Thursday, October 18, 2012

Where are you from?

Me at Emon Beach circa 1995

Since I left Kwajalein in 2002, I am constantly asked the question, “Where are you from?” For me, this has always been a dreaded question. Most of the time, people do not really genuinely care, it’s just one of those questions you ask, akin to “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?” This is another sad fact of life today; however for me this question still carries importance, as I believe that the answer defines me as a person. I am fiercely proud of my humble beginnings on Kwajalein. I love everything that Kwajalein gave me, specifically a childhood as perfect as they get. Nonetheless, it is sometimes a difficult question to answer.
After I left Kwajalein, I moved to Alabama and later went to college in Mississippi. Do I say that I’m from Alabama? Not really. I lived in Alabama for eight years, but I’m not “from” there and I don’t identify with what makes Alabama, Alabama. I’m certainly not from Mississippi. My mother is from Connecticut and my father is from Wisconsin. Do I try and claim either place? No. Sometimes when I am asked this question, I go with, “I went to high school in Alabama.” It’s much easier than describing Kwajalein and it leaves room for interpretation. Most of the time when I answer, “Kwajalein, Marshall Islands” people just nod their head and smile. This is interesting to me, because I know almost certainly that they have no knowledge of Kwajalein and the magical place that it is.
This lack of understanding and knowledge is something that I try to eradicate.   When I get to explain where I grew up, I do so with a smile, pride and the bittersweet nostalgia of a time long since passed. After my explanation some people say, “Well, you’re American. You’re not FROM there.” No matter how silly it sounds, this offends me. I may not be Marshallese, but I am from the Marshall Islands; I am from Kwajalein. I was born there and raised there. I even have a Marshallese birth certificate.
I happily spent more of my life living on Kwajalein than anywhere else in this world. When I think of my one-of-a-kind childhood, my mind drifts back to bonfires on Coral Sands, the snack bar that always gave me more chicken nuggets than I ordered, sandy floors, watching the nighttime missions on Emon Beach, buying donuts alone as a four year old (and then crying when I lost the change that I put in my basket), my custom bike my Dad constructed, shaving cream socials, day trips to Bigej, watching the dolphins swim alongside our B-boat, ocean side tide pools, the sound of monsoon rains on my trailer, going to my Mom’s work every day after school, riding my bike home for lunch, husked coconuts, using “Yokwe!” as a common greeting, feeling like I was part of a large, extended family clustered on a tiny island and so much more. I could go on for days about my home, and that’s what Kwajalein really is to me: Home, in every sense of the word and all that word implies. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Postman Bob's Arrival on Kwajalein

I remember arriving on Kwaj in August of 1991. I knew little of the island, or the atoll, or of the Marshall Islands, except for stories repeated by my parents who had close friends who lived on Kwaj a decade or so earlier. However, being a fairly new government employee (of U.S. Army Missile Command at the time) I recognized the opportunity as being a golden one, not only for the so-called paradise, but hopefully for career advancement.

The travel, arrival and orientation process (at the time) was rather unorganized, but USAKA and SMDC civilian personnel offices helped me through it. I flew from Huntsville, AL to LAX to Honolulu and spent a few vacation days on Waikiki before heading to Kwaj via Hickam Air Force Base. Waikiki was awesome and I highly recommend staying at the Outrigger Reef for a few days. The flight out of Hickam was on an Air Force C5A, a HUGE cargo transport plane, which was cold, uncomfortable, yet exciting at the same time. A box lunch was provided during the five-or-so hour flight.

Descending onto Kwaj was unbelievably memorable. Oh, how I wish I would have had a camera in my carry-on. Many of the surrounding atolls could be seen on the descent and the peripheral view of landing on Kwaj was as equally unbelievable. The bright aqua lagoon encapsulated by the islets and then by the surrounding, deepening and darkening ocean drop-offs were truly scenes to behold.

Upon debarking, when exiting the plane onto the tarmac, the rush of humidity welcomed me as if I were arriving on vacation in the Gulf of Mexico on my many vacations in the U.S. I knew I was home.

The on-island orientation and in-processing at Bucholz Airfield was quick and enjoyable, as was meeting my sponsor and being escorted to my residence, a silver-metal trailer which sadly no longer exists.

After settling into my quarters, I borrowed a co-worker’s bike and spent three hours driving around the entire perimeter of the island. Again, I knew I was home.

There will be more to follow on these blog posts and how the acclimation process was so special to me.

Yokwe... Postman Bob

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What being a "Kwaj Kid" means to me

“Where are you from?”

It’s a casual, small-talk question that people habitually ask when meeting someone new. But it was a question I dreaded as an 18-year-old college freshman recently transplanted from a U.S. military base on Kwajalein, Marshall Islands to a small New Jersey college town.

I knew my answer would draw blank stares or incredulous looks or a million and one questions. I didn’t want to be known solely for my exotic hometown. That wasn’t my identity or the most interesting thing about me. Was it? I experimented with telling people I was from Madison, Wis., where I was born and lived out the first year of my life before moving to Kwajalein. After someone familiar with the area started asking me what part of Madison I was from and I was unable to answer, I abandoned that practice.

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of where I was raised. In fact, I was and remain quite proud of and grateful for it. It’s just that the inevitable questions, whose answers now came out like the tired retorts of a seasoned politician, seemed impossible to answer accurately. What was it like to grow up on a 1.2 square mile island in the middle of the central Pacific?

The older I get and the remoter I become from my childhood home, both geographically and psychologically, the more whimsy infiltrates my memories of the Marshalls. It was like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry transported to a tropical paradise, as my dad used to say. There were only two television stations, one that mostly broadcast the news and the other that aired season-old popular sitcoms from the United States. There was no shopping mall to speak of. There were a few restaurants that could be enjoyed if you were okay with dining with the occasional cockroach, which we were. [Disclaimer: I hear the dining situation has improved.]

The lack of prefabricated diversions meant the small community of about 2,500 of us, mostly Americans but also Australian, Filipino and of course Marshallese residents, turned to each other for entertainment. There were no cell phones and landlines weren’t used much. Instead, we’d just ride over to our friends’ homes and walk right through the perpetually unlocked doors. Due to lack of space, nobody owned their own car so we all got around on rusty Huffy one-speeds, unencumbered on our commutes by the isolating bubbles of automobiles.

The relative safety of our island cocoon meant my childhood was an extraordinarily independent one. I was free to roam the streets and beaches, gathering shells and palm fronds for the fort in my friend’s backyard that was alternately an ordinary kitchen or a witches’ lair, depending on what we wanted to cook up that day. The nightly test of the island-wide emergency notification system, known as the “6:00 siren,” called me home for dinner.

My high school was situated across the street from Emon beach and bathing suits were a common uniform during the week for kids who wanted to sit in the sand for a snack or a smoke during their free period.  Our weekends consisted of 6-month old movies at the outdoor theater, campfires on the beach, lots and lots of swimming, and more often then not simply cruising on our bikes and gossiping.

The medley of isolation, tight quarters and boredom resulted in exceptionally close bonds, the likes of which are difficult to form under different circumstances. These bonds, along with the shared experience of growing up on Kwajalein, are what define a “Kwaj Kid.” There is a virtual army of adults across the United States made up of former Kwaj Kids. We’re everywhere. Which means I have brothers and sisters anywhere I could want to go. There is someone, multitudes of people really, in every state whose doors are always open to me and who know they always have a place on my couch.

As I’ve made a life in the United States over the past six years, Kwaj Kids have remained an important, if intermittent, part of it. I’ve skied with them in Colorado, swam with them at Florida beaches, danced with them under the Alabama stars, shucked oysters with them in New Orleans, caught plays with them in Manhattan, sang karaoke with them in Nashville and toasted with them in Chicago pubs. I’ve rarely been able to share a Thanksgiving dinner with my parents in the years since I left home, but I’ve been welcomed into a former Kwaj Kid’s house each and every year, regardless of where in this country I found myself.

When you grow up next to each other, practically on top of each other, strong attachments inevitably form. But I think we owe the sense of family that many Kwaj Kids find amongst themselves to more than that. I think the very Marshallese conventions of friends-as-family, openness and generosity seeped into our bones.

The sense of community in Marshallese culture is the strongest I’ve ever seen. Close friends are considered family in an almost literal sense. Distant cousins are hardly distinguished from brothers and sisters. Special occasions are often celebrated by huge extended families and friends donning matching handmade dresses and shirts, gathering to mark the birthdays and weddings of each member.

Although land ownership is a central part of social organization and hierarchy in the Marshall Islands, the focus on ownership doesn’t extend to other possessions. Things are given away freely to those who want and need them. If you compliment someone’s home decor or clothing you may find her insisting you take it home with you. It is the kind of place where people may literally give you the shirt off their back.

Six years after leaving the islands, it is this spirit of community and openhandedness that I’ve tried to hold tight to. 

So, what was it like to grow up on a tiny island in the middle of the central Pacific? I could write a whole book about it. And maybe I will.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Inaugural Kwaj-Net Blog Post

Welcome to the Inaugural Kwaj-Net Blog Post!

What is this blog all about?

The Kwaj-Net Blog is a centralized place to discover recent news about Kwajalein, The Marshall Islands, The Northern Mariana Islands and the broader Western Pacific Islands.  The news is pertinent to people living in these areas who wish to keep abreast of happenings (political, environmental, travel, etc.) around them.

What is Kwaj-Net?

Kwaj-Net is all about community, building relationships and sharing information with people that have a common bond.  Kwajalein Island, part of Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands is that bond.  Kwaj-Net is a series of websites and social media properties linked together for the purpose of raising the awareness of Kwajalein, its residents (past, present and future), employment on Kwaj and connecting lost friends.

Kwaj-Net Online Resources:

Kwaj-Net - The original, and perhaps the first, Kwaj dedication website was established in October, 1994. Developed and maintained by Bob Raymond, its intent is two-fold: 1) To tell his personal island story; and 2) Provide information about Kwajalein and provide links to Kwajalein related websites.  Kwaj-Net will be expanding to include pages for videos, recent Kwajalein Jobs Listings, Kwaj-Net Twitter compilations, updates to the Kwajalein Websites List and a few ongoing mystery pages.  The redesign should be launching in Q4 2012.  Please VISIT Kwaj-Net

Kwaj-Net Facebook - Started in March 2012, it is rapidly accumulating fans.  The news and information is predominantly Kwajalein specific, but occasional posts, videos, photos and fan conversations cover various Pacific Island topics.  Please LIKE Kwaj-Net Facebook

Kwaj-Net Twitter - This is THE news source for things happening in ALL of Kwajalein, The Marshall Islands, The Northern Mariana Islands and the broader Western Pacific Islands.  These are Tweets about news and events that are found across the Web: The Blogosphere, The Socialsphere and The Twitterverse.  Please FOLLOW Kwaj-Net Twitter

Kwaj-Net YouTube - You will find an ongoing list of Kwajalein videos that have been found from all over YouTube.  Videos from other sources may be found on the Kwajalein Videos page of the original Kwaj-Net website once the page is launched.  Please SUBSCRIBE to Kwaj-Net YouTube

Let's Get Connected - Please share these sites freely with all of your Kwaj friends and let's grow these communities so we can hear everybody's stories, reconnect with old friends and provide the richest set of information for anybody wanting to find out more about Kwajalein.

Thanks, komol tata and mahalo,

Bob Raymond
a.k.a. Postman Bob (Kwaj Post Office 1991-1993)