By Susan Shinn
Kannapolis native Tom Ballard has always had a sense of adventure.
Which would explain why he’s repairing appliances on Kawajelein Atoll 700 miles north of the equator and 9,000 miles from his hometown.
Ballard, who turned 60 last month, has had other jobs but has mainly worked in appliances.
He and his second wife, Freda, married in 1992 and moved to her hometown of Ahoskie.
“I had several jobs while there, but the one that really stands out in my mind was when I ran a grain and peanut storage company for her brother,” Ballard says via e-mail. “It really gave me an appreciation for the farmer.”
But the lure of the ocean was too much for Ballard to resist, so the couple moved to Hatteras Island. Ballard loved the fishing there, but his wife was unhappy with the isolation in the winter months, and she was too far away from her three sons in Charlotte. His son and daughter live in Pennsylvania.
They moved to Burlington for awhile, then decided to settle in Manteo. They felt it was a compromise, since she was in “civilization” and he was about 40 minutes away from his fishing spot.
Then one day, Ballard was surfing Monster.com and came upon a position available at Kwajalein Atoll.
The position appealed to the adventurer still in Ballard.
“In my early teens,” he says, “I was fascinated by anything that had to do with the South Pacific. I loved ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ by James Michener, ‘Kon-Tiki’ by Thor Heyerdahl and the TV show, ‘Adventures in Paradise’ with Gardner Mackay.
His mom, Betty Ritchie, told him that there was an 18-year-old trapped in his body.
“I guess she’s right,” Ballard says. “The spirit of adventure will always be there, no matter what my age is.”
He applied for and received a two-year contract with Kwajalein Range Services. His wife remained in Manteo.
He’s responsible for some 3,500 appliances on the island.
The atoll is located in the Marshall Islands and is part of the Ronald Reagan Missile Range. The island is 3/4-mile wide and 31/2 miles long. Its time zone is 14 hours ahead of the East Coast. Ballard flew about 12 hours total to reach Kwajalein, including an overnight stop in Honolulu.
Although it is an Army installation, many civilians live and work there. Total population is about 750.
“There are many things to do here, but number one is the diving,” Ballard says. “It’s much like diving in an aquarium with the clear water. Fishing is a close second, which is done out of rental boats.”
Living on Kwajelein is much like living on an Army base, Ballard says. Single men and women live in bachelor’s quarters, while families have trailers and duplexes.
The grocery store is called Surfway.
“It’s OK but sometimes milk and other perishables are limited if something happens to the supply plane that comes in once a week,” Ballard says.
The main supply to the island is by barge.
“There are two of them, so usually, we are resupplied once or twice a month,” he says. “It is quite an operation as everything is containerized and lifted off the barge by cranes.”
The mail runs twice a week.
The island has beauty and barber shops and a Continental Airlines travel office. It’s the only carrier serving the island.
“Most people take a week off the rock and head to Honolulu,” says Ballard, which is five hours by plane.
The island also has two outdoor movie theaters, a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and two saltwater swimming pools.
Because shopping is so expensive, Internet shopping is the norm, Ballard says. “Every trip to the post office is like Christmas.”
He’s also returned to his hobby of photography.
“There are so many beautiful plants and trees,” he says. “The water is so clear, you can easily see fish swimming.”
A series of catch basins provide water for the island. The water is then chlorinated and treated for use.
The main mode of transportation on the island is by bicycle or walking.
“We have trucks and vans for work, but off-duty, you ride your bike,” Ballard says.
Ballard clearly loves this adventure, but does seem a tad homesick when it comes to the food.
He notes that the Marshallese love onions and so most of the food is loaded with them.
“I really do miss my Sun-Drop and it’s impossible to get back here,” Ballard says. “It will be good to get back to the South, where they really know how to cook fish and fried chicken, and make biscuits from scratch.”
Ballard and his wife will spend two weeks in Hawaii as part of a six-week break before he completes his second year of the contract.
“And saving the best for last,” he writes in his most recent e-mail, ” after this contract is up, I have had an offer from Raytheon to work six months at McMurdo sound research station in Antarctica, which I am really considering just for the experience.”
Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Susan Shinn