Even on the sunniest days the place remains shrouded in the miasma that surrounds every prison, dungeon, or jail ever made, but even without the “hoosegow funk” Wildwood Correctional Complex is not one of the more picturesque sites in Alaska. It sits surrounded by the stunted spruce, marsh and moss of the muskeg that makes up a large part of the Kenai Peninsula and only the odd fence placement and discolored patches on the ground marking foundations of former structures hint at quite different times and a vastly different function for the facility
It was no accident that Wildwood Air Force Station seemed as if part of the more civilized part of the Lower 48 at been sliced off and transplanted to a few miles north of the small town of Kenai. American Cold War strategy called for the construction of military bases all over the world, and the installations were all built with a common layout and architecture that mimicked the look and feel of middle class Eisenhower-era suburbs “back home”. The uniform familiarity in the design fostered effective training and good troop morale while easing homesickness and the psychological shock of frequent relocation. All I knew was the place gave me a little bit of normal to hang onto as it felt so much like other installations I’d previously visited that whenever we went on board base I felt like I’d gone home.
Comprised of 4300 acres and 65 buildings (including 18 family units), Wildwood Station was established in 1953 as an Army Signal installation charged with the reception and monitoring of Soviet radio traffic, but when we moved to the peninsula the base was being transferred to Air Force control. Even though we lived thirty miles away in Sterling we managed to visit the base at least twice a month. As a retired service member, my father was entitled to the use of the facilities, which ranged from a movie theater, medical clinic, commissary, and Base Exchange, and as dependents my sisters and I could do likewise.
…but it wasn’t better prices and newer movies that had me psyched early one evening in June of 1965 as we passed by the sentry at the gate. I had been surprised at the end of the school year to learn that my best friend from Anchorage would be spending the summer in North Kenai and this was the first chance we’d had to meet up. Mark and I sat side-by-side during fifth grade, refighting World War II during every recess and the loss of that companionship had made the move difficult for me. His dad was working on summer-long project upgrading North Kenai road and he brought his family with him, and while there was still a forty-mile road trip separating Mark and I the chances of doing something together became much better.
One of those “somethings” was a plan to meet at the base theater to see In Harm’s Way, a war film starring John Wayne that was based on the James Bassett novel of the same title. Interest in the military was not something my current Sterling classmates favored, but it had been a major factor in my friendship with Mark, so a big-budget epic about World War II in the Pacific was an ideal choice for our boy’s night out.
Between bouncing on the seat and talking nonstop I must have driven my mom almost but not quite crazy during the hour it had taken us to get to the base. It had been a hard winter and I hadn’t been able to fit in with the Sterling kids very well. As mentioned in Anchorage we’d been refighting World War II at a fever pitch, battling over vacant lots with cap-firing Mattel Tommy-bursts® and Marx Monkey Division bazookas lobbing foam rubber rockets, but the closest my new classmates came to a military organization was a club called the “FBI” which I thought it was kind of cool until I was dismissed with the curt explanation that in this situation the initials stood for “Female Body Inspectors”. It had stung to be simultaneously mocked and ostracized but for the moment I was excited at the prospect of some good sessions of mock combat with Mark over the summer.
My first hint that things had changed was when he got out of his mom’s car sporting a new haircut. Up to this point neither one of us maintained any sort of recognizable hair style, opting instead for an unruly thatch of hair that would scare a comb to death. As Mark was getting out of the car that evening he was sporting a pompadour with slicked back sides that looked less like SGT Saunders and more like Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just his hair that had changed: In times past meeting up with Mark involved equal parts yelling, arm-punching and cupped-hand-in-the-arm-pit faux flatulence, but this time he was very cool and standoffish. The vague disconnect continued through the film – when I’d get excited during a battle scene he’d roll his eyes, a move he repeated when Barbara Bouchet slipped her dress off during her beach romp with Hugh O’Brian and I wasn’t quick enough with a wolf whistle.
He seemed more like the old Mark when we hit the snack bar after the show was over. Maybe it was the sugar rush from milkshakes, but we slipped into the obligatory arm-slug and armpit-fart routine from years past, but on the ride home that night I came to the realization that a fundamental change had come about in our friendship and my life. Prior to our eventual landing in Sterling my family had moved constantly – by seventh grade I’d attended seven different schools and the visit with Mark was the first time I’d ever had a chance to go back and see a friend post-move. It was also the first time that I dealt with an important principle thrown over the fence by Wilson in the Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement:
“He hasn’t been your best friend for twenty years. He was your best friend twenty years ago.”
The chaos and indifference of my growing up had left me reluctant to leave the trappings of childhood for adolescence, which put me in a difficult situation complicated by my tendency to hang on to friendships a bit too long. The change I saw in Mark showed me that it wasn’t just the move from Anchorage had changed my world – my age and the changing landscape of the 1960’s had also played a part in the chaos and I’d have to survive the turmoil of adolescence on my own. I could still fight battles with my plastic soldiers and keep a Mattel Tommyburst at home, from now on it had to be all sports and girls when I was at school.
What didn’t change was our periodic trips unchanged to Wildwood for shopping, medical care and entertainment. Social visits were added to that list two years later when I discovered in high school that I got along much better with other mobile military brats than my other classmates. Activities on base like a date with Cassie or an illicit beer with Mike so firmly stitched Wildwood Air Force Station into the embroidery of my life that it was a real shock when I returned home from my first year of college to find the base closing as part of the post-Vietnam realignment. Various plans for the installation were in the making when it was transferred to the Kenai Native Association in early 1973, but after consideration as a support facility for boarding students from Bush communities, and a brief tenure as rental apartments it was converted into a correctional facility in 1983 and the family housing units razed.
Seeing the place now is like looking at photos of actors from the same period. Robert Conrad was the star of the TV series The Wild Wild West which debuted soon after the time of this story, and as such he embodied the strength, wit, and charisma that my “Female Body Inspector” classmates could only aspire to. Sadly the photo of the hollow-eyed white-haired old man in his Wikipedia entry bore little resemblance to the action hero of my youth just as the faint traces of demolished family quarters and the copious strands of barbed wire gave no clue to the vibrant community and vital military installation that Wildwood once was…
… but even those days are gone I can still watch my DVDs of Conrad at his best and I can remember when Wildwood Air Force station was just as important to the emotional stability of a young boy as it was to the security of the United States.
(The book Military Brat by Mary Wertsch (Ballantine 1991) provides insight to the unique life and worldview of military dependents during the Cold War)