I’m Not Ashamed to Say I Hope It Always Will Stay This Way

Minot Air Force Base Front Gate until the 80s

I remember Julie and Jeanette running down the hill from their house to meet us and become our best friends. I remember that we met Cathy, Jackie, Rita, and Randy because they were in our classes at school. But I don’t remember meeting Nancy, Babette, and Stuart. They were just suddenly there and our most important friends at Minot Air Force Base.

I don’t remember actually arriving at the base, but I do clearly remember two things from that time. When we got to Minot, there were no 3-bedroom houses available in base housing. At first Joyce and Larry were inclined to be picky. The base had 4 classes of family housing at that time: officer housing, which was in a section of its own so as to not be tainted by enlisted families living in the neighborhood. Officer housing was mostly single-family units, with some duplexes for the lower-ranking officers.  There was a section of split-level duplexes that was where all the NCO families wanted to live because they were so nice. For base housing, I mean. The majority of NCO housing was 2-story 4- or 6- or even 8-plexes. Those yards were tiny and you could end up with shared walls on both sides. The last class of housing was the Relocatables. Imagine small double wide mobile homes that were shoved together to become duplexes. Relocatables had no basements and occupants had to go to shelters for tornado warnings. 

So Joyce and Larry were hoping for a house as nice as the one we’d had at Malmstrom and put in for the split level duplexes. They said not to put them on the list for the relocatables. While we waited for housing, we lived in the TLQs: Temporary Lodging Quarters. Think of an economy double hotel room with a kitchenette. There was a small playground in the center of the grouping of TLQ buildings. We lived there for at least a month until the adults decided they couldn’t take it anymore: three preteens squabbling and no privacy. Joyce and Larry agreed to take the next available 3-bedroom. And that’s how we ended up in a four-plex near the front gate with the neighborhood park in our backyard.

Not our house, but similar.

Nancy, Babette, and Stuart lived in the end unit of the four-plex next to ours. They had an older brother, whose name I can’t remember for the life of me, and it doesn’t matter because he never hung out with us. Stuart was 2nd oldest, in the grade above me–that would’ve been 7th grade. Nancy and I were in 6th grade, but not in the same class. Tonia and Babette were in 4th grade and in the same class. Sean was in 2nd grade. With the park right there, we didn’t have to choose a yard or a house until it got cold and the 6 of us were together pretty much constantly, with the 2 boys peeling off every now and then to play with boys their own ages. 

One of the days that Stuart was spending with his friends, the 4 of us girls agreed to play cars with Sean. We got all the Hot Wheels tracks both families owned and the fisher-price garage, and anything else we could use, and made a big city in the front yard. The Minot Daily News was delivered in the afternoons on base, I don’t know why. The paperkids were usually out delivering between the end of school and suppertime. So we were out in the front yard when the paperboy came by on his bike. There was another, slightly older boy with him. They looked like brothers: both a bit on the chubby side with the same light brown, long hair and smart-ass smirks. Nancy and I knew the paperboy from school; his name was Steve and he was in our grade.  Instead of handing one of us the paper, Steve leaned forward on his handlebars and asked me and Nancy if we weren’t too old to be playing cars.

Nancy and I made quite the duo: she was tall for her age with very short dark hair. I was small for my age with waist-length ash-blonde hair. I was shy in groups but outspoken and bossy at home. Nancy was outgoing and friendly in groups and rather quiet at home. We both looked up at Steve, leaning on his handlebars like he was in some motorcycle gang. Nancy seemed to shrink into herself. I stood up and told Steve I didn’t think I was too old to play with my baby brother; did he want to make something of it? He said maybe he did and stepped off his bike, letting it drop. He took the bag of papers off his shoulder and let that drop too. I stepped into his space, the top of my head barely reaching his chin. We sized each other up. Behind me, Nancy, Babette, Tonia, and Sean all stood up and stepped up to my back. The silence hung there, sliding off clenched fists and jutting chins.

Then the other boy started laughing. He said, “Stevie, you’re about to get your ass kicked by 4 girls and a kindergartener!” Sean indignantly pushed his way forward, “I’m NOT in kindergarten! I’m in SECOND GRADE!” And then the tension broke and all seven of us were laughing. And that is how Tom and Steve became part of our group. The eight of us became inseparable. We got on our bikes and helped Steve deliver papers. We played kickball very badly in the street and took over ‘our’ park. We played hide and seek in the dark, walked to the pool together, biked all over the base, walked to school together, sat together on the bus when it got too cold to walk. Our parents even let us all have sleepovers together. I guess they figured 3 sets of siblings weren’t going to be getting up to naughty shenanigans together. And we didn’t. We were just best best friends who hated to be separated.

The family who lived on the end of our duplex and right next door to Nancy, Babette and Stuart was a young airman named Mike, his Asian wife Junta, and their little tiny boy David. Mike and Junta did not get along well AT ALL and were constantly yelling at each other. One time all us kids were in our backyard doing whatever we did, and we could hear the two of them yelling at each other. There was a crash inside and the eight of us looked at each other, wondering if there was something we should do. Mike came out his back door, holding David. He looked over and saw us, held out the little boy and asked if we could watch him. Tonia always loved babies and immediately said yes. Mike handed David to her and went back inside. 

David stayed with our family that night and in the morning Mike came over to get him and said Junta was gone. She was in a hotel room until they could arrange for her to go home to her family.  A few days later, the eight of us friends were out back again and Mike came outside and walked over to us. He said, “I want to thank you little monsters for taking care of my boy–how about a barbecue this weekend?”  We kids were wildly impressed that this man would treat us like grown-ups and agreed. That weekend Mike and his friend Pete grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for us. They brought out several kinds of chips, a ton of pop, and the makings for s’mores. Mike and Pete drank beer while we got high on sugar and played with David.

That summer, whenever Mike and Pete decided to have a few beers, they’d buy a ton of pop for us so we would watch David while they got drunk. We’d bathe David and put him down for the night and have our own little chips and pop party until the mosquitoes drove us inside. I don’t know if Mike or Pete knew our individual names; they called us ‘monsters’ and had nicknames for us: Stuart was Lurch, Sean was Tiny. Babette was Motormouth, Steve was Smartass. Tonia was Blondie and Nancy was Legs. I was Bookworm, and Tom was Bruiser. We didn’t call each other by these nicknames, but totally embraced ‘monsters.’ Somehow ‘monsters’ morphed into the American Monster’s Association, and then just the AMA. And that’s who we were: the AMA. We’d tell our parents we’d be with the AMA and we’d be back when the streetlights came on and out we’d go. We had AMA sleepovers and Mike continued to throw us AMA parties until he got transferred to another base. 

MAFB housing in the summer

The AMA was my first ‘found family.’ We were all school outcasts; too nerdy and uncoordinated to be popular at school. We were into Star Trek, Star Wars, Quark, Battlestar Galactica. Larry let the AMA come watch movies at the base theater for free.  We all had mildly unstable family lives. We roamed from one end of the base to the other. One time, the eight of us were delivering papers and as we approached a house, a woman came flying out the front door with a toddler in her arms. She scrambled into the car without even securing the baby, who was screaming. The mom was crying and hadn’t even bothered to shut the door of her house. She threw the car in gear and started to tear out of the drive. But when the car moved, she–and the AMA—realized that a motorcycle trailer was attached to the back of the car.

Without a word to one another, we all dropped our stuff and ran to the trailer, which was now sitting in the middle of the street. The mom struggled out of the car, sobbing. The boys unhooked the trailer and we girls started to pull it away from the car. The sobbing mom started to push the trailer back into the driveway. Steve shooed her away, saying, “Go—we’ve got this.” She got back in the car and drove away. The eight of us pushed the trailer back into the drive and continued on the paper route.

As far as I know, none of us ever found out what had happened that day, or later, with mom and baby.  But sometimes, when I’m feeling down, I think about the AMA, all of whom I’ve long since lost touch with. I think about the way we all sprang into action and worked together without saying a word. And I think about how great we all felt to be heroes that day.

Oh yeah–the second thing I clearly remember about arriving at Minot Air Force Base? The mandatory weather briefing all active duty and dependents had to attend within a month of arriving on the base. North Dakota is dangerously cold in the winter.

This is not a still from a movie. This MAFB in winter.

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