The Adventure Continues–Remembering KI Sawyer AFB, My Window of Opportunity

Jun 26, 2010 by

The girls and I once again are in Northern Indiana back at my dad’s and my grandma’s.   I hated rolling out of Marquette, MI once again yesterday.  There were just a swirl of emotions clinging to me as we drove south on US Highway 41.

I spent a good part of my childhood in the Upper Peninsula.  I never became a “Yupper” but at a young age I fell in love with the protected world in which I roamed the trails and woods without fear of weirdos, poisonous snakes or things that would have been a bad influence.

My Window of Opportunity

Times before, I’ve mentioned sitting at a particular downstairs window in our home at 208 Fortress on what was KI Sawyer AFB and writing.  When I was in second and third grade, I would use a kid’s typewriter and wrote much like I do now. 

One of my most vivid memories of writing came from sitting on the other side of the window you see to the right.  I sat there at the now very antique kidney bean-shaped desk I have in my Texas living room.  This was my creative space, even before the age of 10.  Outside the window, was where I acted out those dreams.  Thoughts of being a bomber pilot like my dad.  Thoughts of being a fireman, like Randolph Mantooth, one of the first TV paramedics.

This was my window of opportunity.  This is where I dreamed of what could be and didn’t worry about the things that were.

We played baseball in our tiny front yard, with each corner of the yard being a base.  That meant I pitched from the middle of the yard, and yes, if thrown the right way and hard enough, the baseball did go through the bathroom window.

That bathroom, mom once painted yellow.  For some reason, which neither of us understand, even to this day, I once wrote the word “elephant” in ink pen on the freshly painted wall.

The garage you see wasn’t there when I was a kid.  The air force put them in later.  I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this before, but I always heard as a kid that KI’s base housing, located in Northern Michigan, was designed by someone who lived in Florida.  Yeah, government in action.

The point of all of this is that this is where my imagination and my quests for adventure came to be.  We’d get up in the morning, head out into the woods behind our house, build tree forts, climb hills, and out the hole in the fence, past the two ski hills and off to the south east was a lake I only made it to three times.  We had a great name for it, too, “The Lost Lake.”  And the name was fitting because there was no path to it.  And for what it was, it was indeed, lost.

My suspicion of it being lost today remains.  between the garage and the garage on the other side of the parking lot, once was a well-traveled trail right into the heart of the woods.  Thursday, that trail was overgrown.  Even the trail that ran parallel to our house a good 50 yards back was overgrown.

I’ve heard the quote before that “the past is like a foreign country, they do things different there.”   Today, that has new meaning for me.

What’s Left of KI Sawyer AFB

And different is what KI is today.  The BRAC at the end of the Cold War closed it all down.  The 644th Bomb Squadron building, the Tanker Alert Facility, the gym, BX and commissary all stand empty today with no use.  My old school, Leo P. McDonald Elementary School, has been taken over by a company that’s ripped many of the walls out and put in garage doors.  The windows of the classrooms I learned to read and write in are now boarded up.  Some of the windows have had rocks thrown into them.  It was painful to see. 

Half of what was a robust area of base housing is now in ruins.  I took a picture of the house my friends Michelle and Renee lived in.  I took a photo of Kim Casey and Kevin Casey’s.  I’ve tried to find them since we were kids, but have never heard from them since they took off for the Air Force Academy in Colorado with their dad, an F-106 pilot.  

We couldn’t get out to the Alert Facility where the B-52s on alert used to park.  Thursday what appeared to be Michigan State Trooper cars were doing reverse J-turns and obstacle courses where once there were guards who would have shot you on the spot for trying to get to.

We were going to spend another day in the UP yesterday, but by noon it was clear it was going to rain all day and we knew we didn’t want to sit around in a hotel room.  So we headed back south.

Before leaving Marquette, we took the girls down to Presque Isle.   It was raining lightly on and off.  I initially gave up and began heading off the isle.  But then it stopped raining and I decided we were going to go back and try again.  As though an answer to a prayer, it did.  We got out and I got new video of the twins playing in the same spot where I also have video of my brother Richard and I doing the same back in 1970.  To me, it was almost critical to get that video.  A once in a lifetime sort of moment.

So when I get the chance to sit still, I’m going to build the next video featuring then and now.

More Adventures To Come

Okay, time to wrap up the thoughts from today’s adventures.  The 2010 Chevy Traverse has been a great car for this trip.  It rides so smoothly.  I’ve been highly impressed with it’s comfort and yesterday, driving south, I let dad drive for a couple hours and I got in the third row and laid down side ways so I could take a nap.  Yes, a big guy like me can get his body in a comfy enough position to be able to sleep. And I enjoyed it.


21 Comments

  1. Mo

    http://www.poclt.com has book info about that same base you are blogging about. The story was extremely interesting about the base, K.I. Sawyer.

    • Donny Claxton

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve got more to post. Just trying to recover from being on the road for a week.

  2. Josh Read

    WOW!!! What a lot of great memories…I lived on Explorer St. and remember playing around the tennis court. We were stationed there from 82-87. That’s sad on what McDonald Elementary looks like. I went there!!! Most of all I will remember all the snow. Thanks for the pictures.

  3. C. Herrera

    I was looking for a pic of the big snow pile that used to build over the winter out off of the runway when I came across your site. My wife and I lived in the same house the Casey’s did from 89-94. Thanks for the effort!

    • Donny Claxton

      Thanks for sharing. I wish we kids would have been able to get close to that pile, it would have been great to tunnel through! We used to do just that with the snow along the street. I can only imagine the opportunities such would have presented. Glad to know you took care of the Casey’s place. It sure would be great to hear from them some day.

  4. Tim Chapman

    Lived at 309 Fortress St. 61 to 69 till my dad went to Nam. Went to Leo P too, lots of good memories up there.

  5. Jerad

    Great little story about KI Sawyer. Thanks. Oh, FYI…you spelt “Yooper” wrong 😉

  6. Glenn

    I lived on K.I. from ’71 – ’79 (338 Skybolt) and went to Leo P. from K – 6th grade. That base and school will always be special to me, indeed some of the happiest times of my life were spent there. Many hours spent in the woods during the summer and playing baseball in Little League. Winters full of sledding and snow tunneling. Man, I need to get back there for a visit!

  7. Hi Donny,
    I really enjoyed the post and we lived on base at the same time for awhile.

    I was born at KI in 65; my family lived at the end of Fury. In 68 my dad, a B-52 tail gunner, was transferred to March AFB for a couple of years, then we moved back to KI. We lived on Savage 70 – 72 until my dad retired & that was it.

    I am 46 now & trying to jar loose any memory I have of life on base at KI, some of the best years of my life. I have been back a few times but summer 2011 was special as I was privileged to bring back 2 of my 4 sisters for a few days. It was wonderful.

    For what it’s worth, I happened to run across an open group in Facebook called “I survived KI Sawyer AFB”. You should be able to view comments & pictures if you aren’t a FB user, but hopefully you are & can add to/ enjoy probably any discussion going on. I posted the survivors group in website URL field and you or others can enjoy stories of other folks that lived on base.

    It would always be a pleasure to read more of your account of Air Force life on base at KI Sawyer AFB. Thanks again. Take Care.

    Best regards,
    Kenneth Gordon Snoddy, III

  8. We were stationed there from May 1974 to Nov 1979. Lived at 141 Fury St and went to KI Sawyer Elementary and Gwinn Middle. I remember hiking, biking, dirt biking in the back woods and trails. Sledding down Dead Man’s Hill filled our winter days. I have fond memories of that base and from all the bases we were stationed, Sawyer was my favorite. Although it was in the middle on nowhere, it was safe and it was surrounded by beautiful landscape. All of the SAC/NORAD bases my father was stationed at are now closed. It is sad to see them fall into such disrepair. I keep saying I will have to take a trip to visit Sawyer and Gwinn. This blog has given me an excuse and I will take a trip up there this summer.

    • Donny Claxton

      Thanks for the comment, Rodney. I’m sorry we never got the chance to meet with you being across base housing, but you are right. It is very sad and weird to go to former SAC bases and them be shells of our existence.

      I think it was the best place in the world to have grown up. My sense of adventure and exploration continue because of those days of being able to roam around in the woods dreaming of world exploration.

      All the best to you.

      Donny

  9. Cindy Van Epps,

    My ex-husband and I were there in 82, my first child was born at the hospital. We lived at 100 Provider. A lot of great memories up there

  10. Charlie M.

    I was at KI till nov. of 63. One memory I will never forget was when was in the fie Dept. I was just chilling when the alarm went off. Fire inhousing area came over the horn. jumped into my boots and coat . got on rar linemans position in back of pumper nd off we wnt. I wondered why I was freezi and I kept telling Vince my but felt frozen. upon arriving I slung the line over my my shoulder and becan climbing the lader
    That was when Vince yelled to me “Charle you don’t have any bunker pants o that’s why you are freezing. It ws embarrassing when I looked over my shoulder and saw a crowd of dependants looking up at me and you can immagine how embarrsaed I was . The guys never let me forget that night. At least I can laugh about it today.

    • Donny Claxton

      My dad always used to tell me a story about a guy who wanted to have an ice rink in his backyard, but of course, CE regs prohibited the use of inside/outside water for an ice rink, so he allegedly set a fire in the backyard and called you guys. The story goes he got an Article 15 for setting the fire….

  11. Charlie M AKA big 80

    Anyone up at KI 1962-63 and dd you know Senior Master Sargent Petty the military fire chef. I served under him at KI and befor that at Rhein Main outsde of Frankfort AM Germany. I’ve been trying to find him as we were friends. Another memory was when the heating plant was shut down for cleaning and rpair and we froze. By the way I was with the 56th fighter wing. as for security, it was really tight with TAC and SAC but it had to be.

  12. Warren Anderson 1975-1979

    Just returned from KI Sawyer, it’s sad to see the base. This was my first visit since it closed. Did enjoy talking with people at the museum. My first three years were spent in the barracks which is boarded up. I got married in 1978 and we then moved to 136 Fury, again disappointed in appearance. The Air Force was so strict with what you could and couldn’t do with your home. I also drove to the alert area, weapon storage area, and commented to my wife that if we’d done that years ago we would have been “jacked up”. I’m glad I went back, I loved the base and surrounding area. On my way back home I stopped by Wurtsmith AFB. I think the difference is that Wurtsmith is part of Oscoda and the city has adopted her. KI Sawyer was more of a stand-alone city. Gwinn and Marquette are beautiful cities. I too made several visits to Presque Isle. I miss the UP, I miss KI Sawyer, and I miss the life I enjoyed while there.

    • Donny Claxton

      In spite of all that, Warren, I bet the trees right now are amazing. Did you take any photos of them? –DC

  13. Warren Anderson 1975-1979

    To be honest the trees were just starting to turn. We went to pictured rocks in Munising where we talked with a forest ranger. She said it had been so dry this year that most think the leaves will fall before they fully turn.

  14. bob

    The Michigan state police cars were northern Michigan university police academy recruits in training.

  15. Anthony

    Greetings – I found you while on a “wanderlust” search of the internet this morning for information about my childhood home at KI Sawyer from 1968-70 Magical years. My father was a B52 Navigator and we lived at 250 Canberra. As a transplanted Californian I LOVED the kids playground that was KI Sawyer year round. Thanks for sharing….

    • DC-Admin-CD

      Thanks Anthony, I spent many a day playing on the sand hills of Canberra. We lived at 208 Fortress and 248 Dagger from 73-78, and at 260 Explorer from 69-70. I miss what it was and is no longer. Our end of base housing is still in pretty good shape but the base is not what it was by any stretch.

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