Kids, don’t try this at home. I am pretty sure that the tale I am about to relate would be considered an act of terrorism today but in the early 1970s, it could still be dismissed as ‘youthful hijinks’. It was still dumb, but by today’s standards, ‘dumb’ would not be a good enough excuse and ‘youthful hijinks’ would probably not generate a favorable plea bargain. Things were viewed differently back then.
As a kid, we often attended the air shows that were presented at K.I.Sawyer Air Force Base located on the Sands Plains between Marquette and Gwinn. My best friend and fellow high school band drummer Jim was responsible for getting me on base a few other times when his father was still a civilian employee at the base. On one such trip, we were following him through the SAGE building when he stopped in a exchanged pleasantries with a guy behind a big desk. When I enquired, “Who was that?” Jim replied, “Oh, that is the base commander.” Jim’s dad was old enough to have flown in World War I, fly as a barnstormer between the the wars and act as a flight instructor in WWII. With credentials like that, he was pretty well known all over K.I.Sawyer. I also recall us facing a host of fire trucks and emergency vehicles bearing down on us as we traveled a one lane road near the hangers. Jim’s dad cussed a bit as he hopped his car over the curb onto the grass median just before they thundered by. He mentioned something about a ‘Broken Arrow alert’. It turned out we were in the middle of the drill they ran when they needed to practice emergency procedures for a B-52 or tanker crash on the runway. There were very few dull moments I can recall from my visits to K.I. Sawyer.
The one constant in all my visits to Sawyer was the main gate. One had to stop at the main gate and state your reason for visiting the base. Jim and I accompanied his short, very blonde sister Patty on a trip to bring their dad something he forgot one day. I am not being sexist here, I am just pointing out the fact that Patty’s appearance just did not say ‘Air Force’, yet when we got to the main gate, everybody snapped to attention and waved us through. Jim’s dad was such a fixture at the base that they issued him an Officer’s Pass bumper sticker for his cars so he wouldn’t have to stop at the gate every time he came to work. It cracked us up, but at the same time, I was impressed with Jim’s dad’s status.
Playing in Knockdown, the gate check became part of the routine for gigs on base: tell them where we are playing and get passed through. One cold and snowy night, the guard asked me for my military ID. I repeated my reason for being on the base and he said, “I’m sorry, but you are wearing a military issue jacket with an insignia on it so I can’t let you in without a military ID.” My brother was in the Army at the time and had gotten me some GI boots and a nice winter coat for Christmas and sure enough, it did have the US Army patch on it. Our keyboard player Rich was riding with me and he had his Air Force ID but the guy at the gate wouldn’t budge. I finally said, “Okay buddy, would you call the officer’s club and ask for Major so-and-so’s wife and tell her the band she hired for the Officer’s Club Christmas Party won’t be there?” and I put the truck in reverse. Suddenly the gate keeper changed his tune. Sensing impending victory, I assured him that he was just doing his job and I was sure the Major’s wife would understand. I won’t say that he begged us to go through the gate, but it was darn close. He did make me promise that I would remove the offending US Army patch which I wasn’t going to do (my mother did after hearing my story just to keep her boy out of the brig).
On the way to the Officer’s Club, Rich said, “You don’t know any Major so-and-so’s wife” and he was absolutely right. Major so-and-so was a tanker pilot who happened to live next door to my folks and as far as I knew, he was single. I was betting the lowly gatekeeper didn’t know that. In many ways, the two years I spent playing music at Sawyer was just as much fun as an episode of M.A.S.H. when I think back to the many interesting people and adventures I had on base. The exception would probably be the night we went on the lam from the military police.
We were playing our normal three night monthly gig at the NCO club so we didn’t have to haul our equipment in and out each night. Ray the guitar player decided we needed to rehearse a couple of our new numbers so we planned to meet at the club at 5 pm on Friday, practice for an hour and then go to Rosie’s Pizza in Gwinn for dinner. I did not need the truck for equipment hauling that night, so I drove my folks whale car (350 cubic inch Chevrolet Caprice), got my visitor pass at the gate and met the guys at the club. I offered to drive to Rosie’s so we piled in and when I got to the gate, I was supposed to pull over and surrender my visitor pass. Ray said, “Ah, keep going, we will need it when we come back anyway” and I listened. Ray was in the Air Force so I figured he knew what he was talking about. On the way back from Rosie’s he suggested that I wave the visitor pass at the guard on the way into the base. Again, I took Ray at his word and was fine with it until he looked out the back window and said, “Oh crap!”
What Ray had seen was the guard pick up the phone in the gatehouse which meant he was calling the MPs. Before I had time to panic, Ray directed me to take a left turn on a side road and when we were a half mile or so from the main road, we saw the MPs racing to the gatehouse with their roof lights flashing. According to Ray (and by now I am wondering why I still listening to him) the MPs would need to get a report from the guard and by the time they came looking for us, we would be parked at the NCO club. I started quizzing him about what comes next: “Ray, won’t they be looking for my car? I will also have to drive back out of that gate on the way home tonight, what then?” Ray had it all figured out: “You can park behind the club where we normally unload, take the visitor pass out of the window and by the time you leave tonight, there will be another guard at the gate.” I played the entire gig watching the door, convinced the MPs would storm in and drag me away. I held my breath when I drove up to the gate and meekly handed over my visitor pass. Instead of slapping the cuffs on me, the night guard simply said, “Ya’ll have a good night and drive careful now.”
It wasn’t until much later that I found out that not only had we eluded the MPs, we had done it by taking a bunch of back roads that wound past hangers of B-52s and the road that lead to the storage bunkers where the nuclear weapons were stored. I had never noticed it before, but when I parked the car behind the club, it was more visible from the road than it would have been if I had just parked in the lot out front. Just to be safe, I didn’t drive the whale car to the base again for a long, long time and I was always Mr. Polite to all the guards at the gate. I also found out that they did random sobriety checks at the gate from time to time. A few weeks later, I was pulled over with a half a dozen other cars for one of these safety checks. I wonder if I would have gotten a little freaked out had this randomly occurred on the night we were on the lam?
As I said previously, things were a little different back then and I would strongly advise anyone who asks that it would not be a good plan to drive through a military checkpoint without surrendering your visitor pass. My most vivid memory of the old main gate was the last sign you saw when exiting the base. It said, “Thank you for visiting K.I.Sawyer AFB. Be careful. You are now entering one of the most dangerous places on Earth: The U.S. Public Highway!” Pretty good advice for a place that kept nuclear weapons on site!
If you drive to the Marquette County Airport that now occupies the old Air Force Base site, you enter from the north along a new road named after aviation pioneer Kelly Johnson who hailed from Ishpeming. If you pass by the turn off to the airport terminal, you will end up on M94 which loops back to County Road 553 after passing the old NCO and Officer’s clubs. Just before M94 intersects with County Road 553, the road passes over a set of railroad tracks. Looking to the right, one can still see the old main gatehouse keeping vigil among the pines. It is kind of quiet now, but there was a time when that little guard building was abuzz with activity, 24/7/365. I wonder if I could stop in and find a visitor pass laying around that I could pick up as a souvenir of my life of crime?
Top Piece Video – okay – bootleg whiskey and evading MPs aren’t necessarily related – but I needed a cool outlaw anthem to illustrate my life o’ crime. None better than the vibe of Steve Earl’s Copperhead Road