Danville Express

Living - March 16, 2007

Looking for adventure

Danville woman finds island society a great change of pace

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Cathy Leclere didn't know she was looking for adventure until she saw the ad. It was seeking an orthodontic team to provide services every six weeks on the Kwajalein Atoll, home to 1,800 mostly American residents.

Leclere, who lives in Danville, and orthodontist Dr. Peter Picard signed up.

"He was semi-retired," she explained. "You would have to be, otherwise you couldn't leave your practice so often."

Kwajalein, part of the Marshall Islands, is home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, but most of the workforce is civilian. The island measures 3-1/4 by 2 miles, said Leclere, and a runway is its main feature from the air.

What Leclere found at Kwajalein was a unique way of life.

There is a Surfway for groceries and everyone uses tall bags that go into their bicycle baskets. A convenience store is called Ten-Ten instead of Seven-11. A Macy's, no relation to its Stateside namesake, is a limited department store, and a Macy's West has sporting goods, gardening and house wares. There is also a Bank of America. Telephone numbers have the Los Angeles area code so calls to that locale are not even charged long distance.

"Everything closes at lunch," Leclere said, "from 11:30 until 12:45 or 1."

Island residents are able to save money because there are no expenses: Housing, utilities and transportation are included, plus they can rent out their houses back home. They have no car payments or insurance on the island, and singles eat at a cafeteria so even their food is free. There are medical facilities, including the orthodontic clinic, and schools.

"I think we have, like, 10 seniors in the high school," said Leclere, adding that it's a tight group on the island. "Everyone knows everything about everyone."

Some people take to life on the atoll immediately. Others hate it at first then grow to love it. Still others live there for decades, returning every time a new job opens up, and are sad to return to the States when they retire.

"It's a hard adjustment to come back," Leclere said.

Recreation comes in the form of snorkeling in the reef, league sports, wood and ceramic shops, a library, movies and more.

"Once a year they get a trip home," Leclere said.

On these trips, they may buy specialties such as certain cereals but most things they mail order because they have an American post office.

"The Internet really opened their life up," Leclere noted.

Transportation on the island is via bicycles or golf carts, with automobiles only used for deliveries. Children begin very young to pedal their own bikes.

"As soon as they can get on something with training wheels, they are riding to preschool," Leclere said.

Kwajalein is near the equator, halfway between Hawaii and Borneo, and is lush with 100 inches of rain a year.

"We wear sandals, and the water is often above our ankles," Leclere said.

The closest atoll is Ebeye, which has a population of 13,000; 1,000 of them commute daily by boat to work on Kwajalein.

Some of the Americans have adopted Marshallese children, and Leclere knows of at least one marriage between an American bachelor and a Marshallese woman who was working on Kwajalein.

"They are wonderful and gracious," she said about the Marshallese. "They are so thankful for their jobs."

Leclere never knows what adventure awaits her. At Christmastime her team gathered presents for children at the schools, mostly church-run, in Ebeye where families struggle with poverty. But when they returned in January they found the gifts had not been distributed.

"The queen wanted us to hand them out," Leclere said. "We went to Ebeye - six of us on a little tiny boat - to give out the presents."

They dressed modestly wearing skirts and tops with sleeves, instead of their casual American garb. First they were greeted by the queen. Then the children came up to them one by one, bearing gifts for their visitors. Instead of giving to those in need, Leclere and her co-workers found themselves in the awkward position of taking from them.

They left Ebeye loaded with "wuts," decorated headbands woven out of pounded coconut bark, and other presents.

During World War II, strategically located Kwajalein was the site of a fierce four-day battle between the Americans and the Japanese, who had a base on the island. A Japanese cemetery is dedicated to the memory of nearly 3,500 Japanese who died defending Kwajalein.

"The island was totally annihilated during the war," said Leclere, "but it has palm trees now."

There are still bunkers on the island, and Leclere used to explore one until she was told they are off limits.

"A Japanese contingent comes every year for a memorial service," she added.

Services for all denominations are held in the Island Memorial Chapel, which was built in late 1944, said Leclere.

She said one highlight of a recent trip was a midnight snorkeling jaunt.

"There are 10 huge holes in the reef where they used the coral for building things during the war," she explained. "They are filled with water, and there are fish and sharks."

The snorkelers donned booties to protect against the coral and put on glow sticks so they would be able to find each other in the dark.

"We had flashlights under the water. We saw eel and puffer fish," Leclere remembered. "It was so scary but it was so much fun."

Leclere, 54, has completed 21 trips to Kwajalein and has no plans to stop, although she now travels with Dr. Herbert Kaplan. She treasures the break in her routine to travel to the unique community on the atoll.

The team stops in Hawaii for a night on the way to Kwajalein, and Leclere's grown children sometimes join her in Hawaii. Her sister Cindy Erwin accompanies her to work when the regular assistant, Susan Clayton, can't make it.

"I am so much richer for it," Leclere said. "Who works for an orthodontist and has traveled like this?"

She noted that the project is her baby, she put the office together and keeps it running.

"I came out of this feeling I can do anything," she said.

She has also learned to befriend the residents and help them through their adjustment to life on the island.

"It's a different place but it's a great place," she said.

It's an adventure.

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