A Trip Back to the 786th - 1998
Before I started the 786th Web Site, I had already planned a vacation for July and
August, 1998, which would take me to 1) Galveston, TX, then to 2) Wilber,
NE, my home town, for the annual Czech Festival. After having started the
web site, and finding Paul Gearin in Mesquite, TX, near Dallas, I made it a
point to be sure I'd be able to meet Paul for some beer, food & war stories.
And, since I was going to Nebraska anyway, an additional couple of days to
swing up to North Dakota didn't seem to be that much to try to talk my
wife into. So, after making a few spousal concessions, it was decided that
we'd go to Minot to see old radar sites. I contacted Bill Kickert, who lives
in Minot, and he set up a visit to the site, via his brother-in-law.
So, it was now set. In late July, we left for a week at Galveston to begin
our vacation. When we left Galveston, we stayed overnight in Ferris, TX,
about 20 miles south of Dallas. I contacted Paul, and we met for dinner and
some rememberances. Paul and his family met me at a Mesquite steak house,
where we spent a very enjoyable couple of hours, rehashing our time spent
at Minot. It was in 1958, fully 40 years ago, when Paul & I last saw each
other. Paul is in good health, successful in business, has a great family, and I'm happy to report that except for some greying hair, looks much as he
did so long ago. The evening was too short, and very enjoyable.
Our trip from Nebraska up through the Dakotas was most enjoyable, maybe
partially because we were finally out of the record-setting, blistering
Texas heat. The scenery in the prairie was magnificent. Funny, when I was
in North Dakota as a very young man, I don't remember getting all oozy
about fields of anything. These days, though, the sight of literally
hundreds of acres of sunflowers was just breathtaking. Farming on the scale
done in these parts is almost beyond comprehension.
We timed our trip so that we'd be near Max, ND for lunch. Roland "Johnnie"
Johnson still lives in Max, and holds court almost daily at "Grandma's
I hadn't contacted Roland ahead of time, and when I called him
from Grandma's, he was very surprised, and showed up at the
restaurant in just a few minutes. We spent an hour reminiscing about people
whose names I haven't heard in years. Roland is currently 76 years old,
and except for some emphysema, is healthy, alert, talkative and looks
absolutely great. Roland stayed on at the site after its closing in 1979 to finish the time necessary for his retirement. He and his late wife were
among those who threw the power switches for the last time.
Ed. note: Roland passed away in August, 2000.
The old base, closed since 1979, didn't look too bad as we approached it on
the access road. Once closer, then inside the fence, the picture changed
dramatically. Most buildings are in pretty poor shape. Many of the buildings' roofs have gotten bad, and there is considerable damage from
excess moisture. A couple of the older buildings are still surprisingly
good, and the newer steel buildings are in pretty good condition. Knowing
that this was going to be the case didn't make the scene less shocking,
Since I had arranged to meet Bill Kickert at the 786th site at 1:00 pm, we
soon had to say goodbye to Roland, and head the final ten miles to the
786th. When we arrived at the site, one of the site owners, Nick DeJong,
met us within minutes, followed very shortly by Bill & Sylvia Kickert.
Nick had the site gate and buildings already opened for us, and acted as
our guide for the afternoon. I can't thank him enough for his hospitality.
The current residents of the base, a herd of cattle, met us as we entered
the security fence. The cattle belong to a local farmer who leases the
site for grazing.
The radar towers, except for some remnants have been torn down. The old
AN/FPS-6B tower uprights are shown in the photo at left. In the far right
background is the remains of the AN/FPS-27 tower.
The operations building is generally intact, but since it's completely dark
inside, and stays pretty cool, the mildew smell was strong, and there was
a good deal of moisture damage. It was very nostalgic for me to visit the
old "manual ops" room, which still has the Directors' room behind glass
windows, stairs to the room, and a "Spirit of '76" flag painted on the wall.
This room was too dark to get a decent photo, even with flash. So we
explored with flashlights. The old radar maintenance room and gap filler
room were where I expected them to be, my memory hasn't gone completely,
it seems. There was quite a lot of old paperwork from the 1979 period
littering desktops in the Ops building. We dug around in it for quite a
while looking for artifiacts that might prove worthwhile for the web
site. I still haven't gone through what I carried out, and may not find
The mess hall has changed some since I was stationed there. The fireplace
which separates the enlisted from the NCO sections wasn't there when I
was an airman. The building has suffered some water damage, and may of the
floor tiles have been lifted from the cement floor. The kitchen area is
just as I last saw it, with the red clay tile (which I've mopped on more
than one occasion) looks like new, the serving line is still in place,
and the skullery still looks as it did 40 years ago. The large, walk-in
cooler looks like new, and unless there is damage of some sort to the
compressor, could probably be used immediately.
After a couple of hours of roaming around and reminiscing, it was time to
leave. Nick and his wife invited us to his house for cold drinks, which
we were happy to accept. Their hospitality was like the hospitality of the
NoDaks I remembered so well. Though they'd never met us, we were treated
as old friends.
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