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TRAVELING JACK

Posted 3/14/17 (Tue)

By Jack Dura
Farmer Staff Writer

On a windless, sunny morning at 25 degrees, an 82-year-old man and a 21-year-old kid sat in a Honda idling outside a pyramid on par with Giza.
That was my grandpa and me, only we weren’t in Egypt. We were north of Nekoma.
Before us was the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, the only completed anti-ballistic missile defense facility of its kind.
Snow covered the sealed missile launchers. The pyramid’s radar eyes dazzled in the morning sun. One of the structure’s four sides sat coated in frost.
This was an adventure.
My grandfather and I have shared the road a number of times over the years, from fast track trips to my aunt’s Minnesota lake home, to rolling north to Pembina on an empty I-29, to easing along Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit road, peeping at bison.
But the trip to the pyramid stands above the rest.
Clad in his mad bomber hat and knee-length winter coat, my grandfather exited his Honda to meet the chain-smoking caretaker of the complex.
The caretaker was shorter than us with white beard stubble and a red face. I’m not sure he was too happy to be up before 8 a.m. on a Saturday in winter to plow out a path for two city slickers like us to see the pyramid.
Nevertheless, he did.
After Grandpa set his Honda down on a sunny spot next to the great pyramid, I leapt out of the car like an uncaged squirrel, snapping pictures of the giant thing as Grandpa chatted with the caretaker, who left his backhoe idling as he lit another cigarette.
Not many folks may know it, but North Dakota had quite a role in the Cold War. The base near Nekoma wasn’t alone; radar facilities went up near Finley and Fortuna. A perimeter acquisition radar site near Concrete (which Grandpa tried to get us into, but the military guard turned us around) is still used, but for a different mission.
Sources vary on this, but the cost of the Mickelsen complex was huge. The feds say $6 billion. The caretaker said $9 billion. The Hutterite colony that bought the place paid $530,000. What a deal.
Yes, a religious sect with pacifist views won the bid for the site once home to the most advanced missile technology of its time.
Grandpa and I owe it to a man named Mr. Wipf for letting us in.
Thank you, Mr. Wipf.
A small side note here: Our trip to the base brought us to Loma, the small town where my Dura forebears plopped down in 1906.
Loma is just an elevator now. My 97-year-old aunt Florence still remembers Loma’s Main Street, its school and churches.
I didn’t spend much time in Loma as Grandpa barked at me to get back in the Honda so we weren’t late for the caretaker.
That was two years ago, and our trip to the Mickelsen Safeguard Complex has been the most memorable of them all.
Perhaps more so than Grandpa taking Aunt Kathy’s jetski for a ride, or when I jumped in to grab his goose from a mucky slough on one of his last bird hunts, age 80.
My grandpa isn’t one to sit still. At the North Unit last summer, he faced into the wind like a ship’s figurehead, photographing badlands against the gales.
That’s my grandpa.