July 29, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
There is a place on Kwajalein where long parkas and thick, black beanies are standard issue. A place where small chandeliers of ice grow above thermometer displays showing numbers like -13 F. It’s a place where all your bananas, yogurt, milk, eggs and TV dinners come from. And without it, you’d be eating nothing but canned beans and jerky. Welcome to Cold Storage, says Nikki Ellis, the Cold Storage Warehouse supervisor. The only person in the facility wearing a T-shirt, she gives me a tour of one of the most vital links in the distribution chain assembled on and off the garrison to supply residents with cold and frozen food items.
“It all comes from here,” Ellis says Tuesday, leading me through a door that opens up into the dark, icy warehouse. Men dressed in heavy winter clothing shuffle from pallet to pallet carrying stacks of stapled carbon paper order forms in their hands. They inspect the contents of boxes brimming with onions, lettuce and avocados and pull on manual forklifts. It seems to be bustling.
“Tuesday is a busy day,” Ellis affirms. “It’s produce day. We get fresh fruits and vegetables flown in every week. They [get] it to us, and we sort it every week.” Over the loud din of the refrigerator fan units overhead, the men inside look over the order forms in their hands, head into the inner, colder recesses of the warehouse to prep the next pallet for delivery somewhere on the garrison. The next order of frozen or chilled items could be going to any number of places: the Zamperini Dining Facility, Meck, Café Roi, Roi Surfway and ships at sea like the Coast Guard’s Sequoia. Yep, even the Coast Guardsmen need milk with their cereal. But because it’s Tuesday, most of the sorted pallets are heading to Surfway. Tucked into a stack of boxes filled with tomatoes, one of the order forms sticks out. It’s an order submitted to Cold Storage by Surfway Assistant Manager Joann Hermon. Ready for shipment, the pallet has been stationed next to a small entrance opening up into the early-afternoon Marshall Islands heat, and in a few minutes, a warehouse crewmember will pick up the pallet and take it down to the supermarket’s loading dock for the Tuesday evening rush.
A Cold Storage Warehouse lead since November 2016, Tom Barragan says working at the focal point of cold foods distribution on U.S. Army Garrison- Kwajalein Atoll is both rewarding and enjoyable.
“I’ve been doing this type of work for about 40 years,” Barragan says. “And it’s just really fun. Otherwise, if I didn’t like this I would have gotten out of it years ago. It’s a very rewarding job to know that we’re making sure that everybody gets fresh, edible food.”
Dressed like I just got off a sailboat, I know I’m not in the right clothing. But I want Ellis to take me into the other areas of the warehouse. Going through door after door, the ambient temperature inside the warehouse units sinks lower and lower . The 38 F sorting platform where the crew is still assembling deliverable pallets now seems much warmer than it was before. We pass crates of Go-Gurt and small mountains of eggs, 30-pound buckets of Bavarian cream filling and enough yard mulch-sized bags of cake batter to bake a cake as big as Ebeye.
Entering the coldest place on the garrison, I feel little part of me beginning to die. Under the dull green glow of the lights overhead, the thermometer reads 7 below zero, and it’s the deepest cold I’ve experienced in nearly a decade. I manage to snap a few photos of Ellis standing proudly in her T-shirt, all smiles, in front of a small snow bank growing out of the corner of the room. I last another two minutes before my ears and hands burn with pain, and I’ve got to bail. Surrounded by the heat of the doldrums in the steamy Marshall Islands, I’m still having a hard time understanding how these people do their jobs in such an environment. As I begin the thermal transition from subarctic temperatures, to the refrigerator-friendly 30s, to the office-standard 70 F, Ellis puts it bluntly enough: “You get used to it.”