My father was 21 in 1939 when he walked up the gangplank onboard the barkentine Bear berthed in Boston and set sail with Adm. Richard E. Byrd for Antarctica.
It was his first-ever voyage.
For the next two years as a Navy radioman,he prowled the South Seas and the frozen ice of Antarctica on a scientific expedition that ended in 1941. From there he returned to regular Naval service as a radio operator in the Pacific. He went on to to work in the fledgling electronics division of General Electric where they were developing, among other things, the first devises controlled by transistors.
He brought home a handful one time and tossed them on the kitchen table. They were three-legged spiders with little metal caps. They were amazing to us.
My father grew up in East Texas in a flatlands town called China. Even today it seems like just one more small crossroads in vast plain.
China is close to the Louisiana border and the region, especially the city of Beaumont to the south, was influenced by the French culture of New Orleans.
Our family was in that area because in the 1750s a few Daigle brothers went west to the Mississippi River, then south, and settled into the Louisiana bayous and founded the town of Church Point.
They had chosen the uncertainty of that path rather than accept the certain death that awaited those who remained in Eastern Canada during the French diaspora of the 1750s when the British drove their enemy out of the region called Acadia.
From stories told by relatives, it is clear that East Texas and western Louisiana were harsh places to grow up. Flat and dry, it is an area dominated by cattle ranches, but once was home to sugar and rice farms.
As an aside, two uncles had been sugar growers until the 1950s when the Cuban economic blockade wiped out that market and they turned to raising catfish, eventually turning the sugar fields into 50 acres of catfish ponds.
They sold the operation years ago as they retired, but when Uncle Stephen told the story, he had a glint in his eye when he said, “we did pretty well with catfish.”
But oil was also discovered in the region. Spindle Top was one of the first commercially viable oil finds.
Still at the end of the 1930s, the end of the Great Depression, East Texas was a tough place.
It was not a place for young men.
So my father attended radio school in Beaumont, joined the Navy and volunteered for the Byrd expedition.
In the small booklet he wrote about the voyages, he tells of the adventure of sailing the South Pacific, the excitement and danger of visiting such countries as Chile and Argentina, and the thrill and danger of the expedition.
It was the adventure of a lifetime. Given the technology of the era, it was like traveling to the moon, as exotic and romantic as the first voyages across the Atlantic centuries before.
They came home as heroes.
What got the attention of the Boston papers was that my mother was from Malden, a city outside Boston. What a story. Local girl marries Naval hero.
Hero of Byrd expedition and local woman marry…so it went. It followed them everywhere as they moved about the country during my father’s Naval career.
Small newspaper clips said, ” J. Austin Daigle, hero of Byrd trip….”
The small town boy had indeed found adventure.
There are photos that tell this story. In his pamphlet there is one of him leaning out a window of the Bear. He was a tall, lean youth who looked like Clark Gable. In this photo from the Bear, he is a cocky as a kid can be, clearly at home with his mission and at peace with himself.
Two other photos tell a different story.
One is of his extended family taken when he was 12 or 13. My grandfather, old T.E. (his name as Theophile, what a great name) was a tough old bird, but he had to be to hold his family together in the Depression.
The look that draws the attention is the fear and uncertainty in my father’s eyes. He seems haunted even then. That look is only important because in a photo in his trip memoir, he is wearing his Navy uniform. His goal was to be buried in it, so he lost the weight of his lifetime so that at 84, when he died, he could wear his Navy dress blues.
But it’s not the uniform that draw the attention; again it is the fear and withdrawal in his eyes.
We knew late in his life by father as chasing something, some sort of redemption. Or he was being chased by demons . He never told.
I find that look intriguing. When compared to the defiant glare coming from T.E., a challenge to the world to try and knock me down again, ya bastard, the beaten look in my father’s eyes begs the question: What were you looking for, what were you running from?
And that’s why this is about the penguin.
My father brought back from Antarctica a stuffed penguin. By the time I was aware of it as a kid, he’s been hauling it around for nearly 20 years.
He used it as a prop when he talked to school kids or groups like the Kiwanis about the Byrd expedition.
But he never used it as a prop to tell his kids about the voyage.
The story he told me about the Bear came while we were driving somewhere and it came out of the blue.
He told about the time the ship had been trapped in ice for days. The crew listened to the deep booming cracks of the glacier, the groans as it shifted and waited for it to crush the old wooden-hulled vessel.
It was a “wow” kid of story.
But I thought of it later as the perfect symbol of my father’s life — silent, isolated and alone.
I thought of this the other day listening to a Sandy Denny song called “The Northstar Grassmen and The Ravens,” about a friend who dies at sea. I thought about one line: “That is you to they, that is what they think you are. Never on the land, but sailing by the North Star.”
Maybe its the hardest thing to have the greatest event of your life happen when you’re 20 because you have the next 60 years to live it down.
My father died still locked in the ice of the Antarctic, the secrets of the fears, the haunts and demons locked inside.
Michael Stephen Daigle