The landscape along U.S. 41 is typical of the UP. It’s rugged, hilly and lots of trees. The traffic is usually light, which is a good thing because the herds of UP deer roam freely across the roads. Eventually I arrived in the cities of Ishpeming, Ojibwe (above in the air) and Negau (Anishinaabemow) by word (pioneer in the front row); both were mining towns at the turn of the century.
From there, I headed south on Michigan Highway 35 to Gwinn, my final destination.
Suddenly, as I approached the city, almost on a tree stage, there was this huge plane! It was either preparing to land or was ready to crash. Fortunately, I remembered that Gwinn was the home of Strategic Air Force KI Sawyer. B 52, base for nuclear bombers. I had experienced one major bomb attack when my hometown of Rotterdam was bombed at the beginning of World War II and more than 2,500 people died.
I was relieved to find that I was safely at the top, but it also made me a little uncomfortable. Did I really want to teach and live so close to a nuclear weapons depot? I decided that (1) I had driven two hours to get there and (2) I needed a job! The need to pay bills and eat are powerful motivators.
I drove in a small town of about 2,000 inhabitants. It didn’t take long! It looked almost like any other UP city. The school looked very nice and the friendly secretary welcomed me. He called the principal’s office and told me I had arrived. A moment later, he stepped into the office and introduced himself.
“Henri Sherry, a retired Navy officer and now high school principal.”
There was something about him that I liked right away. He called me to his office and we sat down and discussed the work.
I learned that the work consisted of Gwinn High School and Junior High School (Middle School) Choir, as well as some of the basic music classes at KI Sawyer Air Air Base.
I would be issued with a special passport (after I had visited “Inspected” on the basis of safety). It would allow me to get to and from the base at any time. He explained that entry or exit would be restricted only when the base was on “Full alert”. The sirens will sound and the red lights will flash until “Full alert” was over. “Alarm” there was a time when airplanes became re-armed with nuclear weapons. He also expected me to develop a hand-picked high school “Travel” Choir. Also, I would have some elementary school general music lessons. He had already checked my reference and seemed to know a lot about me. He was very encouraging that the choirs were doing extra concerts in the area. He said, “As you did in Creston and Finland.” (He had apparently checked my reference.) He also assured me that the school district had the funds to buy whatever I needed to equip the choirs for the tour. It sounded very encouraging.
We talked about logistics. I told him that if he was hired, I would definitely stay in Houghton, so I am a “Commuter.” I was an organist / choir director during Wednesday night’s rehearsals at Houghton’s Trinity Episcopal Church, and I needed that job to pay my bills. He understood and told me that he had a couple of teachers who were also traveling “But not as far as Houghton.”
He also assured me that his office staff would help me find local rental homes with cooking rights.
We discussed my stay in Gwinn on Monday and Tuesday evenings and driving back to Houghton on Wednesday after school. Early Thursday morning I would drive back to Gwinn and back to Houghton on Friday after school. My lessons would be organized mainly in the morning and early afternoon according to my trip. His desire to make my work schedule as adaptable as possible impressed me.
He told me he wasn’t just interested in finding him “Musician”but when he found out “right” he, Henri, would do his best to make the program and the new leader a success. It was nice to hear.
Then he asked me if I liked flying. I didn’t really know what to think about the question, but I told him I liked it a lot and that I had attended some glider flight hours at Boulder City, Colorado Airport.
He explained that he was part of the owner of a two-seater Piper Cub aircraft at Marquette County Airport. He also told me that most teachers had been interested in going on occasional cycling with him in the past, they had lost interest over time, and he would have been happy if I had occasionally been with him. What else can I say, though “Of course I’m happy to join you”. This man pressed all the right buttons and I felt that slowly he did and got “Sales.”
It was almost noon now and he said: “How about lunch? We’re going to the base and I can show you what part of your job it would be”. Of course, I was willing to gain new experiences. I had never been a “Strategic Bomber Base” before! We visited a school where I would teach some basic music courses and then went to a basic cafe.
We sat “Officers” section. As I watched the menu, I was amazed at the low and low prices. Henri told me that as a base teacher, I would have the privilege of eating in an officer’s mess at any time and shopping at BX, the Base Exchange (military designation “Trade”). He also told me that BX prices were lower than normal wholesale. For the thrifty Dutchman, it was very convincing! You could say it was “music to my ears”. He then offered to take me to BX after lunch.
During lunch, Henri explained that once I have gone through and passed the security check, I will be given a special passport that will give me access to the base at any time. One of the disadvantages of Gwinn’s work would be learning to adapt to the ever-changing enrollment of Air Force families. At the end of each month a “TDY” The list of (temporary duty) was published. It lists the names of the families who were to be sent on other assignments. Some operations were in the United States, others in other countries. That, of course, made planning concerts or music productions quite complicated. It also made me realize that my previous jobs had been much simpler. This would be a whole new challenging adjustment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who worked as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also an organist on the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving to the Minnesota North Stars.