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

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.

Comments

  1. Wow… I have been checking out pictures and satellite images from KI Sawyer. We lived on Sidewinder right where it meets up with Voodoo. I have such great memories, not only of Leo P. McDonald, but of the ski hill and the snowball fights and riding mini bikes in the national forest…. This of course was the early to mid 70’s, but I remember this base fondly. Thank you for your post!!!

  2. Janet Basilone Welsh says:

    Hello Donny,
    I happened upon your site and was delighted to read your comments about your time at K.I. Sawyer. I lived at 306 Fortress St., near you and it appears we may have attended Leo P. McDonald Elementary at the same time! My father retired at K.I. in 1978 as a Chief Master Sergent. Last summer, my husband and I took a trip to the UP and the old K.I. Sawyer “base”. Oh my goodness, I could not believe how much it had changed! I stood looking at the planes on display and cried that my father was not able to be with us. He passed away in September of 2010. As we drove around, I was a chatterbox with a huge smile on my face! I fondly remember the many friends I made, our neighbors, riding our bikes up VooDoo Hill, summer tennis and ceramics lessons, snow to the top of the door frame and Dad spending overnights at work, picking wild blueberries, Leo P. McDonald Elementary, and most of all my favorite place, the ski hill that was located in my backyard! What a great place and great memories. What years were you there? Thank you for your post! I hope to hear back from you.

  3. Donny Claxton says:

    Hi Janet, we were there from 1972-1978. We lived at 208 Fortress. I had Mrs. Kivasto, Betts, Mr. Stanaway, Bjork and then Nesberg.

  4. Karen Mccool Tyler says:

    Hello, I also lived on base from1962-70. What a wonderful child hood Ihad living there on base. My mom is from oklahoma .our 1st winter there was a blast! My mom though the basement was for all of kids to play in.She never saw That much Snow until she looked out the 2nd story window and freaked out. The snowbanks were so tall that my brother’s and sisiters and I would Jump out the 2nd story window into the snow and fall over laughing , We had to dig tunnels to get back in the house so we could do it all over again.And we would go behind the house and pick Blueberries until mom turned around and was looking at a great big Bear.Needless to say she did not want to pick anymore blueberries after that… Wow I sure miss those days…

  5. Donny Claxton says:

    Great story! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Janet Basilone Welsh says:

    Hi Donny,
    It appears that you were/are one year older than me, otherwise we would have been in the same classes! My two sisters were older two and three years older than me. They went to school in Gwinn. I had Mr. Stanaway for 4th grade and Mr. Bjork for 5th grade. I remember Mr. Cotton, the principal, and the librarian. I can’t remember their names though. I so wish there was some way of contacting the kids/people I knew back in those days. I’d love to reminisce and learn about where they are now. We moved to KI in Nov. of 1976 and moved away in June of 1978, when my father retired from the Air Force. He was a Chief Master Sergeant and the base sergeant major, who worked with the base commander. What did your father do? Where was 208 Fortress located? Close to us for sure. We lived in a “quadrangle” (3 buildings facing each other), but do not recall garages located in the parking lot. They had to have been built after we moved. It is fun to share with people who were there!

  7. Donny Claxton says:

    I graduated in 1984, but we, too, left KI in 1978.

    Dad was in the 644th bomb squadron. We went to Castle for him to be an instructor pilot. Stayed there three years and then went to Montgomery, AL for ACSC and wound up staying because my mom put her foot down and said we needed some grounding….

    I have joined the I survived KI Sawyer AFB group on FB and there’s another one about KI, too, I’ve joined. There have been some fresh conversations of late about fokes our age trying to reconnect. You should join us.

    The last time I saw Mr. Stanaway was during the summer air show at KI when they commissioned the static display of the B-52 and other planes.

    And Mr. Bjork…

    I had Mr. Nesberg for 6th grade and wound up visiting one of his classes back in 1992 or 93 when dad was stationed back up there before retiring.

    Fortress was a street that would have paralleled Canberra as it turned back into the base commander’s quarters, etc.

    I’m so glad you wrote. It’s great to talk to people who were there back then. I had such a great experience, and I know some of my friends wish they’d never been there. But it seemed like the perfect place to me to be a kid. And it’s so sad to be back now and see it a ghost town.

    And yes, the garages were added after we left.

    dc

  8. I lived at 213 fortress street in the 80’s. So many fond memories of that place.

  9. Donny Claxton says:

    We were almost neighbors then! 🙂 If you’re on FB you should join the group, “I Survived KI Sawyer.” I’ve also posted video of the snow from circa 74-75 here on YT: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTE6tyPoJKs and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoNHfFrq2yo

  10. greg ryan says:

    i lived there too. dad was stationed at k.i. 2 different times between 1976 & 1978 when he left the service. i turned 6 years old on that base…..

  11. Donny Claxton says:

    Thanks for sharing, Greg. All the best to you and your family. KI was fun for kids your age. It was one of the coolest times of my life.

  12. Shannon Denham Raines says:

    I lived on K I Sawyer from 73 to 81, when my dad retired. Your name sounds very familiar. We lived at 303 Dart street and my brothers Dave, Steve, and Tony managed to wreak havoc; Tony especially. I have great memories of Leo P. McDonald school. I had Mrs. Betts for 3rd grade, Mr. Barto for 4th grade, Mr. Mitchell for 5th and Mr. Larson for 6th. Mrs. Haynes was the principal; my brother Tony and his buddy Dwayne Henshaw threw small magnets at the braces she wore on her legs from childhood polio. The winters were a blast, I miss them. I had heard that the base had changed considerably but haven’t had an opportunity to get up there to visit.

  13. Donny Claxton says:

    Shannon, I’m not remembering you, but I obviously should. DeWayne was my BFF in those days. I had Betts for third, Stanaway for fourth, and Bjork for fifth, Nesberg for sixth. I guess that’s why I don’t remember you? Was your brother Tony our age? I remember a Tony in Stanaway’s.

  14. Just came across your well written article while reminiscing about my time at KI Sawyer and living in the U.P. I was stationed there from 1973-1977. I was one of the few G.I.s working at the commissary so you probably saw me there at some point. I too have great memories of K.I. Sawyer and the U.P. I lived off base with my wife in Gwinn and then a couple of rental locations in Marquette. My wife completed her college education at Northern Michigan and worked at Marquette General Hospital as a nurse’s aide. We were a little taken back by the rough winters at first but then learned to enjoy them by getting out and involving ourselves in winter activities.

    You mentioned Presque Isle and we too have great memories of that place. We hiked and biked the isle in the summer and it was our favorite cross-country skiing place during the winters. I often fished the inlets into the bay around the isle and used to catch Northern Pike there. We only lived a few minutes from the isle.

    Anyway, just wanted you to know that your article caught my interest. The time you spent at your typewriter was well spent. You are a very good story teller!

  15. Donny Claxton says:

    Thanks for sharing. It was nice to read your comments.

  16. Dianah Stehle says:

    I just happened upon your website while looking up info on KI Sawyer. What fun remembering. My dad was transferred from Elmendorf AFB Alaska to KI Sawyer in 1960. I attended Leo P. MacDonald Elementary then KI Sawyer Elementary. I loved it up there as a kid and still do, I try and visit the UP whenever I get time. Glad to “stumble” upon your website….thanks.

    Dianah

  17. Dianah Stehle says:

    ..OOPS! I forgot to mention that we lived on Panther Street.

  18. Donny Claxton says:

    Hi, I’m sorry for the delay in moderating your comments, have been on the road the past few weeks. Thanks for sharing. You might also check out the KI Sawyer Facebook Groups. They have been great to use to reconnect and see old pics.

    Donny

  19. James Dearth says:

    Interesting. My family was stationed at KI Sawyer between the Summer of 1975 and March 1977, when my father retired. My father was a member of the Base Police (Security Police Squadron). I also had Mr. Nesberg in the 6th grade at Leo P McDonald (1975-1976) and attended Gwinn Middle School until he retired. I remember Mr. Nesberg as being one of my all-time favorite teachers. While they do not understand, my family often think I have lost my mind when it begins to snow where I now reside in Southeast Tennessee. It just is not the same, especially around the holiday season.

  20. Donny Claxton says:

    Thank you for sharing, James. Yes, I cannot explain the full impact that Mr. Nesberg had on my life, though it was substantial. I went back and saw him in 1990. He was out in the portable Mr. Larson probably had when you had Nesberg.

    And yes, I share your fervor for snow. And yes, people think I’m crazy about it, too. But growing up on the base and playing in it at that age just changes a person. Or at least it did me.

    All the best to you. Glad you actually do get some snow there in TN. Obviously nothing like KI. I have published this video of a snow circa 1975-6.

    http://youtu.be/nTE6tyPoJKs

    Enjoy.

  21. Steven Smith says:

    I was at KI in 1978. 410 Munitions Maintenance Squadron. We were only there briefly, so it was a whirlwind memory. I was sad when I heard that it was on the closure list. When I see pictures now, it looks like parts are kept up and others are not. What is the most recent news of the buildings and grounds?

  22. Harold Fitzpatrick says:

    I went to McDonald school from 1970to1975 my dad was a crew chief on b52.He passed away in 3-29-2009.l like togo up to see where we lived.

  23. Karen Barkley says:

    I attended Leo P. from about October 1969 to approx. May 1972? I had Mr. Bjork for 4th grade ?, our class was in one of the doublewide trailers they had on the left side of the building, and Mr. Gordon Cotton for 5th?, our class with Mr. Cotton was in the last hallo to the left when you came in the building Mrs. Betty? Hakala was the librarian, and my mother Carol Barkley was one of the library volunteers. We lived at 449 Mustang. I do not remember the principals name, but she wore a leg brace. I do recall the principal was very nice. There were also two Mrs. Whites at that time. Some of the kids I had in my classes with Mr. Bjork and then Mr. Cotton were Vadris Thigpen(he had dishwater blonde, hair that was nice and curly). We also had Timmy Lemoine, Jack, and my secret crush in that school, was a boy named Randy, who had dark hair and wore glasses. Would love to see a picture of our classes again, those were happy times. We use to play the song, “Locomotion” and dance around the class several times a month, I think to just give Mr. Cotton a break from all of us.
    The last time I was at K.I. and in Marquette was in 2011, and I di remember seeing a phone listing for who I thought was Mrs. Hakala, and I was told by a local that Mr. Cotton had moved downstate.

  24. Donny Claxton says:

    Thanks for sharing, Karen. I had Bjork for fifth grade in 1976-77. My next brother had Cotton in 73-74, but for first grade and over on the first rear wing. I was up there in September, without a Traverse, and took lots of pics. I’m Donny Claxton on Facebook and part of the I Survived KI Sawyer group. If you’re on there or join, I can share with you some of the pics I took. All the best.

  25. Charles Mitchell says:

    I am the Mr. Mitchell mentioned in Shannon Denham’s response. I taught 5th grade at McDonald School until I retired in 1990. I will try to update you on some of the names mentioned. Mrs. Barto, Mrs.Hurst,(the P.E. teacher) and the Principal who replaced Mrs. Haynes after she retired, all retired at the same time I did and as far as I know all 3 are still living. Mrs.Haynes died several years after she retired but remained active as a member of the Gwinn School Board. Mrs. Kivisto died of a heart attack at O’Hare Airport one Christmas vacation on her way to visit her son. Mr. Bjork, Mr. Cotton, who was my student teacher, and Mr. Nesberg all retired after the school closed and I believe all then went to the KI Sawyer Elem. School which is still open. I believe all are still living. Mrs. Hakala and Mr. Barto retired a year or so before me and I think are still living. As for the students I remember the Henshaw family very well and their mother was a room mother for our class. Vadris Thigpen was in Mr. Cotton’s 4th grade next door to my room and of course I remember the Denhams. One last point, the most famous McDonald Alum was Lenny Skutnik who saved some people in a plane that crashed in a river in 1982. He attended LPM for a short time in the early 1960s. Look him up on Google.

  26. Charles Mitchell says:

    Update on above posting! Carl Larson, who taught 6th grade at Mc Donald for several years in one of the portable classrooms, died on Jan. 5 at age 88. His wife, Charlotte taught 5th grade at McDonald at the same time as Carl was there and is still living according to the Mining Journal obit.

  27. I lived at 103 tarzan in the mid 70’s. Went to K I elementary. Greenleaf 1st grade, Bennett 2 grade, Henry 3 grade,
    Marjemakie (spelling?) 4 grade. Anybody know Mark or Matthew Almond, Raul Madrid, Butch Hall? I miss K I so much. Hope to see it again someday!

  28. This is awesome. I had Mr. Cotton for fifth grade,and both mr. and mrs. Lawson for sixth grade in the modular trailors outside. Certified class clown of both classes. I wrote a story in school about mr. cottons “Iron Finger”. got an A. LOL I remember some classmates by first name such as Andy,a very big and tall kid,troy,co class clown,marshella,whom I recently caught up with on FB,and my first love….ROBIN ROGERS. Does anyone remember them names? Especially Robin. Also there was a ginger,jackand craig.I was a McDonald bulldog on the only elementary football league I ever heard. we beat the k.i. sawyer jets and the gilbert guppies to go undefeated at 2-0. lol That is where my nickname Sunshine came from. and would love to hear from someone. WOW What memories. I am on Facebook under Vadris Thigpen.I graduated in 1981.

  29. Lee Duncan says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Donny. I have quite a few good memories of KI Sawyer from when my father was stationed there in 1973 and 1974. Swim lessons in a pond on base (cold even in summer), t-ball, visiting dad at the alert hanger (or waiting for him to come home from who knows where), snow forts that would last forever. I recently came across my first grade (Ms Zini) and second grade (Ms Butler) class pictures; what a throwback.

  30. Jennifer Burgess says:

    Donny, have you been back to Sawyer since 2010?? I grew up in Ishpeming, but my dad was the psychiatrist on base from 77-83-her passed in 1994. I moved to Gwinn and lived on base from 2012-2013 my mom passed and I’ve been in Missouri trying to sell her house so I can make my way back to the base. I lived at 112 Lancer…it is a ghost town on base, so sad…when I’d go 27th my dad, it was bustling, military men, women, pilots, running here and there all over the place. I wish it could be that way again! I’m making my way back…it captured my heart and I can’t get back soon enough. Thank you for your story, I loved it!

  31. Donny Claxton says:

    I was back in Sept. 2015 for a few days. I’m working on a book I’m calling The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club. It’s a work of fiction. Hoping to get it published in the next couple of years. Thanks for your comments.

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