Living

Macon couple’s world travels take them to Antarctica

There’s a quote by Gen. Douglas MacArthur on a piece of artwork in the home of Cecil and Elsie Daniels that sums them up perfectly.

Talking about the spirit of youth in an aging body, the quote reads in part, “Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”

It may help explain why, given their respective ages of 84 and 82, the Danielses were willing to tackle their most daunting adventure to date last month -- a trip to Antarctica.

And the trip wasn’t some luxury cruise that sailed near the continent. They went on a full-fledged expedition, traveling by inflatable boat to the mainland and engaging in all sorts of exploration.

Their daughter, Beth Woods, arranged the trip and accompanied them.

Elsie, a retired teacher in the Peach and Monroe county school systems, proudly displays a sweater that Beth made for her a few years ago, featuring a knitted map of the world with red dots sewn in all the spots that Elsie has visited.

“I hadn’t been to Antarctica yet, so she’s probably going to have to add it,” she said with a chuckle.

Antarctica marks the seventh and final continent Elsie has visited. Cecil is close behind with six, not having visited Africa -- yet.

“My daughter-in-law is from Kenya, so I have an invitation to go,” he said.

CHILDHOOD DREAM

Antarctica has no indigenous population (unless you count the multitude of penguins, seals and avian species). Capt. James Cook sailed within about 75 miles of land in 1773, but the first confirmed sightings of the continent itself didn’t come until 1820, when Russian, British and American sailors saw the ice shelf on different voyages. The first landing on the continent may have happened in 1821, but some historians have disputed the claim.

Elsie Daniels first learned about Antarctica when she was a child. Her father read to her by candlelight from National Geographic in the small wood cabin where she was born.

The Danielses have visited every U.S. state during their 62 years of marriage. Their quest to visit other countries didn’t begin in earnest until the 1970s, though, as part of Friendship Force, a cultural exchange program introduced by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Elsie was one of several teachers who went to Ghana to introduce new teaching units in the country.

“At the time, they produced two-thirds of the world’s cocoa beans, and I love chocolate, so I chose to go where the chocolate was,” she said.

Since then, the couple has been to a multitude of countries on the planet’s remaining continents, sometimes together and other times through their work. Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, China, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil -- and more. It’s almost easier to list the number of countries the two haven’t visited.

The Antarctica trip, however, has to count as the most special, they said, particularly since it almost didn’t happen.

Last April, Elsie had thumb surgery that went bad. Between that, other medical procedures and rehab, Elsie didn’t return home until June. The experience, at the time, left her dejected.

“I had given up hope,” she said. “I told the doctor to just take the tubes, the needles, the catheters out of me. I told him, ‘Let me go.’ ”

But the support she received from family and friends helped her get through it. Some of the women at Martha Bowman United Methodist Church knitted her a shawl to raise her spirits, and the doctor encouraged her to set a goal for when she was better.

A few months later, the couple gave the doctor a lot of paperwork that was necessary to clear them for the Antarctica trip.

“I didn’t think you’d go this far!” the doctor told Elsie.

MARCH WITH THE PENGUINS -- BUT NOT TOO CLOSE!

Because of the extreme conditions, Cecil said the tour operators gave them specific instructions on what to pack, what to wear and what to do -- and more importantly, what not to do -- for the trip.

“They issued us boots and parkas, and they gave us explicit instructions as to what to bring,” said Cecil, who is retired from the University of Georgia’s Agricultural Extension Service.

The trip took place during Antarctica’s summer, so it was relatively warm when they went.

“The first day was very warm -- it was 45 degrees,” Cecil said. “Most of the time it was above freezing.”

Passengers were told to dress in layers. There were also specific rules prohibiting passengers from doing certain things. For example, there was no touching the penguins, nor could passengers take any rocks from the land.

“There were actual penguins, and we took several pictures of the penguins,” he said. “But we were given explicit instructions not to interfere with them or alter their behavior in any way.”

So the closest they came to penguins was the stuffed-animal variety they took with them. They also took several pictures with bulletins and newsletters of the various organizations they belong to.

Elsie said the aspect of the trip she enjoyed the most was the scientific and historic lectures that passengers received each day.

The couple took part in most of the activities during the voyage, although they didn’t take some of the longer walks. Elsie walks with a cane, which was allowed on the trip. Walkers and wheelchairs aren’t, though, she said.

The other thing they didn’t do was the “polar plunge,” in which several members of their party took a dip in the ocean in their bathing suits.

Since they have returned, they have spent their time sorting through the hundreds of photos they took, as well as the book their daughter Beth put together to mark the experience. Of all their globe-trotting excursions, they said, Antarctica was one of the best, although it’s difficult to pick a favorite.

Given that they’ve seen most of the planet, what’s next for them -- outer space?

There was a time when the idea wasn’t that far-fetched, Cecil said. He noted that Elsie actually made the cut in the early rounds when she applied for a spot on the space shuttle designated for a schoolteacher on the ill-fated Challenger mission.

Cecil said he’s always wanted to visit Greenland and Iceland, as well as the Scandinavian countries.

During the Cherry Blossom Festival, Elsie -- a member of the 1994 Senior Court -- was waiting with a group of students from Minnesota to get onto their parade float.

“They had come a long way, but I told them they can go even further if they wanted,” she said.

It’s advice the Danielses have taken to heart.

As the MacArthur quote says, “Nobody grows old by living a number of years; people grow old by deserting their ideals.”

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