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Alone on the Ice | Article

Bolling Byrd Clarke

Bolling Byrd Clarke, daughter of Richard E. Byrd, was interviewed in 1998 for the documentary Alone on the Ice.

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Bolling Byrd Clarke, WGBH

Her Father's First Flight

Q: Do you know the story about your father's first flight in the old Curtis Flying Boat and what kind of impression it made, his very first flight. 
BBC: That was a plane that looked like it was put together with match sticks and glue and that the slightest puff of wind would blow it over, which is in fact, did happen on occasion. There was no cockpit on the fuselage. You just sort of, you just sat on the fuselage rather and Dad was up for five minutes and was just thrilled and he decided then and there that he was going to learn to fly. Now, in those days of course, people thought you were all kinds of a fool to fly. It was much too hazardous but Dad felt that the plane would some day become a real benefit to mankind and he set out to prove that. 

Her Mother, Marie Byrd

Q: Can you describe your mother and tell us what she was like?
BBC: My mother I think was a very exceptional, extraordinary woman. She not only took care of the family and the home and the finances for long periods of time, without Dad. In fact, she always did this on her own, so that Dad felt free to pursue his work on his flying and expeditions. She was a very ah strong woman. Can you imagine what it would have been like to live to be the wife of this man, who was constantly undertaking hazardous trips and flights and planes that at a time were very very dangerous. He had came close to death several times but mother was able somehow to put up with this and he just depended on her tremendously. She had a lot of common sense and he leaned on her tremendously and asked her advice on all kinds of things and frequently, he would say to us, out of a clear blue sky, you know, you must follow in your mother's footsteps, not in mine, and if it hadn't been for your mother, I couldn't have done it.

Q: How did the household operate with your father away. What was your mother doing and who was taking care of the children?
BBC: The children were cared for by governess' and many as growing up, I really didn't see that much of my mother. I imagine she was taking care of the family business and helping Dad indirectly from a distance. 

Her Father, Richard Byrd

Q: Can you describe your father? What did he look like and what were the qualities that really attracted people to him?
BBC: My father was a very charming man, very much the southern gentleman. He really did endear himself to people and not just adults but children, also. He loved children and children loved him. He had a marvelous imagination, told fabulous stories, one of which I remember was about the "Wiffle Wolf", which was made up of the different parts of animals, including dragons and giant bats and I can remember my youngest sister having nightmares and wasn't allowed to listen 

Q: What was your father like with you and your sisters? Was he playful, didn't he turn pennies into candy and hide in the dark.
BBC: My father loved to play with his children and he had to do magic tricks, taking pennies from behind ears and we did have a wonderful game of, we got older, played hide in the dark. I remember one time he hid up the chimney with the fire still lit. Well, it was still in coals but he hid there and of course nobody thought of looking there. He loved to take us out on trips in our motor boat, down the coast of Maine exploring deserted islands and we'd stop and he'd tell ghost stories or we'd go fishing.

Q: Didn't he like to play games with Marie?
BBC: One of the things that Dad really liked to do when he was home with us and we could be a family together, which was not all that often but we did have a place up in Maine, one of two places that were far removed from the public roads so that we could be a family together. One of the things that we did was to play games and Dad loved to play poker. We had a great big green poker table and I think we used match sticks or something, as poker chips and he also enjoyed playing backgammon with mother. They had a running game going.

Q: Do you know about what your father did? What would he tell you about his adventures?
BBC: I remember one time going to my father and saying, Dad please tell us a little bit about some of your adventures and he turned to me and said, Bolling read my books, like all the other school children. That wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear. But, he really I think, the few times that he was home, the little time that he was with us, he didn't want to think so much about his expeditions, as he did just being with us and enjoying us, on a family level. 

Her Father's Dog, Igloo

Q: Tell me about, there are many pictures of your father with his dog, Igloo. Can you tell me about Igloo and was he your family pet? How popular was Igloo.
BBC: I like to tell children that Igloo was Dad's best friend. He went everywhere with him. I think he was given to Dad by a woman who found him, as a stray dog, knew that my father loved animals and as a result, as I say, Igloo went just about everywhere with him. Dad called him Iggy and Iggy was just beloved by the children all over the world. And, when he finally died, he received letters from children who said how sorry that Iggy had died. He even has a tombstone somewhere in his name. 

Q: So, he would go on his expeditions with him, is that right.
BBC: That's right. He went on the first Antarctic expedition with him. 

Her Parent's Marriage

Q: Can you tell me about your parent's marriage, how close were they? Were they in love?
BBC: My parents were, I think very much in love, from the first day that they met in Winchester, Virginia. The mother was I guess the age of 7 or 9 and was very close ever since. Dad of course just adored her and said you know, children I want you to be sure to follow in your mother's footsteps, not in mine.

Q: How much support did your mother give to your father and how appreciative was he?
BBC: Oh, my mother gave just tremendous support to my father. She was there for him when he needed her and he was just tremendously appreciative of that. He always talked about it and evidently wrote a letter to us about it to, about how wonderful she had been to him. 

Her Father's Public Appeal

Q: How would people on the street respond to your father and how did it make you feel?
BBC: Dad was adulated by the public. Wherever we went people would recognize him. We couldn't really be a family, a normal family together and just take a walk down the street or go to a restaurant or a movie, without people crowding in all over to and wanting to shake his hand and get his autograph. Of course, I didn't like that a bit. We so seldom saw our Dad anyway, I kept thinking well leave him alone, let us have our father for a change.

Q: You were saying that he didn't belong to the family, sometimes you felt like?
BBC: Dad was such a public figure. He belonged really to the world. He belonged to the public, at least I think that's the way the public felt about it. I can remember in our camps up in Maine and the public kind of felt that they owned him and they would come into our camps, even though we were miles away from the main road and had private signs all along the dirt road, that we'd find them wandering around and looking into, breaking, some of them even broke into the house and looked into closets and bureau drawers, like it's perfectly okay to do this, you know. It's like he belonged to them.

Her Father's Absence

Q: How long was your father away at a time and wasn't it more normal to have him gone than at home when you were little?
BBC: From the time that I could remember growing up, he was away which seemed like all the time and actually he was 1925 at the Macmillan Expedition; 1926 was the North Pole; '27, the Transatlantic flight; '28-'30 the first Antarctic Expedition; '33-'35, the Second Antarctic Expedition. So, that there was no time between trips for his family except a little bit here and there. Between the first two Antarctic expeditions, he spent a great deal of time making the money to pay back his debts for the previous expedition and preparing for the next expedition, as well as taking lecture tours across the country, in order to make money to pay for those expeditions. So, when he was home, we saw very little of him and he fit us in, as best he could in his very hectic schedule. For instance he would call us in when he was shaving in the morning and we had a little, I could remember sitting on the edge of the bathtub and chatting with Dad as he shaved and then he would ask us to go for walks with him, which was one of his favorite forms of exercise and where he did a lot of his thinking and a lot of sharing together, with his family.

Q: How did you, as children accept his absences? What was your kind of understanding about why he was away and why that was important?
BBC: I think we took it, we took his being away for granted, like this was a normal thing for a father to do, until we got a little bit older and found that other children's fathers stayed home and of course we were quite envious of that.

Q: What's your memory of the 9 Brimmer Street? Was it kind of a busy, active, noisy place or quiet? What was your sense of your household that you grew up in?
BBC: 9 Brimmer Street was a very quiet house when my father wasn't there. But, when my father returned from his expeditions, it was just the opposite. I really loved it. It was exciting and there were all kinds, he had his headquarters there on the first and second floors and there was always something going on with many members of his expedition. I remember them splicing film together and I remember my sneaking down the backstairs just to look at the film. It was wonderful. 

Family Activities

Q: Can you just remind me some of the things that you did with him when he came home?
BBC: When he was home in the summer time, of course we did all kinds of things. We went on wonderful hikes, we went on trips out on our motor boat. And he gave us each a job and was very stern and strict with us if we didn't do our job or follow orders but he also had a wonderful sense of humor, along with it. He'd take us fishing and exploring deserted islands up, off the coast the Maine. 

My father had a rubber raft which I think he more or less invented for the North Pole flight and I like to think of it as the precursor to the zodiac, which is used today on various expeditions and various tourists groups down to Antarctica. It was a wonderful boat. I can remember as a small child, jumping on the rubber sides of it. It gave wonderful lift.

The Ordeal at Advance Base

Q: When did you know about your father's ordeal at advance base? What did you know about it and how did you find out about it?
BBC: I knew nothing about my father's ordeal until after it was over. My mother, I'm sure knew that something was wrong, as they did at Little America because of the weakness of his signals coming through when he used the hand generator. Something was wrong. They knew it, they must have let mother know. She must have known it but she didn't tell us. She wanted to spare us that worry and it wasn't until he finally was rescued that she told us.

Q: What do you remember about that and how concerned were you?
BBC: I was very concerned about this. In fact, I was old enough when he left 9-10, when I was concerned the whole time, I was old enough to know the dangers of what he was going to have to go through just being in Antarctica. So I don't think I did very well in my studies. I was constantly preoccupied with what my father was going through. I remember mother trying to soothe my fears and not to worry things would turn out okay.

Her Father's Return

BBC: When he finally did get back, I remember him coming to the Navy Yard being welcomed there by President Roosevelt, which was a very unprecedented thing for a President to do. And, I remember when Dad was piped down the ship when it finally arrived and here was a man whom I had last seen straight-backed black haired man and here he was, coming down the gang plank, being whistled down, holding on to both sides of it, with some of his hair having turned gray and all I wanted to do was to just run out to him and just through my arms around him and tell him how much I loved him and how happy I was to see him. But, the part of the Navy Yard where we were, it was a great big square and Roosevelt and the big VIP's and the bands and flags were in the center and all around the perimeter were the crowds behind ropes and I can remember mother putting a restraining hand on my shoulder feeling that I wanted to run out there and to see Dad and I stopped and Dad went up and shook the President's hand. The President gave a speech, Dad gave a speech, VIP's gave speeches, flags waved, drums rolled and I didn't hear a thing. All I wanted to do was to see to see my Dad and finally we went to the White House, had tea with the President and Eleanor and even then I couldn't see my Dad because he was in conversation with Roosevelt. And, I can remember ah Eleanor who was such a beautiful, lovely woman, came to me and she understood what I was going through and put her arms around my shoulder and said, don't worry Bolling, your Dad will be with you soon in your hotel. 

BBC: After all the speeches were over, the crowds broke through the ropes and I can remember that I just rushed right through and up to Dad and he turned to me and he said, not here dear, later when we're alone and I was crushed. Now Dad did not mean to be cruel but he was raised at a time when you didn't express outwardly love or pain and he, mother too. You kept that to yourself. He may have been crying inside as much as I was but you didn't do that in public. 

Q: So, what was it like when you finally did get a chance to see him alone, what happened.
BBC: It was wonderful. We finally, we were alone in the hotel room and I can remember Dad sitting in his chair and all of us were crowding around him and wanting to hug him and sit on his lap talking and just sharing feelings. 

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