With his back against the sunset, a seventeen-year-old boy lingered on the docks along the Hudson River. By his calculations, it was a ten-minute swim from where he stood to the ship.
The new high school graduate waited, his soft grey eyes fixed on the City of New York, moored and heavily guarded on the Hoboken piers. The sun went down at six forty-five this day—August 24, 1928—but still he fought back his adrenaline. He wanted true darkness before carrying out his plan. At noon the next day, the ship would leave New York Harbor and sail nine thousand miles to the frozen continent of Antarctica, the last frontier on Earth left to explore. He intended to be aboard.
That summer, baby-faced Billy Gawronski was
three inches short of his eventual height of five foot eleven, and his voice still squeaked.
You are a late bloomer,” his doting immigrant mother told him in thickly accented English. Yet the ambitious dreamer, born and raised in the gritty tenement streets of the Lower East Side, was as familiar with Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd’s flagship as any reporter assigned to cover its launch. The Antarctica-bound barquentine was an old-fashioned multi-masted ship that suggested the previous century, with enchanting square sails arranged against an almost impenetrable maze of ropes.
The 161-foot wooden vessel spanned half a city block, her 27-foot beam taller than a three-story building. Sail- and steam-powered and weighing 200 tons, with sturdy wooden sides 34 inches thick, she had seen duty as an Arctic icebreaker for Norwegian seal hunters starting in 1885. On one run in icy waters in 1912, her captain had been the last to see the Titanic; just ten miles away, he’d been afraid to help the sinking ship, as he was hunting illegally in territorial waters. Like so many immigrants, the ship once known as Samson found her name changed when she arrived in America in 1928, becoming the City of New York. She was the most romantic of the four boats in Byrd’s cobbled-together flotilla, and the one leaving first—with the greatest fanfare—early the next afternoon.
Several times in his mind that evening, Billy dove into the Hudson and started swimming, only to find his feet firmly on land. But he had been on board the SS New York before.
Nine days earlier, he and two thousand other New Yorkers had taken the Fourteenth Street Ferry to Hoboken, New Jersey, and gaped at the City of New York, moored next to the grand Dutch ocean liner the SS Veendam. The crowd was wowed with anticipation. Just past noon, the ship’s captain, Frederick Melville—second cousin of the nineteenth-century author Herman Melville—gave the okay, waving the first sweaty guests up the gangway, their dollar admission supporting the Byrd Antarctica expedition’s fund-raising drive. Several members of Melville’s crew, including the chief engineer, Thomas “Mac” Mulroy,
and sixty-year-old veteran sailmaker John Jacobson, joined him in greeting the adoring public. No, he told them, Byrd was not aboard. Everyone still wanted to gawk.
When it had been Billy’s turn to board, he’d wandered the wooden decks, still cargo free to accommodate guests. The poop aft (rear deck) was elevated, housing Commander Byrd’s cabin, an elegant wood-paneled chart room, and a state-of-the-art radio room with technology that would let the explorers be heard no matter how far they sailed. Under the poop deck were spaces for the machine room and the radio generator. One level down were seven cabins—the cramped quarters where the men would sleep—as well as several storerooms, and lockers for holding mops and paint. He stood in the machine room with other tourists—men and women content to admire all the nifty gadgets. Also aft were the ship’s engine and oppressively hot boiler room.
None of these places had been right for a hiding spot. Forward proved more promising, with its large fo’c’sle (forecastle, a front deck), and a second, smaller fo’c’sle in the peak: a narrow hollow under the bowsprit (a thick pole projecting from the upper end of a sailing vessel) of the boat’s prow (the part of the bow above the water). Here, under this second hidden fo’c’sle, Billy had spied a good-sized space in a shelf. The exposed top fo’c’sle would be visible to anyone on the ship during the departure ceremonies, but the second fo’c’sle would remain dark. Satisfied with his investigation, the lad grabbed one of the commemorative paper cups set aside as a souvenir before heading for the ramp.
Afterward, still on a high, Billy had walked the New Jersey shoreline until he’d scouted the lookout site he was in now, a long distance from the ship but not out of reach for a superior swimmer like himself. Another ocean liner had taken the Veendam’s place next to the expedition ship in Hoboken’s busy Pier 1: the SS Leviathan,
headed overseas the next day, too. The Leviathan dwarfed its famous ice-bound companion vessel in dock.
With the twilight not yet dissipated, Billy still had an excellent view of the many ships going up and down the brackish southern-flowing Hudson. Could a ship hit him as he swam? He ate what little food he’d brought: an apple and an egg salad sandwich. As for what he would eat after that? He hadn’t bothered to think about it.
Even under the dimming sky, Billy could make out the shadowed bodies of stationed watchmen, but he was unsure if they were Byrd’s crew or borrowed Coast Guards keeping vigil. There would be no sneaking up the gangway, the narrow metal plank for boarding. He would have to swim out to the unprotected side of the ship, the side facing the water. Who would think to guard the edges of the ship away from the pier? Once aboard, he did not have a sure grasp on how he would reveal himself to Commander Byrd or justify his presence on the expedition, but he trusted he could wing it.
In Byrd, Americans like Billy now had a superexplorer of their own—someone who could stand proudly beside England’s legendary Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott, not to mention Norway’s Roald Amundsen, the crafty strategist who in 1911 had been the first to reach the South Pole, just five weeks ahead of Scott’s team. The thirty-nine-year-old blueblood Virginian “Dick” Byrd was a slight but strong man with a chiseled, smooth-shaven face. He looked the part of a hero and acted like one, too, admired already for the responsible, safety-first ethics he had demonstrated exploring the North Pole by ship and plane in 1926. Now he had set his eye on the South.
Byrd’s team would be the first American expedition to Antarctica since Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and his exploring party poked around the coast eighty-eight years before, in February 1840. And Wilkes had not even set foot on the continent itself.
When the commander’s four ships reached Antarctica, the coldest,
windiest outpost imaginable, he would unload a specially designed Ford trimotor three-propeller transport plane with a seventy-foot wingspan—the first commercial aircraft sturdy enough to weather a 120-mile-per-hour flight over the South Pole; only 199 of the planes were manufactured. The wings and fuselage were constructed from corrugated duralumin, a light, strong alloy of aluminum, copper, manganese, and magnesium, while the landing gear and bracing were all steel. Byrd’s underlings would assemble it on the ice barrier that guarded the continent of Antarctica, and, with the aid of a pilot, he would fly over the polar plateau, proudly dropping the Stars and Stripes from the sky. Two more monoplanes (a plane with only one set of wings) were sailing on other ships farther southbound to 90 degrees south: a small Fokker and an even smaller Fairchild. With the introduction of airplanes to Antarctica, Byrd and his pilots would have the first bird’s-eye views of its great mysterious interior, and no doubt add to the fragmentary maps of the south polar region, a landmass Byrd believed to be greater than that of the United States and Mexico combined—at least five million miles. But as Billy told his family and friends, no one was sure.
Breathless articles in prominent publications such as Scientific American and Popular Mechanics heralded the dawn of the mechanical age of exploration and asked readers with the sketchiest knowledge of Antarctica to imagine a pilot seeing the United States from the air for the first time, spotting a Grand Canyon here, a buffalo herd there. Was Antarctica home to animals that had never been seen? Indigenous people? Lost dinosaurs?
Even Billy’s Polish grandmother, with her rudimentary English, agreed that it was marvelous to be living in an age when man could do such things as fly over a frozen continent. So why did everyone except his babcia scoff whenever Billy said he wanted to have a life as adventurous as Byrd’s?
In the rags-to-riches decade of the 1920s, everyone in the papers seemed to be living big, meaningful lives, from slugger Babe Ruth, to fashionable Coco Chanel, to comic genius Charlie Chaplin. Jews and blacks had broken through: the Marx Brothers achieved overnight fame after their Broadway debut, and provocative entertainer Josephine Baker packed them in at Paris’s Folies Bergère. New York City in 1928 was the rolling-in-the-dough town immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose smash 1920 debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was assigned to English classes at Billy’s alma mater, Manhattan’s progressive Textile High School. Adults, or at least city dwellers, were having a grand old time; only the most sober investors knew that the stock market was not on a permanent high.
Even once-penniless immigrants were doing better for themselves. Billy knew he would inherit the one-man interior decorating business his father had established after arriving in New York as a destitute young man. Now that his boy would graduate in four short years from Cooper Union, a prestigious, free college in Greenwich Village, Rudy Gawronski was ready to add “and Son” to his sign. Billy’s application to Cooper Union had been decent; he supposed he had a knack for art as well as history and languages, but who wanted to study history when you could make history? The thought of a humdrum future stuffing furniture mortified him.
• • •
By nearly nine o’clock on that August night, darkness draped the sky, and lights began to sparkle on in the new downtown skyscrapers—young, electric edifices from a decade of big money. From where he crouched, Billy could see the pyramid atop the Bankers Trust Company Building on Wall Street; the wedding-cake-shaped thirty-story Standard Oil Building on lower Broadway; the forty-story Ritz Tower on Park Avenue; and the first of the city’s Art Deco towers, such as the New York Telephone Building on West Street, completed
just months before. Great buildings that proved great things were possible.
Billy stayed awake hours into the night, guessing and second-guessing the right moment to jump off the pier. Glory was not for the skittish, he told himself. Still, he was scared about low visibility under blackened skies; afraid that he might lose his way and drown, although he’d easily managed dozens of river swims with his athletic father and with his downtown friends. But was anyone more determined than Billy to hitch a ride on the most famous rig in America? It was the bold, he was certain, who won the right to adventure.
A few minutes past four in the morning, he’d had enough waiting. The young man took a breath and plunged.