set over the Arctic Ocean. In the summer the sun never sets and in the winter it never rises, but in between there is an endless sunset. The sun circles the horizon for days, filling the sky with rainbows, until slipping over the edge of the earth. Eight years ago I worked as a research assistant on a bright red icebreaker deployed in the Arctic. I was part of a scientific mission to study the Gakkel Ridge, the slowest spreading mid-ocean ridge in the world. It spreads at the rate fingernails grow, crinkling the ocean floor around it into mountain ranges.

The boat, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, left from Norway in late July, and by September the claustrophobia I felt at the beginning was long gone. Instead, the predictability of life on board had become comforting. Each day brought the same eight-hour shifts, the same variation of faces performing the same jobs. We cut rocks in half, labeled them, and lined them up in neat rows. Or we monitored the dredge, a huge mesh bag that dragged behind the boat, filling with volcanic rocks, the occasional shrimp, and torn flora that looked like the branches of soft, matted evergreens.

Inside, every hallway was broken up by watertight doors. Outside, the landscape stretched flat and white in all directions. The only things separating one day from the next were polar bear sightings, practical jokes, and the gradually darkening sky. September 11 passed like all the days before it. We were too far out of range to hear the news.

Once we heard, though, the fact that we were on a military vessel manned by the Coast Guard took on new significance. We were no longer allowed to mention our navigation position in emails, a shift in protocol that struck me as slightly absurd. More profound was watching the Coast Guarders begin preparing for war, dividing themselves from people on the other side of the world they might soon have to fight.

On the morning of September 12, the captain called everyone to the lounge to tell us about the attack. Afterward, I walked out on deck with a bunch of the Coast Guarders—Coasties, as everyone called them. They crowded close together, loud and angry. Many were mad about being stuck on a scientific mission in the middle of nowhere. One suggested that we round up every Arab in the U.S. and deport them. Another said we should have turned the Middle East into a parking lot a long time ago. I argued with them, but I don’t remember ever convincing anyone of anything they didn’t already believe.


* * *

The other research assistants on the boat were studying science in graduate school or college, and had learned about the trip from their advisers. I’d heard about it from my father, who was one of the scientists onboard. I was a history major. I tried understanding how the rocks we dredged could teach us about the way the earth was spreading apart, but I only ever grasped the basics.

I wasn’t exactly one of the Coasties, though, either. With their bawdy jokes and big muscles, they were distant enough from the life I knew to be almost exotic. But I could relate to their bemusement with the scientists’ endless interest in plate tectonics. The Coasties I befriended were fascinated in more tangible things, like trucks and girls and what they planned to do when they got home.

We knew that the world was different from the one we’d left, but we didn’t know exactly how it had changed. All we had seen was a grainy photograph of a little plane flying between skyscrapers.There was the huge bald boot camp officer who apologized when he cursed around me, and a recently married bodybuilder who had joined the military to get away from some legal trouble he never explained. And there was the chef who acted much tougher and experienced than he could possibly be at 20, with whom I carried on an unconsummated flirtation.

A few days before September 11, we’d reached the North Pole and been allowed to walk around on the ice. I spent most of the day with the chef, drinking spiked apple cider and trying to stay warm. Later, a group of us planted the American flag and sang the national anthem with a patriotism that felt loose and inclusive. After we heard about 9/11, though, the differences between all of us felt sharper and much harder to ignore.

The days and nights were completely dark by early October, when we started heading back through the Norwegian fjords. We knew that the world was different from the one we’d left, but we didn’t know exactly how it had changed. All we had seen was a grainy photograph of a little plane flying between skyscrapers. And suddenly we were off the boat and headed into town, reindeer grazing by the side of the road.

That night I had dinner with two Coasties I didn’t know well. The woman was a shy southern Baptist, and the man, I’ll call him Mr. B, was a strict Catholic. I often heard Coasties teasing him about his discomfort with homosexuality, and had noticed how quick he was to anger.

Yet somehow, that night, even when our conversation turned to the recently disputed election and the coming war, then to religion, and finally to our different lives, we managed to listen to each other. And eventually we found the unexpected pleasure of connecting with someone whose views and experiences were different from our own. Mr. B had to leave dinner early, and as I watched his body weave between the tables, so rigid and stiff, so unyielding, the events of the evening clicked together in such a way that I suddenly understood that he too was trying so hard to do right, even if our ideas of what this meant were so different. I never saw him again, but I’d like to think he felt at least a bit the same way. Certainly it was no surprise when I asked for the bill and the waitress told me he had already taken care of the check.