The Stowaway: The teenager who went to Antarctica by jumping into the Hudson River

In the 1920s there was an unparalleled optimism for science and discovery, the view that new inventions — created and driven by determined and altruistic men and women — would make the world a better place.

Everything seemed possible in post-World War I America — the skies and seas conquered, the last remaining unknowns could be opened up for human benefit. And if the United States planted a flag there along the way, all the better.

Admiral Richard Byrd was a titanic American explorer, a darling of the media who received three ticker-tape parades in his lifetime. One of these was for his epic journey to Antarctica, an ambitious exploration that was vigorously followed by budding explorers around the world. On the trip officially was a representative of the Boy Scouts named Paul Allman Siple, a picture-perfect young man handpicked for the expedition.

And then, there was Billy Gawronski, the boy who one day just jumped on their ship and came along for the ride.

The Stowaway
A Young man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica
By Laurie Gwen Shapiro

If sheer gumption is a human trait as honorable as actual accomplishment, then we should build a statue to this bold immigrant son of an interior designer. In Shapiro’s splendid recount of Gawronski’s most famous feat, we’re taken upon an magnificent journey from the vantage of the ultimate outsider.

From Shapiro’s book: “Improbably, it was Billy’s no-nonsense father — not his grandmother with a crystal ball — who one day in mid-August leet slip a fateful fact: Rudy had read that Malcolm Hanson, the chief radio operator on the upcoming Antarctica journey, had been a stowaway on Byrd’s 1926 Arctic expedition. A stowaway! Could such a thing be possible?”

What makes Shapiro’s exploration of that possibility so thrilling is its simplicity and innocence. Today such a feat would be viewed with fear, a dangerous entity into a high-security situation. But that was not so in 1928; one needed only the constitution and good fortune to swim the Hudson River and finesse one’s way into the good graces of the crew.

Without giving too much away, the spirited boy had the constitution in spades, but not — at first — the fortune.

Interestingly The Stowaway doesn’t actually spend too much time in Antarctica. The thrill, in this case, is most definitely in the chase.