Military families, officially due to the "exigencies of the service," sometimes end up living in the darndest places. So it was that we found ourselves abiding in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The base was named K.I. Sawyer AFB located about fifteen miles south of Marquette, a seaport on the shore of Lake Superior.
It was a place totally unlike the familiar plains of Nebraska. The soil was rocky and almost pure sand, very little tilled ground, and few crops grown locally. The growing season was so short that garden tomatoes couldn't turn red before the unprotected plants were nipped by frost. Trees, trees, trees everywhere, and that was the major industry, logging with the wood chipped and sent off to be made into paper. At the dock in Marquette lake, freighters were loaded with taconite, a processed form of iron ore. And lake effect snow, we had it! The average snow fall per year was in the neighborhood of 210 inches; the winter of 1978 we received 280 inches.
At home in Nebraska snow accumulates to maybe a foot deep for a few days and then melts away. In the UP the temperature drops below freezing in October and never warms up again until April. Upers insist that the only month of the year that hasn't recorded snowfall is August and I saw snow flakes in the air that month also. The snow accumulates and accumulates until on the level it will be 5 to 8 feet deep most places. Roadways, kept clear by near constant snow plowing, resemble topless tunnels. Road intersections are a caution and most people mounted brilliantly colored tennis balls on their radio antennas in hope that other drivers might spot them sooner rather than too late to avoid a collision.
Wintertime though was also the time to play. Tradition held that departing GI's sold their old snowmobiles to the new guys reporting for duty and I accumulated seven that mostly ran. Snowmobile and cross country ski trails proliferated as it was impossible to walk through the forest in or on the deep snow cover. Some counties even allowed the unlicensed snowmobiles to operate on the roadways.
Crossing a plowed road on a snowmobile was an adventure in itself. Approach slowly, up and over the snow plowed berm, down the 8 to 10 foot really steep slope to the road surface, gun the throttle to gain enough speed while crossing the roadway to make it up the ridge on the other side. Be careful though too much speed and you'll be airborne on the other side. I saw Ann do that one day and then come down with her foot and leg under the track -- bruises and a lot of complaining but still game to continue on.
We'd transferred to Michigan from Oklahoma in the summertime. Our children were in high school and the change in schools was a culture shock. They attended in Gwinn and the athletic teams were called the Gwinn Modeltowners. An example: during a biology class the teacher, Mr. Marjamaci brought in a black bear that he'd just shot for the student's to dissect the carcass. The local speech was tinged with a Finnish accent and any interrogative ended with an "aye?" Mr. Aho taught art and wrote country music. The school band raised funds by selling pasties.
A day or so after Christmas three of our children's former Oklahoma classmates, Paul, Lane and Nancy flew into Marquette to spend their Christmas vacation in the North Country. The base golf course doubled as snowmobile range in winter -- just stay off the greens. Out the back gate was the base ski hill crowded with kids from sunup to near midnight. When the Okies got a little proficient on their skis it was off to Iron Mountain, the ski slope with the greatest drop east of the Mississippi. Nothing like skiing in the Rockies but what the hey, the kids had a wonderful time.
Kids playing hard outdoors all day came in the door ready to eat. One evening my mom -- my folks had come up for Christmas -- cheated a little and used frozen bread dough that had been allowed to thaw and rise. Mom sliced off a golf ball size hunk of dough, stretched it thin and dropped into heated oil. The German name we never learned but Native Americans call it fry bread. When fried to a golden brown the morsels were lifted out and dropped into a paper sack with sugar and cinnamon. The kids ate all four of the loaves with barely enough left for us adults to have a taste. Burgers, hotdogs, pizza, spaghetti, Ann fixed it and they ate it.
On New Years Eve I organized a junket out into the woods close by. We parked our snowmobiles on the edge of a small pond in a bowl encircled by tall trees and so protected from the wind. We then built a roaring bonfire under a dome of brilliant winter stars. We roasted marshmallows, made s'mores and shared hot cocoa. Then at midnight we gathered around the fire, held hands in prayer and shared New Year's resolutions. Wonderful memories!
That is the way I saw it. Dick Trail.