A visit to K.I. Sawyer AFB, MI, where much of my heart remains

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. A swirl of emotions clung 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 as I do now. My window of opportunity, 208 Fortress, KI Sawyer AFB 2010

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.

208 Fortress, KI Sawyer AFB, MI

Where my father and family quartered in the once-thriving Air Force Base in the 1970s.

That bathroom, mom once painted yellow. For some reason, which neither of us understands, 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, the 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 southeast 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.

A rear view of Leo P. McDonald Elementary School, KI Sawyer AFB in 2010

A rearview of Leo P. McDonald Elementary School, KI Sawyer AFB in 2010.

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.

Home to the Casey family, many years ago.

Home to the Casey family, many years ago.


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 shot a new video of the twins playing in the same spot where I also have a video of my brother Richard and I do 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 its comfort and yesterday, driving south, I let dad drive for a couple of hours and I got in the third row and laid down sideways 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.