There are two places that feel like home to me:
- Wherever my family is at the moment
- A United States Air Force base
Let me explain number one. It shouldn’t be difficult because it means exactly that. I have no roots. I have no home. I have no place to go to that screams “The town of ______ has been waiting for you!” I’ve never had that. So when I say home is wherever my family is at the moment, that’s probably a little bit of the military nomad-child in me still trying to figure out where I belong, geographically. Any shrink would come to the conclusion that my anxious search for home stems from my lack of having one. Ever. See, I just saved myself about $120 an hour. The Psych 101 class paid off.
As far as number two, again it’s self-explanatory. I was born at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas while my father was in basic training. I never knew civilian life until my dad retired nearly 21 years later. A few weeks ago, Dad and I talked about how difficult that transition into civilian life was for him. That is also the first time we both acknowledged how difficult that same transition was for me.
I can remember every address I’ve ever had since 1984, and there have been alot. Phone numbers, too. When I worked for the military lodging office at Andrews AFB, I was the authority on zip codes, DSN prefixes, and area codes (before cell phones made it necessary to add a bazillion more!). To this day, I could probably tell you where most Air Force bases are/were located without having to look them up on Google.
Because of all the moving around I did as a kid, I tended to develop some fairly strong emotional bonds to places. Maybe because I knew I would not always be there and I was naïve enough to believe that those places would always be there. I mean, it’s pretty hard to close down a town or completely erase it from its very existence. Right?
It turns out that it’s not so hard after all. The government is very good at it, in fact.
I came across these photographs this afternoon:
I lived here from 1984 to 1989. Back then, K.I. Sawyer AFB in Upper Michigan was a thriving community anchor and a major player in the success and prosperity of neighboring civilian towns. It was here, at this base, that I lived out many of my firsts: babysitting job, school involvement, community dance, real kiss, cheerleading team, boyfriend, heartbreak, best friend. I had an active social life for a preteen and the opportunity to play outside without having to worry about the big-city crime in other parts of the state. In other words, I got to be a kid.
And then K.I. Sawyer AFB was closed down, renamed the town of K.I. Sawyer (you have to drop the AFB now) and the flightline was turned into an international airport. The buildings that military personnel and their families once called home, if only temporarily, were emptied of their residents and sold off to a contractor. The housing units are now rented out during the winter’s ice fishing/snowmobiling season or sold for the unspeakably low price of $40,000. There is no police force and the remains of the recreational buildings scattered across the old base have been neglected. Or so I hear.
This is Leo P. McDonald Elementary School located on what was then K.I. Sawyer AFB. I walked into this school in January of my 2nd grade year and completed 5th grade there. In that time, I was the Student Council secretary (4th grade) and on the Patrol Team (5th grade). A forest fire that surrounded the base one summer threatened to take out the building but was stopped just short of the playground. Unfortunately, the realities of the base shut-down and the subsequent abandonment of all its facilities pretty much did what that forest fire could not. That picture kind of makes my chest hurt.
The movie theater:
The first movie I ever saw here was Who’s That Girl? starring an up-and-comer named Madonna. The roller rink was nearby. It was the mid-80s and a preteen girl needed nothing more than a pop music soundtrack and some skates.
Here is the base hospital:
My younger brother was born here shortly after we moved to K.I. Sawyer AFB. Thankfully, I was a healthy child and didn’t spend a lot of time in that place. I think all three of us were lucky in that sense. But behind the hospital were a few baseball fields that didn’t mean anything to me except during the Fourth of July. My friends and I would find our spots on the top of the bleachers and stare up into the sky as the fireworks shot off one by one. Then we would all go home with our families and eat s’mores while running up and down our block with our sparklers in hand.
I hadn’t really thought of it until just now, but I wonder if the town of K.I. Sawyer holds a fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July for its new residents. Is the hospital actually in use? Does the shoppette still exist and are people allowed to fish at the old Base Lake? Are the floating docks still out there in the summertime, covered with those nasty leeches? What about the ball fields at the end of Liberator where I went to meet my 4th grade bully who, incidentally, never showed up? Are they still there? And that trail in the woods that led to the most incredible snowball fight battlefield in the world!! Do kids still play there or has the need for it declined along with the population?
It’s hard for me, mentally and emotionally, to even consider that my old home is in ruins now, discarded like used-up rubbish. The place is no longer necessary, it was shut down, closed, left behind. But unlike most places, it wasn’t locked up or sealed or even secured. If anything, it was made more vulnerable to the elements of real-life, unsheltered and without protection. The residents were all instructed to leave, the jobs were taken away, and the surrounding communities suffered as a result of the lingering effects of a military base closure.
I have often considered returning to K.I. Sawyer just to visit. It is one of those places I once considered home, but never could again. The proof that this wonderful speck of the map was once my favorite place in the world is in my often-present Midwest accent (think Fargo but diluted by twenty years), but I could never go back. There is no point now. I would be searching for memories that are no longer there because the place itself is not what it used to be. Where most communities grapple with the growth and sprawl of urban development, K.I. Sawyer was subjected to the exact opposite. Deserted, abandoned, and reclaimed by civilians who are still struggling after 15 years to make it a welcoming community once again.
It is hard to look at those pictures and not be at least a little upset. Like I said, I have spent most of my life putting emphasis on place and home and to see my old school boarded up and tossed aside really, really sucks. To see the guard gates torn down means that just anybody can drive on up and treat the site like it’s just any other old place. For people who never lived there, it is. And maybe even for some who did live there. But for me, for someone who still wrestles with the idea of having roots and a home and a healthy sense of place, K.I. Sawyer AFB cannot be that easily wiped away.
Would you believe, after all these years, that I actually found a picture of my old house? (fourth house on the outside loop of the horseshoe-shaped street in the foreground):
I guess, in a way, home is still there.