The Sand Castle

A Lady Engineer in Afghanistan or Anywhere…

Home Sweet Home


My quarters did turn out to be a duplex – big, strong and solid.   And I mean solid.  100% concrete block and reinforced concrete – floors, ceilings, the steps going upstairs, every single interior wall.  Not that hollow cinder block either, but solid concrete ‘bricks’ (CMUs) about 12″ x 6″ x 6″ that they used for construction back after WWII when this was built, in the early 1950’s.  My own emergency bunker.  My official place to take shelter in event of weather disaster?  Right here.  Upstairs if the water gets deep.  No blowing this thing away.

Downstairs is the kitchen, dining and living rooms.  The kitchen is pretty big (for me) but weird – it contains the standard fridge, stove, cabinets, counters, sink and large pantry, but also an upright freezer, full size washer and dryer, and hot water heater.  On one side you’ve got counter, stove, dryer, freezer.  On the other, water heater, washer, counter, sink, counter, pantry.  The fridge is at one end, the back door at the other.  Unusual, but then, I don’t mind weirdness.


Upstairs is two bedrooms (one large, one small) and the one bathroom with a non-cabinetted sink, an undersized tub and shower combo (with the shower head a full 2 feet above my head), and one tiny mirror which is mostly above my eye level.  The only mirror in the house.  I need to go check Amazon…

Great closet space and storage everywhere though, including underneath the steps.

Every interior wall and ceiling and window frame and conduit and outlet and surface is painted a creamy ivory off-white, which I believe is the same as the exterior color.  Except the stairs – they’re painted a strange but oddly pleasing blue and have black anti-slip treads which resemble the unpleasant side of velcro.  This blue color is the same as the exterior base ‘trim’ color.  Some of the door frames are painted the same brown as the interior doors, same as the exterior trim.  The flooring is all tile in some sort of light brownish tan pattern.

Standard Army rattan-ish furniture but a decent leather couch that has seen some use.  The lamps are so lightweight I about knock them over whenever I go to turn them on/off, but they are plentiful.  There are a good number of ceiling fixtures as well.

Lots of echoes in here as it’s pretty bare – all my stuff hasn’t completed its ocean voyage as yet.  It’s just me, my “hospitality pack” and the stuff I brought in 2 suitcases.  The hospitality pack is a huge plastic tub filled with basic kitchen ware and a huge plastic bag filled with bedding and towels.  I’ll turn that stuff back in when my goods arrive.

Unfortunately I don’t have a covered back porch – they ripped it off because it had rotted.  A work order is in for a new one (not holding my breath) so for now my shiny new tryke has no where to hide from the sun and rain and corrosion-causing elements.


I’m located about half-way between the ocean and the lagoon, on Heliotrope, just a couple-three blocks either way to water (closer to the lagoon though).  Can actually get a glimpse through the condensation (thank the Lord for central A/C) of the lagoon from an upstairs window in the front of the quarters.  Too many trees to see the ocean out the back.

I don’t seem to currently have a neighbor on the other half of the duplex, but that will change soon I’m sure – housing is getting really tight here.  Most of the “new housing” that was built in the 70’s has been condemned (long story but basically, if unoccupied for a long period of time you don’t turn off the A/C else the jungle – and mold – takes over quickly).  We’re to build additional housing in a year or so but for now the BQ’s and temp housing are nearly full, as well as the family housing areas.  More construction projects means more contractors, and I can personally and professionally guarantee the more construction part.

Popular place to be!  I know I’m glad to be here, to do my part for Kwaj and our nation’s security.

20 February 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What Can I Say?


I will make that ocean-front bench mine, all mine…

Yes, I love it here!  I took the above pic about an hour after landing on Kwaj, three days ago at this writing.

Gorgeous.  Beautiful.  Fabulous.  Add your favorite descriptive word here.  Breezy.  Blue skies and white puffy clouds.  Wonderful people.  Great community.  So much to talk about, so many new experiences, so much to do.

I’ve met with all my coworkers and many of the people outside the Corps I’ll be working with.  The Garrison Commander is great, as well as every single other person I’ve met.  Auntie Norman is in the same building as us and gives me a big smile and hug whenever I see him.  Sweeney the housing guy gave me a hug after we finished the walk-through inspection of my quarters this afternoon.  Coworker Darlene offered me her own bike until I could get mine.  Continue the gushing and praising here.

Is it perfect?  Of course not, and I don’t care.  I’ll get used to the humidity.  I’ll work out the few kinks here and there.  They came and fixed my washer today.  I got the phone and internet working yesterday, and the WiFi today.  Finally figured out how to crack the combination to get into my mailbox at the post office (with assistance from the Chaplain).

Rode the shuttle to work this morning.  Getting toured around in the Corps golf cart has been fun, but I can’t wait to get my own set of wheels so I can explore on my own.  Soon on that.

Purchased the bike this afternoon at the PX and my great coworker friends will finish its assembly tonight or tomorrow.  And they’ve also arranged a “welcome to the island” cook-out at Emon Beach for Sunday night!

I am so tee-totally blessed it ain’t even funny.

It’s official – Paradise Found.


12 February 2017 Posted by | Kwajalein | , , | 9 Comments

The Dubois Diner

Diner Sign

This pre-scheduled post is for my brother Kevin, who loves all things retro.

Dubois, Pennsylvania, is the town that most folks living up in Elk County go to do actual shopping and it’s located just under an hour south of Johnsonburg, below I-80.  Dubois has actual real restaurants, from large chains like Red Lobster to fabulous ma-and-pa Italian eateries like Luigi’s.  My doc is here.  There is a mall.  One of the places I like to frequent when in town is the Dubois Diner.

Inside and out, retro is the theme – it has the look and feel of a 60’s style diner car. Rounded train style windows, lots of neon and aluminum and formica, vintage counters and stools, juke box in the corner.

The friendly waitresses don’t need to write down your order and are dressed in the also-retro uniform of basic white or pale blue blouse and skirt with sensible shoes.  And the ubiquitous short white apron loaded with an unused order pad and wrapped flatware.

Dubois Diner

Table Array

The Diner has an over-the-top expansive menu (numerous breakfast options anytime of course) offering the standard diner fare including ‘blue plate’ dinners, juicy burgers and fries, wings and barbecue, liver and onions, chicken and biscuits, taco salads, gyros and reubens, bananas foster, homemade pies, malteds and milk shakes and everything in between.  And of course, pierogies.  <angels sing> 

Everything made from scratch.  They specialize in ‘unusual’ burger offerings like turkey, venison, elk, lamb, bison, wild boar and duck.  Vegans need not apply.

They also have a Breakfast Brunch Buffet on weekends, the Thursday Pasta Bar, Friday’s Hometown Choice Buffet, multiple Food Challenges, 2 banquet rooms, catering services and an attached bar.  Bikers welcome.


The Dubois Diner even has a full traditional Thanksgiving Dinner for 10 bucks, available year round (recommended with Pinot Grigio as an accompaniment).

If you really wish to punish yourself and get the saliva flowing, here is the menu.  Good eats – I think you could visit every day for a year and never repeat a meal.

I’ll leave you with their “Diner 10 Commandments”:

        I.  Thou shalt not eat fast food.
        II.  Remember thy local family owned DINER and eat there often.
        III.  Thou shalt not cover stainless steel with brickface or wood.
        IV.  Thou shalt not worship chains or franchises.
        V.  Thou shalt not worship the drive thru.
        VI.  Thou shalt tip they server generously.
        VII.  Thou shalt sit at the counter.
        VIII.  Thou shalt not whine when all of the booths are full.
        IX.  Thou shalt eat a hearty breakfast at any time of the day.
        X.  Thou shalt not hang out and order nothin’ but coffee.


9 February 2017 Posted by | Life in Rural Pennsylvania | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Paradise Found?


Just in case anyone is wondering, I truly am aware of at least some of the stark realities of living on a tiny isolated atoll in the middle of a gigantic ocean.  It won’t be all sunshine and plumeria, fruity drinks and cabana boys.  The idyllic paradise that is Kwajalein Atoll does have its shortcomings.  (The pic is Cancun by the way, and picked off Google.)

I mean, it’s essentially an Army base, right?  The buildings are set at Government-regulated temperatures, there’s a PX and a Commissary (called Surfway), BQ’s (Bachelor Quarters) and the like.  Then there’s the extremely corrosive marine environment – metal rusts.  Quickly.  So most of the infrastructure isn’t going to be Disneyland-perfect.  They have even coined a phrase for that, “Kwaj-Condition“.

While living on Kwajalein these are a few things I know I’ll miss (in no particular order):

  • Family.  Two separate long expensive flights back to the home front mean I’ll not be visiting with family near as often as I would like.
  • Cooler Temperatures.  Let’s face it – I’ll be moving from mostly below freezing temps and snow to constant 80’s and high humidity.  I just escaped Pennsylvania after another major snowfall.  There will be an adjustment period.
  • Colors of Fall Foliage.
  • Snow?  Maybe eventually but not for a year or so – the memories will have to fade a bit!
  • Fresh Produce.  And I’m not a fan of coconut.
  • Car.  Walking and riding a bike around everywhere will be good for me, and there’s a shuttle bus that loops the island as well, but I might miss the freedom of having a car available for every whim.
  • iPhone.  Maybe, maybe not – it’ll be on perpetual ‘airplane’ mode except when I’m around WiFi.  Basically it’ll never leave the house.  I think it will be freeing not to carry one around all the time.  No cell phones for work either!
  • Unlimited Shipping.  Many items cannot be shipped to an APO address, primarily electronicals and liquidy things.  Not even from my main source of all things purchasable, Amazon.

I’ve been in touch with my on-island coworkers and they have provided me with much-needed input.  One item of note discovered is that I’ll most likely get assigned a place in ‘Old Housing’, a two-story townhouse built out of concrete block in the 1950’s.  Maybe a duplex, maybe a quadplex, maybe something else.  Two bedroom, one bath (the one bathroom is on the second floor – that’ll be interesting), furnished, no dishwasher.  That’s something I’ll miss, but not much.

Is the following my new home in Paradise?  It’s a duplex on Kwaj, so probably close?


A few other not so great quirks I can anticipate when living on Kwaj:

  • Internet Outages.  Just recently Kwaj came back online after a 3-week internet outage.  Guess that one little cable running along the ocean floor from Guam can have issues.
  • Food Shortages.  If a plane or ‘barge’ shipment is delayed for whatever reason, there’ll be shortages at the Surfway, like no produce several times in the past few months.  Or a while back, something went wrong with a refrigerated unit in transit, so no dairy products.  I wonder how large a stash of MRE’s they might keep on island, just in case?
  • Mosquitoes, Flies and Bugs.  These are normally quite the issue in ever-warm climates so I assume the same with Kwaj, although I’m sure there are attempts to control.  I hear I may need to share my house with a gecko or two, which might be cool.  Or not.  No snakes on the island though.

Fact is, I’m generally happy wherever I happen to lay my head.  Anything weird happens it can always become a blog post.  I’m self-entertaining – never been bored a day in my life – and the list of things of I want to do while on Kwaj is already lengthy.

An older lady at church stated soundly she’d never go to Kwaj if there wasn’t a shopping mall.  Mall, like most things, is in the eye of the beholder.


Freaky Fact:  Kwaj has twice as many chain restaurants than in my current town of Johnsonburg, PA.  We have a Subway.  Kwaj has a Subway and a Burger King.











7 February 2017 Posted by | Kwajalein | , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Last Eats


It’s about 0530 Sunday morning and I’m sitting in the airport waiting for the first of 2 flights today.  Thought I’d do a quick post from the iPhone while I wait at gate B38…

So.  Last 3 cities for my last 3 days in the contiguous United States.  All spent with family and mostly with my son Justin.  And since Kwaj offers very limited “eating out” opportunities, we took advantage to partake in some of my favorite things.

Chuy’s in Louisville – Eight of us at our favorite Mexican restaurant on Thursday.  Good times, great food.  Perfect chips.

Mission BBQ in Nashville – Who doesn’t love barbecue?  Justin and I had never eaten here but it was an excellent choice for Friday night.  Not sure how many awesomesauces there were to choose from – 9 or 10?  With the brisket my favorite was a mix of the Smokey Mountain and Alabama White.  Justin agreed.  So good!

Pierogies In Pittsburgh – Quick flight back to my official home station on Saturday.  Needed to get to bed early so ate at the hotel – thankfully they had the Pennsylvania (and my) favorite.  Their version was “Pierogies Florentine” (sautéed with bacon and spinach) – heavenly.  Also had a Steak Salad which in this neck of the woods, always comes topped with fries.  Didn’t finish the big salad.

To bed early, up before 0400 for the 0500 shuttle trip to the airport.

Woke up to 30 degree temps and I’ll go to sleep with warm ocean breezes on O’ahu.

Thankful for my life.


5 February 2017 Posted by | Life in Rural Kentucky, Life in Rural Pennsylvania | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Good-Bye Pennsylvania


Everything has gone like clockwork.

Movers #1 (above) showed up on Monday as scheduled, around 10:30.  An extremely efficient crew of three packed, disassembled then loaded Pile #3 (see post “Pack & Load” for further Pile details) – the about 80% of all my worldly possessions that I won’t see again for more than two years.

Bewilderingly, they finished and were gone by 15:00, whisking Pile #3 away to an undisclosed warehouse storage facility in Indiana.  Indiana, PA.  Between Johnsonburg and Pittsburgh.

Thank you McNaughton Brothers and Allied Van Lines.

Movers #2, despite the snow and distance, showed up as planned at 07:00 yesterday morning to collect Pile #2 for shipment to Kwajalein.

Almost as efficient as the previous day’s crew, this team of three were done and gone in three hours.  And we received over 3″ of new snow during the same time period.


They took my island gear back to Altoona where it’ll be packed into crates.  Then all will be trucked to probably Baltimore, placed into a shipping container, loaded onto a cargo ship and sent on its merry way, showing up at Kwaj in a month or so.

Not fair – my stuff will traverse the Panama Canal, and I never have.

Thank you Gearharts/United Van Lines.

So now the house is empty (my car loaded with 99% of Piles #1 and #4 the previous night), my cleaner arrived to beautify the place, apartment keys on counter – time to go.

Ohhh wait…


I stand there looking at my car, covered with an inch of old snow and ice and nearly 5″ of new snow.  In my head I hear Gandalf saying, “You – shall not – pass!”

But I did.  On the slick and snowy road by 11:00, out of Pennsylvania a couple hours later.


1 February 2017 Posted by | Life in Rural Pennsylvania | , , , , | 11 Comments



Today is the last day with dedicated interwebz, the last day before the movers show up, the last day with my local church family.  Friday was the last day at East Branch.  Tuesday will be the last day in Johnsonburg, and in Pennsylvania.  For a time.  For a long time.

Good-byes are hard.  They’re sad.  Leaving great co-workers and neighbors, leaving an awesome church family…

I’ve turned in work keys and badges, work cell phone and laptop.  Turned in the key to the church.  Almost ready to turn over the apartment keys.

Does anyone like good-byes?  I do not.  I’d prefer to just disappear into the sunset.

I tend to look forward and focus on the new adventures ahead – to seeing my son and family and friends in a few days, to visiting Hawaii for the first time, to meeting a new boss and Commander, to arriving at my tropical island in the sun, to meeting new co-workers and new friends.


I have a couple posts scheduled to go live while I’m in transit, so until I’m up and running at Kwaj – aloha!

29 January 2017 Posted by | Kwajalein, Life in Rural Pennsylvania | , , , , , | 3 Comments



‘Terribleness’ is probably not a word.  Don’t care.

The Pittsburgh Steelers may not be going to the Super Bowl this year, but my Terrible Towel is definitely going to Kwaj with me.

I had been hoping for a Super Bowl showdown between the Steelers and the Green Bay Packers – an old school match up – with the Steelers emerging victorious for their 7th Super Bowl win.  I also sorta like the Packers and have even owned a Cheese Head in my distant past.

At FOB Shindand, Afghanistan, in 2011 in the wee hours of the morning I watched the Packers win Superbowl XLV, defeating (coincidentally) the Steelers.  Even wrote a blog post about it – Football on the FOB.

Interesting story here…  I had several friends who were/are Steelers fans, but I chose to root for Green Bay on that match up.  A few years later I ended up moving to Steeler County here in northwest Pennsylvania, so decided I should become an actual Steelers fan.  Not just someone who likes several teams in general, including the Saints, the Broncos, the Bengals…  You have to remember – I’m from a state with zero professional sports teams.  In Kentucky we have college basketball, and college football – GO CARDS!

And so, in the past few years I have twirled my own terrible towel at several Steelers games (my record is 2-1).  Bought a jersey.  And a couple of hats.  Lost my voice shouting DEE-FENCE and singing Renegade at the top of my lungs with tens of thousands of other “Stillers” fans.  Sat in a front row seat watching a game in Heinz Field as snow accumulated over me.  Sat high in the windy nosebleed section watching a game when the temp was nearly zero.  And also sat in a decent seat watching a game in my shirtsleeves.

But this year, it was time for a rematch.  My friend Timmy from church was also hoping for a Steelers vs Packers match up.  But t’was not to be, on either account.  Terribleness…

Is anyone really a Patriots fan?  Seriously, I see Steelers paraphernalia all over the country.  Never seen even the tiniest Patriots sticker.  Just sayin’.

Here’s hoping for a decisive Falcons victory.  I may or may not get to see any of the game though, since I’ll be on a plane most of that Super Sunday, heading to paradise.

Here’s to next year – I’ll be wearing my jersey and hat, twirling my terrible towel for the Steelers in the Super Bowl from my beach chair on Kwaj.

Freaky Fact:  Just yesterday my trip to Paradise came within a hair’s breath of being scuttled due to the Federal hiring freeze.  Details revealed I had squeaked by under the wire, so for now I am still Kwaj-bound.

26 January 2017 Posted by | Kwajalein, Life in Rural Pennsylvania | , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Pack & Load


The stars have aligned.

The impossible has happened, thank the Lord.  Two different movers are booked and confirmed for two different days.  The actual days I asked for.  Modern day miracle.

And exactly one week from tomorrow, it begins.  AAAHHHH!!!!!!!

Pardon me.

I have had various people say various versions of this to me, “So what do you have to do?  They’ll pack and load everything while you sit back and watch.  What are you working so hard about?”  All of these various people have never personally experienced a Government move.  Even I, who has moved countless times in my nearly 30 years of Federal Service, have never done a move quite this way.

Other than the normal things one does when one moves – arranging for the utilities and internet to be cut off but not too soon, eating whatever is left in the fridge and freezer making for some rather strange meals, making detailed lists of items to be moved for the movers, changing addresses everywhere, avoiding tearful good byes – my number one mission has been and is, segregating all 12,000+ pounds of my stuff – everything I own (and some my son owns) – into separate ‘piles’.

Pile #1 – Stuff I’ll be taking with me on the plane.  Has to be a manageable amount for me to schlep through airports.  As of now the plan is one large suitcase, one roller bag, and the trusty deployment-proven Tactical Tailor backpack my brother Brian got for me before I went to Afghanistan.  And maybe a small crossbody bag.


Pile #2 – Stuff to be stuffed into a shipping container and placed on a slow boat to Kwaj, not to exceed 4,500 pounds.  I can count on this arriving in Kwajalein about 1 or 2 months or so after I get there, which shines a whole new light on what all is necessary in Pile #1.

Pile #3 – Stuff to be placed in long-term storage, location unknown somewhere in Pennsylvania, while I am overseas.  Stuff I will not see or have access to for at least 2 years.

So many decisions!  What to go where?  I need this!  I want that!  Or do I?

Not to mention just clothes, boots and shoes, coats and jackets – what to take, how many to take, what to store (particularly when it’s mid-winter here and ever-summer there).

Oh, I should mention tiny Pile #4:  A few select winter clothes and accoutrements to leave at my Mom’s in case I come back to visit in winter.

Why so segregated into the various piles?  So Mover #1 (taking stuff to long-term storage) only takes Pile #3 and doesn’t take items I need shipped to Kwaj, or with me, or to my Mom’s, by accident.  Ditto for Mover #2 with Pile #2.

And apparently, just labeling everything is too confusing or makes packing and loading take much longer.  So I’m told.  The official recommendation is to basically rearrange your house and be able to close a door to a room or closet and say to a particular mover, “Don’t Go In There!”

Not sure yet where Piles #1 and #4 will go while Movers #1 and #2 are swarming the apartment – probably my car.

Pile #2 is (at the moment) my bedroom closet, the utility closet, the bathroom, the kitchen cabinets and counters, and one tall bookcase crammed with things but not yet isolated from the rest of the stuff.  My plan is to make a corner of the living room a portion of Pile #2, assuming I can drape it with enough ‘Crime Scene – Do Not Cross’ tape to keep it safe from Mover #1.

Other rules that must be followed:

  • All pictures and wall hangings must be off the walls.  So, more mostly-fragile stuff piled on the floors.
  • It just now occurred to me that I must get the A/C unit out of the window.
  • Ensure all trash is out of the house before arrival of movers.  Movers are so efficient they will pack up your trash cans, with the trash still in it.  Wouldn’t that be a nice aroma after 2 months of baking in a shipping container in the tropics?

And what about the final mega-cleaning of the empty apartment?  Not gonna happen.  All my cleaning stuff (vacuum, brooms, mop, dusters, etc) has to go with Pile #2 to Kwaj.  I’ll do what I can ahead of time, but will have to hire someone else once me and my stuff are out.

My apartment looks so strange – some rooms piled high and cluttered, some looking weirdly empty…

Freaky Fact:  The average 3 bedroom household contains an estimated 18,000 pounds of furniture, appliances, clothes and personal items, which is the maximum amount the Government will ship/store.

22 January 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 8 Comments