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Explorers Club Oral History

INTERVIEW with Norman D. Vaughan MED'31
December 13, 2003

Lowell Thomas Building, New York City
Conducted by Mark Katzman
Edited by Mark Katzman and John Clay

Vaughan joined The Explorers Club in 1931 and is a Medalist (MED).

Page 1 of 2

KATZMAN: Norman, I'd love to know a little bit about your parents.

VAUGHAN: Well, my father's name was George C. Vaughan. He always used his middle initial. He was born in North New Portland, Maine and went to public school there, then came down to Massachusetts, already in business. He was in business with his two brothers. They were first in the machine business, and then they all three of them went into tanning leather. He and his brothers were having lunch one day at a restaurant where they looked over on a table in the corner and there were two nurses who were putting white powder on the soles of their shoes, on the edges' leather. They were wearing white shoes and the soles were brown. Does that make sense?

KATZMAN: A little.

VAUGHAN: That was the only leather there was--brown leather for all kinds of shoes you'd wear. So here were these white shoes with brown soles, and one of the brothers said to my father, “Gee, wouldn't it be great if we could tan leather white instead of brown?” That would eliminate all the putting of this white powder on the shoes of the nurses. My father went home and worked on his chemicals and came up with a formula that would tan leather white, and he had in the back of his mind selling them just to companies that made nurses' shoes. But it turned out to be very popular with all kinds of things. He named it “Vaughan's Ivory Soles”; a great name, I thought. He had all the nurses' shoe business in the United States, all of it. There were a lot of them apparently, because he did well and he made money.

KATZMAN: Where did he meet your mother?

VAUGHAN: In Salem, Massachusetts. She was living with her parents. They married and that's where I was born.

KATZMAN: Now were you adventurous as a child?

VAUGHAN: Yes, I'd get into all kinds of trouble. I didn't get into any trouble with the law, just with my parents, doing the wrong thing I guess. Just as other kids do. I didn't do anything spectacular.

KATZMAN: Did you grow up dogs in your family?

VAUGHAN: Not with sled dogs; but we always had a dog. I don't remember their names right this minute--but I remember the dogs.

KATZMAN: I believe you went to boarding school?

VAUGHAN: I was at Milton Academy for seven years doing a six-year course. [laughs] I was captain of the football team at Milton, and I thought, gee, when I go to Harvard, I could make the freshmen team. And I tried to, but I found I wasn't any good at all and didn't make it. But I did get on the Black Shirts, which was the fellas that didn't make the freshman team. They formed a group and they were scrimmaging all the time against the freshmen team, and I was on that team that played football every day.

KATZMAN: When you were at Harvard didn't you get into a little trouble and get put on probation?

VAUGHAN: The probation I got into there was on account of lessons. Lesson probation. I wasn't any good at my lessons, and I got behind in that. And the second year I came back, I had to take more freshman courses, but I was a sophomore. It's an interesting thing--I think it's right--that once you enter Harvard you are a member of that class year forever. I was the class of '29.

KATZMAN: Isn't this when Dr. Grenfill came into your life?

VAUGHAN: They recommended to my father that I repeat the year, or I could go to Dr. Grenfill's mission and work there. And if they gave me a good report, the school would take me back in full standing. So my father arranged it for me to go and work for Dr. Grenfill in Newfoundland and Labrador.

KATZMAN: How did you feel going to Labrador, so far away?

VAUGHAN: Oh, I felt great. I thought I was a hero. I thought to myself, I'm an explorer! I went to unknown places on Dr. Grenfill's boat. I got onto that boat during the summertime and I drove dogs for the hospital during the winter.

KATZMAN: Who showed you how to drive dogs the first time?

VAUGHAN: Well, I was a worker, you see, so they gave me an axe and said, You go with the lead dog driver and go in his team out to the woods every day and chop a sled-load of wood and bring it back to the hospital. So I did that with the lead driver, and then he let me take a team of my own, just three dogs, and I went with three dogs and cut three trees, and we brought the trees back in long lengths and then stacked them--I don't know how to describe it because the only way I can think of stacking wood is the way we did it. Just put it on the butt-end and let the top-end go together; a lot of them together. You ever seen wood piled that way? Well, imagine a lot of stalks, just trunks, with the butt-ends in the ground. The light end is up towards the sky. And then bring all the light-ends together. That made sort of a teepee arrangement.

KATZMAN: At that point in your life had you read about some of the great explorers?

VAUGHAN: I had heard about them but not read about them, but I started to right away.

KATZMAN: And did you realize they all worked with dogs?

VAUGHAN: Oh, yes, I realized that. That encouraged me and it made me work with my best friend by taking his father's dog and my father's dog and, although they weren't sled dogs, we put harnesses on them and made them work. And that's how we both got into that. When it came time to work in Labrador his father arranged for him to go. We both served Dr. Grenfill down there.

KATZMAN: What was it like in that remote fishing village?

VAUGHAN: I wouldn't know how to describe the experience--it was very self-rewarding to go in places that none of my other friends had gone. So I had a lot to talk about. I suppose that's one of the rewards.

KATZMAN: Did you go back to Harvard after that experience?

VAUGHAN: I went back for one year and my work wasn't good. I tried to keep up with my classes but it didn't work out. So I flunked out again.

KATZMAN: Was it then you saw the Boston Transcript about Byrd?

VAUGHAN: I was at Harvard studying one night around a big table that my roommates and I had. My back was to the door and the door opened and in came the paper boy as he did every night with the evening paper. We had evening papers then, and this was called the Boston Transcript, and it had a banner headline across the top which said, “Byrd to the South Pole”. I put the paper on the table and said, “Look at this. I've got to go!”

KATZMAN: Did you believe it was your destiny?

VAUGHAN: I don't know…. Yes, I guess I did. I had a hard time getting on the expedition. It wasn't going down and signing up. There wasn't such a thing. I wanted to see Admiral Byrd and ask him personally if I could go. There was no way to do that except the very next day after that appeared in the paper I was at his door early in the morning and a buxom lady prevented me from seeing Byrd, saying, “Nobody gets by me. He's isolated.”

KATZMAN: So what did you do?

VAUGHAN: I said to myself, I guess I'll go to the back door, and then I thought, gee, she would be at the back door, so I wouldn't get in that way. So I kept thinking and thought of going down to the newspaper office where they wrote that article, and I went down there and I found W. A. McDonald, who was the author of the article. I found him and got him to carry my message to Byrd, which he did. The message was, if Byrd would take me, I would work for him collecting his dogs and working and training his dogs all year before he left because it said in the paper that he was going to collect sled dogs. So that just hit me between the eyes and later I got the job with Byrd because I said I'd do it for nothing. Well, I didn't have any money and I had to eat, so I worked at the local restaurant as a waiter and the only food I had for doing that was food that was left on people's plates. What I could find out of the platter that they didn't eat. There was a woman that owned the food, cooked it and she collected all the money--watched me like a hawk. I never did break that rule. I never stole a finger, a pinch of food from the platter. I did that for a year. And I worked for nothing for a year for Byrd. At the end of that time I had collected two of my other roommates and got them to volunteer also. Byrd came to see us at the place where we were training his dogs. He came one day unexpectedly to look us over. He said “I like what I see. I like the dogs. I like you fellas, and I'll take you. All three.”

KATZMAN: Had you met him before that?

VAUGHAN: No!

KATZMAN: What was your impression of Byrd?

VAUGHAN: Oh, gee, he was a hero. I thought he was the best there was. He had been somewhere and he had his naval uniform on. I was overcome.

KATZMAN: Didn't you guys devise some kind of special tent?

VAUGHAN: Yes, we did. We figured the regular tent had a big flat surface to it and the wind could hit that and knock it down. But if we built a circular tent, like a dome, the wind would hit it and bounce off and go around it, no matter which way the wind blew. We designed and made one and we probably sewed that damned thing about eight times, taking it apart, changing it here and changing it there to make it round.

KATZMAN: I know there's a story about the formula for the dog food for the expedition.

VAUGHAN: Oh, the dog food. The company is still in business today. It made around five tons of food which they donated to Byrd as a promotion, saying they supplied the food for the Byrd Expedition and that the food must be good or Byrd wouldn't have ordered it. They made it look as though Byrd had bought it. Anyway, the manufacturer told all their suppliers that they were giving this food away and that they [the suppliers] should give this manufacturer the food for nothing. And some of them, I don't know which ones, had agreed to do it but sent their floor sweepings instead of good food. They sent floor sweepings and it was baked into cake form. When you looked at the cake you could see dirt in it, and in some cases, we found pieces of rope, pieces of string.

KATZMAN: What did you learn from Arthur Walden and your sled dog training with him for the expedition in New Hampshire?

VAUGHAN: Well, we learned that he was a good dog driver. He had a personality that was very highly poised against me because I took a lead in the dogs and he didn't want a lead. He wanted “yes men” to work for him. He didn't like me for that reason and I got into a terrible tangle with him. He carried a gun. He was going to shoot me, I'm sure. He was that mad. He had a terrible hot temper. The Norwegians whom he knew very well took the gun away from him. So my life was spared at that moment.

KATZMAN: You traveled first on the Sir James Clark Ross?

VAUGHAN: Yes, that was the name of the Norwegian oiling vessel. I don't know what you do if you lived your life over again but at that time I wanted to be just as tough as I could be and I wanted to be as old as I could at a young age. So I volunteered to join the hardest job on the boat, which was shoveling coal and ashes every day, all day long. I joined the Black Gang. We only wore a jock strap for clothing--it was so hot down through the tropics--and wooden-soled slippers on the deck because when we pulled the clinkers out they'd come out and drop out of the furnace on the steel floor and spatter. We had these wooden-soled shoes so we could step on the little pieces of fire-burning coal and they didn't burn us. It burned the sole.

KATZMAN: Then it was on to meet the City of New York?

VAUGHAN: When we got to New Zealand with all the dogs we had to then re-pack and re-ship out of Byrd's boat, the City of New York. We had to put the dogs on the deck and lash down their crates. Each dog had an individual crate. They were miserable going down to the ice because when we spattered water over the decks, they got wet.

KATZMAN: Would you share the experience of the crow's nest?

VAUGHAN: Oh yes. Well, I became friendly with a fella named Strom, a Norwegian, and he was the mate on the ship and he gave the orders to us because we were just able-bodied seamen. When it came time for him to go up in the crow's nest to guide the ship through the ice I went up with him and was up there for thirty-six hours learning how he did it. He looked for the little black waters where there wasn't any ice. So in the floating ice, he would go, “Black spot, black spot.” It was very exciting to have done that, once it was over. But gee, it was quite a chore to do it.

KATZMAN: Tell me about seeing the Ross Ice Barrier.

VAUGHAN: Well, here we are going down the open water and in the distance we saw this line on the horizon and that line proved to be a shadow of the ice of the Ross Ice Shelf, which is a very, very big body of ice. As we approached it, it just seemed impossible that ice was that thick, but we had read about it. Of course we had accepted it once we saw it. When we got up to it, up underneath it, nearer, it was so big and we were so small. It was very overpowering.

KATZMAN: You've written that unloading the City of New York to set up Little America was quite a task.

VAUGHAN: Yes. Every bit of the boat was unloaded, two years supply of food and clothing and a portable house that we put down there. It was the first time that I'd ever even thought of a portable house, where you build the wall and have a lot of walls all stacked up together. Take them apart and mold them together. That was all new to me. There were ten teams and only five experienced men, and each of us took on one that volunteered to be a dog driver, and we each had a helper who also drove a team of dogs. So we were running our own and guiding another man.

KATZMAN: I know you were hoping to find the flag of Amundsen.

VAUGHAN: Oh yes. We looked for it, but we didn't even find his house, the housing spot. It had gotten covered with snow, and we didn't have any way to tell where it was. You see, if you don't have landmarks, you can't guide yourself very well.

KATZMAN: You had radio contact with the States?

VAUGHAN: We had radio contact with the New York Times and the station in Schenectady. Once a week they would broadcast from the station directly to us which was our way of keeping in touch with our family because the families were asked each week to send a message to us. So all of us got a message from our family once a week, which was very exciting.

KATZMAN: What's life like at forty below zero?

VAUGHAN: Well, you start out warm because you're in a tent or something and you know you're going out in a forty minus degrees and any degree, any seriously low degree like that, you can hear your own breath freeze. So when you exhale, the moisture in your breath that's exhaled freezes suddenly and you hear a little swish. It's a shhh, shhh, shhh, as you would exhale. And you were prepared for that because you knew that if you inhaled too rapidly, you could freeze your own lungs. So we didn't dare run or anything like that, in any great effort. We could run, of course, but we couldn't pant.

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