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Storyteller Lawrence Howard relives Shackleton's heroic struggle on stage

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Lawrence Howard has been invited to take his well-crafted solo show, 'Shackleton's Antarctic Nightmare,' to the United Solo Festival in New York City. Howard has long been fascinated by Shackleton's adventures.A little more than 100 years ago, there wasn’t a global positioning system. There wasn’t a detailed map. There wasn’t a flag flying, or certainly a U.S. scientific base with a nearby movie theater and bowling alley. It was just barren, uncharted ice for miles to see at the South Pole on the uninhabited continent of Antarctica.

In fact, when Norwegian Roald Amundson led the first group to reach the point at zero longitude and latitude in December 1911, equipped with early 20th century navigational equipment, he thought one thing: There was nothing to distinguish where he was standing from anywhere else on the horizon. It was a mystical, arbitrary, imaginary and symbollic place — not any different than 20 feet away.

But, he planted the Norweigan flag there, followed five weeks later by Brit Robert Falcon Scott and his men, who not only arrived disappointed after finding the Norwegian flag planted at the South Pole, but they also perished on an attempted return out of one of the godforsaken parts of the Earth.

What happened next in the days of iconic explorers and adventurers has become the primary passion for Portland resident Lawrence Howard, whose life changed when he stood in his family’s home and plucked Alfred Lansing’s 1959 book “Endurance” from his father’s bookshelf, a teenager just curious about the brave and courageous. He read, and it told the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to traverse the great white continent, having already been trumped by Amundson and Scott in reaching the South Pole, only to be associated with one of the most heroic stories of survival of modern times. Twenty-eight set out to traverse Antarctica, 28 survived to tell about COURTESY OF LAWRENCE HOWARD - Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew lived on the ice-trapped 'Endurance' for 10 months, and several more months on ice on an ill-fated trip to Antarctica.

Heroic escapades

Howard has read about everything in print about the Brit Shackleton and the men of The Endurance, and he has been sharing his knowledge for several years through storytelling in “Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare: The 1914 Voyage of The Endurance.” Originally, it was an ode to his father, Martin Howard, who died in 2003. Father and son reveled in the story. In October, the younger Howard takes his story back to New York City, as he has been named to the lineup for the third annual United Solo Festival ( He’s aided by a professional development grant by Regional Arts and Culture Council.

“I feel pretty honored to be invited,” says Howard, a 57-year-old Northeast Portland resident, a paralegal and co-founder with wife Lynne Duddy of Portland Story Theater; Duddy directs his show. “I was surprised, really. I didn’t think they’d want to include a story that was as long as this one (two hours, 20 minutes). But, it is such a compelling story. I don’t attribute that to myself. It’s just the story.”

With period maps of what had been explored and historic reproduced photos, Howard leads listeners through the tale of Shackleton’s adventure, which serves as the epitome of the will of men.

Amundson and Scott had taken the glory — Scott and his men as martyrs, despite being the runner-up in the quest to reach the South Pole — and Shackleton, a big dreamer, knew he had to do something different. Earlier, he had gone with Scott on the voyage of The Discovery in 1901, only to come up short of the South Pole. Six years later, he led the Nimrod Expedition, and he and three companions came within 97 miles of the South Pole, knowing that had they tried to reach their ultimate destination, they would have died on the way back.

But, Shackleton’s third attempt at glory on Antarctica quickly turned into one of survival, when The Endurance, after leaving South Georgia Island, became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea, short of the continent. For 10 months, through temperatures dipping to 40-below — 10 months! — the crew sat on The Endurance waiting for ice to thaw, fit with plenty of food and fuel and plenty of CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Storyteller Lawrence Howard says men who explored Antarctica were courageous souls who received much fame – even in death.

Ice didn’t thaw, it crushed the ship, and men camped on the ice for months — months, in the frigidness. When ice started to melt, the men fled on three lifeboats, enduring seven days in woeful conditions to reach tiny Elephant Island.

“Shackleton realized nobody would rescue them from Elephant Island,” Howard says. The only chance would be for Shackleton and some crew to take one lifeboat back to South Georgia Island; by sail, it would have been impossible to get to the nearest point, Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. The winds and seas would have torn them apart.

Still enduring tremendous swells, the men aboard the lifeboat James Caird — named after one of the trip’s sponsors — “made a journey of 800 miles across one of the stormiest and most perilous oceans in the entire world,” Howard says.

It took 17 days to crash-land on South Georgia Island, but to Shackleton’s dismay, it was the southern shore and not the northern part, the location of whaling stations. Shackleton and Frank Worsley and Tom Crean — “the three great heroes of the story,” Howard says — made the incredible hike across the uncharted mountains of South Georgia to arrive at the whaling stations.

It took four tries and nearly five months to get back to Elephant Island, where the fellow men of The Endurance had survived by making huts out of the two remaining lifeboats.

Miraculously, everybody survived. One man needed surgery for frostbite, another had suffered a saltwater boil on his posterior that became an abscess.

With the horror of World War I fresh in their memories, the British public developed a new sense of heroism that didn’t always include explorers like Shackleton.

After his expedition, Shackleton felt like a failure, Howard says.

“Shackleton was one of those dreamers who was really no good at anything else except grand heroic escapades,” he says. “He tried a million businesses and get-rich schemes. Ran for public office. But he was a guy who couldn’t wear the suit and go to work. He bounced from one thing to another, and was very unfulfilled. In 1923, he got together another expedition on a ship called The Quest, with a few comrades from The Endurance expedition. They set out to Antarctica with no clear objective. On that expedition, Shackleton suffered a heart attack and died just short of 48 years old.”

Examples of feelings

Telling the story never gets old for Howard, who still thinks of his father, a literary fan who he calls “the world’s greatest Armchair Adventurer,” a label he has given to one of his series of stories on legendary explorers. Duddy, his wife, laughs when talking about her husband and the question of whether he has other interests.

“There’s a really nice tribute to his father on YouTube,” Duddy says.

Called “unpretentious” by one reviewer, Howard likes to tell the story in his own way — not as a lecture or with drama or with cue cards, just straight and full of color and facts, in his own voice.

“He gives examples of people’s feelings, how he feels and experiences with his father,” Duddy says.

Much has changed from 100 years ago, when explorers reached the South Pole and North Pole. Inhabitants occupy Antarctica. Technology keeps people safe.

But there was a time when the hardiest souls ventured to such lands with nothing but a strong will leading them on.

Howard often concludes his Shackleton story quoting Raymond Priestley, a co-founder of the Scott Polar Research Institute in England:

“For swift and efficient travel give me Amundson. For scientific discovery give me Scott. But, when the chips are down and the situation is grim and it seems like there’s no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Sir Ernest Shackleton.”

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