Site Summit: Summer Job in 1972
Washing dishes, scrubbing floors and racing cars at a Cold War missile defense site in 1972
by Michael Hankins
It’s not often a person is able to take the mundane job of washing dishes and write about it. My 6-month dish washing stint was much different than scrubbing pots and pans at a local diner. I was employed at Site Summit, a high-security Army installation 12 miles from the heart of Anchorage. From my vantage point on clear days I’d see not only the city, but Sleeping Lady, Redoubt Volcano, and Mt. Denali. Several hundred feet below my stainless-steel sink nuclear warhead missiles were ready to launch.
After graduating from high school in 1972 I searched for work to help alleviate an often empty wallet. For the most part I needed cash to spend on gas. My 440 4-speed 1968 Dodge Charger R/T was a thirsty puppy. Dad knew a guy in charge of a civilian maintenance company. The business contracted out services to the military such as kitchen and dining room upkeep. The mindless detail included dish washing. When first told of the job I wasn’t interested. It seemed a boring way to spend my summer. When dad mentioned I’d work at a nearby Nike missile site my interest level exploded. After turning in the application and quickly passing a minimal background check I was happily employed within days. My unofficial title was Civilian KP; the KP stood for kitchen patrol.
Site Summit lies northeast of Anchorage at the 4100 foot level of Mt. Gordon Lyon. The mountain is named after a man who helped construct the missile complex on top. Gordon Miller Lyon oversaw military projects throughout Alaska. The innovative engineer from Iowa died January 19, 1964. He’s buried in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.
Site Summit officially started construction in 1957 and went online in 1959. Its official military designation was B-Battery. The B stood for Bravo. Nike-Hercules missiles were part of a Cold War effort to place a ring of protection around the United States. They were a deterrent against possible enemy attacks. At one time there were 393 such facilities throughout the world. By 1972 Nike was winding down. The line of sight defense system was totally antiquated and offline in 1979.
When I was hired specific areas were identified as off limits. A sign in a hallway leading from the “Day Room” to locations unknown to me boldly proclaimed: NO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL BEYOND THIS POINT. That warning needed no explanation. The “Day Room” as it was called was next to the dining hall. Pool tables, couches, and seats of comfort were provided for troops. I got to know both areas up close and personal at the end of a vacuum and mop.
My KP teammate was a young man named Don. He was an amicable character and we got along well. Don had long hair so he was called “Hippie Don” by Sergeant’s Johnson and Ingalls. These two enlisted men were our supervisors. They were good people but didn’t cut us any slack in the work department. If grease or food residue was left on any plates, cups, or pans we were barked at. For extra cleaning power hot steam was pumped into our rinse water. We wore thick rubber gloves while handling utensils because the steam could instantly burn our skin. I’d never seen anything like it. Dish washing at Site Summit was definitely a hazardous occupation!
Don was popular with many of the lower ranked personnel. He’d supply them with extra food unbeknownst to the sergeants. I learned to follow suit. Three times a day an olive green pickup truck backed up to our kitchen loading dock. We helped load meals for those crews working the control area or missile launch facilities. Before the truck left we’d toss in extra snacks or fruit. That act of courtesy never failed to get thumbs up. B-Battery’s mess hall had a reputation for serving some of the finest chow in the Army. I found this to be true. On two different occasions top brass flew up strictly for meals. Whenever bigwigs were scheduled to arrive, Sergeant Johnson instructed us to make sure the kitchen and dining room floors were spotless.
One morning I yelled, “Ten Hup!” just for kicks. The two soldiers couldn’t stomp their smokes out fast enough while clambering out the door.
There were two security gates on the mountain. One was on the main road where I had to stop and check in. The other gate was at the control and launch areas. Two fences separated this second gate from the road. I was told more than once that should an unauthorized person ever breach the fence, they’d be shot on sight. I suppose manning checkpoints was probably the most boring of all military jobs. Security dogs were also used. On occasion I’d see handlers walking German shepherds on leashes.
The road to the top of Site Summit was carved through solid rock in some places. It subjected vehicle tires to terrible punishment. My 375 horsepower Dodge went through a set of Goodyear tires plus upper and lower ball joints in six months. Wash board ruts were common after rain. One rainy morning as I slowly drove up the hill Nike missiles were out of their compounds in full display. The birds were tilted upwards ready for flight. That’s the only time I ever saw them. It was impressive!
At the start of each day Sgt. Johnson and Ingalls would huddle in their little office smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. One morning I yelled, “Ten Hup!” just for kicks. The two soldiers couldn’t stomp their smokes out fast enough while clambering out the door. One of them spilled coffee in the process. After finding they’d been pranked the sergeants were none too happy.
“Don’t ever do that again!” Sgt. Johnson sternly warned me. Minutes later he saw the humor.
Sgt. Ingalls owned what I believe to be an Opel Kadette. It was a much smaller car than my Charger. The Mario Andretti wannabe drove it like a sports car. On more than one occasion “Sarge”came up from behind and passed me. I didn’t like thrashing my vehicle so I just putted along. When I walked in the kitchen afterwards Ingalls would be grinning from ear to ear like he’d just won the Indy 500. The soft spoken sergeant claimed to have set a record for driving to the top of Site Summit. I knew I could top it. After prearranging with the gate guard to not have to stop, Don and I blasted up the hill early one morning easily beating Ingall’s time. Extra horsepower made it a snap.
One day Sgt. Ingalls and I left work at the same time. He was in front of me going down the hill like a jack rabbit. I dogged him all the way. At the bottom of the hill “Sarge” spun out. All I could see was a huge cloud of dust. I thought he’d rolled but luckily his car remained upright. Next morning I was the one wearing a smile. I don’t recall Sgt. Ingalls ever racing me again. I was eventually warned about speeding on military installations. To this day I believe my old Dodge Charger set the quickest time from Arctic Valley Road to the top of Site Summit.
One slow afternoon Don and I were in the Day Room talking to a couple of GI’s. The men had something they wanted to show my partner, and I was invited to tag along. Don and the two privates breezed by the warning sign like it didn’t exist. Evidently my co-worker had done this before. I was reluctant to enter yet out of pure curiosity didn’t turn back. We passed a room which had glowing radar screens, and I saw a soldier in green fatigue bottoms and a white tee shirt. The fellow had both legs comfortably resting on a console while reading a comic book. That sight has never left my brain!
The soldiers took Don and I to their dorms. They were small yet comfortable places to sleep. There wasn’t much space to visit. I immediately saw why the Day Room on Site Summit was important to personnel. It was the largest social gathering spot on the mountain.
Don called my house one evening saying not to pick him up. My compadre glumly said he’d been discovered in an “off limits” area by the lieutenant. “Hippie Don” was sent down the mountain to work in Fort Richardson’s kitchen. No civilian KP ever wanted to work at Fort Rich. Horror stories were rampant about all the pots, and pans to be scrubbed at that location.
The pay was lousy, yet the visual sights were something that can never be equaled working at Burger King or McDonald’s.
I remained on Site Summit until the first snow. Seeing it was going to be tough going up and down the hill I turned in my resignation. Soldiers told me it wasn’t unusual for workers to be trapped on the mountain during a storm. That didn’t sound like something I wanted any part of. In September I started automotive technology classes at Anchorage Community College.
I often think back to working on that mountain. In six short months I’d created memories unobtainable anywhere else. Some of my former classmates worked fast-food right out of high school. I feel blessed in having washed dishes in perhaps the most scenic of all Alaska locations. The pay was lousy, yet the visual sights were something that can never be equaled working at Burger King or McDonald’s.
Twenty years after my dish-washing career I finagled unofficial permission to ride my bicycle to the top of Site Summit as well as hike there. Doing so completed two items on my “bucket list.” My son Gunnar went along both trips as did my brother-in-law, Calvin Freeman. No official race was declared but I managed to be the first one to the top on my bike. Site Summit competition still circulated in my veins. Things had drastically changed by then. The facility was in a state of total disrepair. I took several photographs for posterity’s sake. Thankfully some of the soldier’s Nike related artwork survived.
Going back down the hill I let ‘er rip. I wish Sgt. Ingalls had been there to watch. On a Rock-Hopper mountain bike I absolutely smashed his long-standing record for fastest descent!
If you enjoyed this article, check out “Growing Up In An Alaskan Village.”