A good place to start is my interview at the offices of the British Antarctic Survey in London in 1963. When I arrived at the specified time I found the office in disarray, with a secretary telling me that they were running late. After a much-delayed interview I was given the address of a doctor I had to see, and when I turned up there I found him in a tetchy mood. I was more than an hour late for the consultation that BAS had booked, he was late for his lunch, and he seemed unconvinced by my protestations that it was not my fault.
At the interview, BAS personnel officer Bill Sloman had made jokes about my slight build. I suspected that it was more a test of my ability to resist taunts rather than concern about my health, but I was still on the defensive. So, I started off by telling the doctor of how I had run in the Comrades Marathon, an annual 55 mile road race in South Africa (although I took care not to mention that I finished four and a half hours after the winner).* When he heard of this, and that I had been a blood donor for some years, he seemed to make up his mind there and then. His mood improved and we raced through the list of individual tests with only one hiccup, as it were.
* This achievement probably gave a misleading picture of my background, although I was happy with that. I didn’t enter that race because I was an athlete, let alone an extreme athlete – it was because I had not yet learnt to ignore dares and challenges. Until six months before the race my history was one of avoiding organised sport, and underperforming when it was unavoidable. Then, during a vacation job, I found myself working with a sports fanatic. He urged the rest of us to join him in various activities, including jogging (or “going for a run”, as we called it back then). Somehow that appealed to me and I kept it up when I returned to university. My friends there were amused by this change, and when they saw a local newspaper article about someone who was training for the Comrades Marathon their comparisons with me were dismissive. The event was less than four months away but before long I felt that I had a point to prove.
Before long I was told to lower my trousers for the hernia test, the subject of countless schoolboy jokes. My problem was not with the test – I was sound enough in that part – but his reaction before it. When my underpants came down, he stared at what I had.
“Good heavens, you’ve got a such-and-such!” he exclaimed.
I couldn’t catch the word he used but if I had anything unusual in that area then I was worried.
“I’ve got a what?” I asked.
“Nothing to worry about,” was the rapid answer, as he rushed on with the test. “Lots of people have them. It isn’t a problem.”
I wasn’t entirely reassured but so long as he passed me as fit I wasn’t going to question any aspect of his decisions. Presumably it was something distinctive but harmless, perhaps on a par with freckles or a dimple on the chin. The examinations continued, as fast as I could undo and then refasten buttons, and the result was that I was given the all clear. I thus became a Fid, as BAS employees were commonly called, and I was allocated to the base at Halley Bay.
We jump to the winter of 1965; I had been in the Antarctic for over a year and had spent the summer sledging in the distant mountains. Now, in the indoor season, one of our many late-night discussions covered our interviews. The best story came from Ian Ross, when he too had run into a doctor in a hurry. During the examination the fellow had snatched the spectacles from Ian’s face and held them up to the light.
“One eye, slight correction. Other, plain glass, no correction needed. Right, put these back on.”
At Halley Bay, Ian was one of those who regularly fell asleep on the benches in the lounge and we had noticed that he often slept with one eye open, a sight that some of us found a little disturbing. The explanation turned out to be that the eye concerned was virtually blind, and so he had no need to close it to get to sleep.
Back at the examination, Ian watched the doctor write this down but said nothing. The medical report was his responsibility and Ian had done his part by turning up and giving truthful answers to all questions. After that, it was up to BAS.
I said nothing as I listened to these tales but that memory from the day of my own interview was nagging at me. The doctor said that he had spotted something unusual when I removed my underpants but he had not elaborated. Now, at times I was suffering from regular discomfort in that region; was this from whatever he had seen? Choosing a time when I could be sure of no interruptions, I conducted a closer testicular examination than I had done since my early teens.
From each ball I could feel several thin tubes or blood vessels leading up and into the abdomen. These were the problem, with those on the left being painful to the touch, as if stretched by the weight on them. And indeed, that ball was decidedly larger than the other but I could remember reading, some years earlier, that the body is not perfectly symmetrical and that the left one is normally slightly larger and hangs lower. At the time I had checked my own and could clearly remember noting that it was so.
It’s worth a quick digression on underwear. BAS provided us with a comprehensive clothing issue when we passed through Stanley, with some excellent items and a few that were less admired. Least popular were the “drawers, cellular”, commonly called by the feeble pun “drawers Dracula”. Back in Britain, returned Fids often warned those about to go down and advised them to take their own choice, normally Y-fronts. I had brought my own stock, but some years earlier I had found that with my lean build the high waistband of such designs cut into my waist. A briefer style solved this problem, and my preferred brand was Jockey Skants. Their design seemed to give more support than most others but right now even that was simply not enough for the weight dangling on to them.
Then one day the discomfort outweighed the embarrassment and I felt that I had to raise the subject with our doctor, John Wilson, although I couldn’t bring myself to approach him in his rooms. He and I were paired on the dog-feeding rota, and so while we were preparing the seal portions I described the symptoms vaguely and asked whether such swelling of the tubes was a known problem. His reply came with an embarrassed giggle.
“You can have inflammation of the testicles themselves. That’s called orchitis, but you clearly don’t have that. If you did, you’d know all about it.”
Both of us were clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, and so we left it at that. We fed the dogs and then went our separate ways, although I did have another look to check whether the testicle itself was at all inflamed. It was certainly larger than the other, but not inflamed or tender like the tubes above it. I felt that I could rule out orchitis, and after that I just gritted my teeth and tried to ignore it. Perhaps it was just my underwear getting slack after more than a year of use, and no longer providing enough support.
Writing about this incident from a distance of over half a century, I’m amused by the degree of self-deception that the human mind can create for itself. Back then, I told myself in all seriousness that it could be normal, or at least within the spread of possibilities that class as normal, to have such a difference in testicle size. Even so, some corner of my mind found it abnormal and told me that as a scientist I should make some estimate of size, for the record. Looking around my untidy bunkroom for some comparison, my eye fell on a souvenir emperor penguin egg that I had carefully rinsed out after the contents had been removed for the cook. That, I found, was exactly the same size as my left ball, meaning that it must have weighed many times as much as the right one. For readers who don’t have an emperor penguin egg to hand I can say that a tennis ball would fit inside one with enough space to rattle about.
After that I tried to put it from my mind, apart from the regular twinges at which I would remind myself of that doctor in London and the assurance that there was nothing to worry about.
We jump forward again, this time to mid-September but still in 1965. By now the spring field trip was under way, with the surveyors and geologists heading to the mountains with their dog teams, accompanied by the tractors that hauled the vital stocks that would sustain the field workers for a summer away from the Base. The dog-handlers travelled in pairs, with Doc John and me driving the Hairybreeks and sharing a tent.
For the dog men, this was very physical work. We shuffled along on our skis at the rear of the sledge, one hand holding a cord fixed to the front of the sledge and the other holding the handlebar (vertical on a Nansen sledge, unlike the horizontal handlebars of a bicycle) to help with balance. In a full day we could cover twenty-odd miles and for most of the route our course was almost straight into a biting easterly wind, typically 10 to 20 knots. We could turn our faces to the side, sheltering in the anorak hood, but the pair took alternate hours to drive the dogs and whoever was on duty had to face fully forward to watch them and shout regular commands to remind the team that we were still there.
At times one of the pair could ride in one of the tractor cabs and gather his strength in the warmth, and for part of the route the dogs were harnessed to a cable between sections of the tractor load. With this arrangement, one man was still needed outside to watch the dogs in case of trouble such as a tangled trace or a dog falling and being dragged along, but this man could sit on the load on the upwind side with his back to the wind. Valuable as these opportunities were, for a substantial part of the route, and particularly in the first hundred miles or so, the drivers were in effect on their own.
Later in the trip we had temperatures in the minus twenties or teens but at the start minus thirties and at times minus forties were more the rule. Doc John in particular was feeling the cold, with frequent patches of frostbite on his nose. I sympathised with him, particularly because I too had suffered badly with the cold at the same stage of the spring trip a year earlier. However, within weeks as the season advanced and the temperatures rose I got into my stride, and the result was a summer that I enjoyed hugely. Better still, this year I was having far less trouble with the cold, presumably because I’d learnt to choose my clothing better and wear it better. I felt that before long John would similarly find that the early discomforts would morph into an exciting and unforgettable experience.
After the last time I mentioned my testicles to John, the discomfort had not gone away but just subsided to a low, nagging, level. I was prepared to put up with that but now things flared up again. Day after day as we marched along, those tubes above my left ball stretched and ached with the weight that was jolting about below them. It was clear that I needed medical attention, and this time when I mentioned it to John he insisted on making an examination. Blushing, I removed several layers of clothing and revealed a crotch that had not been washed for over a week. I looked to see John’s reaction and saw his face beaming with unbridled delight.
He had a patient! There was more to his existence than just plodding along behind the dogs all day, or boiling up scradge for dinner every second evening! He could be a doctor again! Eagerly he opened up his medical bag, talking excitedly as he searched for items.
“Yes, it’s huge – no wonder the weight is causing you discomfort. However, the testicle itself is actually still the normal size. That’s a sac of fluid that’s formed beside it, called a hydrocoele.* It should be filled with clear, yellowish fluid although we have to check that first. There are other possibilities such as a haematocoele, where the fluid is blood. There’s a clever wheeze for telling them apart, and you need a torch. Just lie back.”
* Pronounced hydro-seal, and in fact my diary entry is of a “hydroseal” after hearing him speak it.
While he found his torch, and laid out the matches for easy access, he continued but more to himself than to me. “Ah, I should have insisted on making an examination when you raised this earlier. Skipping the examination always turns out to be a mistake.”
I let him ramble on. Personally, I preferred it this way – what would he have done if he had seen this a couple of months earlier? Might he have declared me unfit for field travel? I certainly didn’t want to miss out on a chance to make some last geological checks in those distant mountains.
He blew out the candle that provided our only illumination and held the torch to my scrotum while I hoped that it was too late in the evening for any of the others to turn up at our tent on a social call.
“Look, it’s glowing yellow! Yes, it’s a hydrocoele.”
Raising my head, I saw it as an eerily orange dome-like structure standing out in the dark of the tent. I would have been amused had it not been an important and painful part of my body.
“The whole thing is glowing – is it all fluid? And anyway, it’s orange,” I pointed out.
“Oh, yes, it blows up like a balloon. As for the colour, that’s just because of the blood vessels in the skin. Allow for that and it’s obviously yellow. Now, we can aspirate it.” He relit the candle and resumed the rummaging in his medical bag.
Aspirate it? What did he mean by that? Before I could ask, my imagination was racing off with the few clues that it had, searching my mind for explanations. Aspiration was breathing, was it not? Following this line, the image in my head linked human breath to balloons and came up with a frightening picture of that orange dome inflating ever larger.
“Aspirate? What does that mean? You aren’t going to pump it up, are you?”
“Don’t worry, it’s quite the opposite,” he replied, chuckling at my concern. “Aspiration is like an injection in reverse. You stick in the needle and then use the syringe to withdraw fluid rather than introducing it. Just hold still.”
I watched as he wiped down an area of the tautly-stretched skin with antiseptic, but when he picked up the syringe I had to look away. Then an urgent thought arose.
“Look, even if that huge mass is ninety percent fluid, that still leaves ten percent that’s part of me. Isn’t there a one-in-ten chance that the needle is going to stab right into my left ball?”
“No, the sac of fluid is nearly always in the same position, so if I insert the needle here it will go straight into fluid. Now, don’t twitch as the needle goes in.”
I clenched my teeth in case he was wrong but all I felt was the brief twinge that I remembered from blood donor sessions. A few seconds later I opened my eyes and saw in his hands a syringe half full of clear yellow fluid.
“See, nothing to fear,” he grinned. “It’s a pity that my largest syringe is only 50 mls, so I’ll have to empty and refill several times.”
So he did, five times, until what had been a large and firm bulge was lying flat and deflated. He removed the needle, I raised myself up on my knees to test things, and I could hardly believe the lightness and convenience of being normal again. I thanked him profusely.
“It will certainly feel better but it isn’t a cure,” he warned me. “The fluid will start accumulating again, and the real cure will be a small operation when you get back to Britain. Meanwhile, you might need to have it aspirated again if it fills up too fast. I’ll give you a letter to hand to the doctor in Stanley, telling him what I’ve done.”
Right now I couldn’t see that far ahead. I just rejoiced in the absence of the constant dragging feeling and wrote light-heartedly in my diary “A load off my mind!”
We still had well over a hundred miles to cover before reaching the mountains, and then my geological quest took us (two and a dog team) to the far end of the range and back, another hundred-plus miles. At first sledging was a delight with my gonads down to a normal weight, but within only a week or two John’s warning became reality. Whatever sac or fold had trapped the fluid in there, it was doing it again. It was soon back to its size before treatment. Still, there was geology to be done, and that meant sledging to where it was, so I hitched my underwear higher and carried on.
During this time, with different parties each setting off in their own direction with different tasks, disaster struck. A tractor fell down a crevasse and three of our party died there. It seems dreadful to skim over this tragedy in only a sentence or two, but it is a story in itself and belongs elsewhere, in full. The relevance to the present story is that one of those killed was Doc John Wilson.
By early December I was one of those who returned to the Base, and I recalled John mentioning that aspirating it on Base was feasible. Now I wondered: would that be a good move? Phil Cotton was our Base Leader, so in late December I told him of the situation. We opened the letter that Doc John had given to me, and the details there were sent to Dr Slessor in Stanley. His telegram giving the go-ahead arrived on New Year’s Eve, and in his capacity as our stand-in medic Dick Stokes was willing to have a try. We moved straight into action.
In the surgery we gathered the items we needed and I stripped down. First I mopped the skin clean with some antiseptic as John had done, and only then did I grasp how completely Dick was counting on my instructions. My picture of the operation had him going smoothly through the same actions as John had but now I realised just how much detail I had to provide.
He had come south as a meteorologist, and had not even given an injection before. I had to tell him where to insert the needle; could I remember exactly where John had placed it? I had not watched it go in but I had seen it as he aspirated. Trying to appear confident, I pointed to a spot – and got it right. With Dick’s cautious approach he needed three needles and two syringes before managing to remove 150 mls of fluid. It was an impressive performance for a complete beginner, and once more I had a couple of weeks of free movement.
Nowadays I regret that I took no photos for the record. Quite apart from the question of embarrassment, I can remember that one factor holding me back was the thought that even owning such a picture would probably contravene some or other law of that time concerning matters of indecency. In those days, the world was a different place.
A month later I left on the relief ship, and in Stanley I went to see Dr Slessor. With the luxury of a proper surgery and its facilities, plus his far greater experience, he conducted a much more thorough examination than John had. The examination was neither painful nor even particularly uncomfortable but my mind was adjusting to changed circumstances. At Halley Bay I was prepared to face things fatalistically, accepting that some facilities were simply not available until we returned to the wider world. Now, in the relative civilisation of Stanley, I seemed to feel more vulnerable. John had mentioned that there were possible complications to my condition – rare, but not unknown, and now I might have to face up to them. Suddenly I was much more frightened than, say, by the sight of a hesitant Met man preparing to insert a needle where I guessed it should go. Throughout the process I lay rigid, my body in a spasm, and for the next day or two the muscles all the way up my back ached. As for the hydrocoele, the doctor could find nothing untoward and agreed with John that a minor operation was all that was needed.
For some relief until then, he suggested that wearing a jockstrap might help. I had never tried one although I’d seen some rugby players with them in my school days. From what I remembered it was hard to picture them giving much more support that I was already getting from my underpants, but any possible help was worth a try. A week or so later we called in at Montevideo in Uruguay, and I tried in several shops selling menswear. The main result was that I gave a series of shop-owners two chuckles – the first as I had to assist my minimal Spanish with gesticulation, and a second when they realised what I wanted. The upshot was the same each time; they didn’t have one, although one seller who spoke English helped my later enquiries by telling me the Spanish word for a jockstrap. “Un suspensor”, he told me, and I liked the word. It certainly had the sound of something that would help with a dangling problem – had one been available.
Our journey continued, and as the Kista Dan approached the tropics sunbathing became a popular pastime. “Russ” Russell, one of our radio operators, asked me why I didn’t join in and as he was a close friend I told him in confidence about the hydrocoele. It was large enough to prevent me from lying comfortably on my stomach, whether in the sun or in bed, and if I lay on my back in swimming trunks it would have been embarrassingly prominent. I began to tell him about the treatment I had had on Base when he interrupted.
“Yeah, I know about all that.”
“What? Only Phil and Dick should have known; who told you?”
“When it went to Stanley I was the one who sent the message.”
“I would have thought that they could have sent it in code,” I grumbled.
“Oh yes, those things were always in code, but some patterns repeat so often that you learn what they mean.”
That shook me, as this was the era of the Cold War. If messages from British outposts could be read by a casual operator, the Russians would surely have cracked them in no time. Was it as bad as that? In later years several former Base Leaders, from various bases, explained the situation to me.
There were two codes, one relatively simple but adequate for local use such as protecting messages from visitors to the radio shack who might see a sheet of paper on the desk, or some radio ham whose tuning found a station sending out a stream of Morse and who copied it down for a few minutes to see whether it meant anything. The other was much more secure, but also more complicated to operate, and so for most of the time they used the simple one. This used a dictionary-like book where one could look up commonly-used words and phrases, or letters to spell out unusual words and names. For each entry there would be some five-letter group like ZWRCL, and a matching list was used at the other end to decode it all. Probably the only one that was memorable was a full stop, which was ABABY but better remembered as “a baby”. One informant insisted that the list of commonly-used phrases included “The price of bananas in the market today is…”. Presumably the codes were designed to serve Britain’s representatives in all corners of the Empire.
As for Phil Cotton and Dick Stokes, I should not have questioned their integrity. After we docked it was several decades before I met Phil again, and just over half a century until I saw Dick once more. Both of them had kept the matter confidential throughout that time, and I can only admire them for their diligence in holding back on what could have made quite a good tale for them to tell.
Back in Birmingham, where BAS geologists were based, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was alongside the university and BAS had already booked me in for the operation. There I spent an entertaining week or so on West Ground Ward in an atmosphere more like a small club than a medical facility, and John was proved right. That was all that was needed.
At first I was still rather embarrassed about the whole affair – society was much more prudish in those days – although it was unavoidable that all the other Fids at Birmingham University were aware of my hospital stay and its reason. As the years rolled on I became more relaxed, and society became more open on matters with sexual links to a degree that we could never have imagined. Now, over fifty years later, I hope others will agree that it’s a story worth sharing more widely. If nothing else, it shows yet another variant of the situations that we sometimes faced, and overcame with Fid ingenuity and improvisation, in those far-off times.