Military wives carry on with community holiday bazaar

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AP) -- Regina Beaupre was getting pretty nervous. The night before her club's biggest holiday season event of the year, she was worried that no one would come.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the lives of Beaupre and every one of her friends and neighbors on Elmendorf Air Force Base were changed inexorably. The base was on high alert, and civilian access was all but forbidden. But they decided that on the third Saturday in October, their annual holiday craft bazaar on the base would go on.

Still, Beaupre and the rest of the members of the Elmendorf Officers Spouses Organization couldn't help but wonder -- would it work?

The 16th annual Holiday Crafts Bazaar has become an institution at this military installation next door to Anchorage, the state's largest city. Arts and crafts hobbyists and professionals from all over the area bring their quilts and knit goods, wooden toys and carved moose antlers to one of the first craft bazaars of the holiday season.

On Sept. 10, the officers' spouses club was busy with the usual plethora of bazaar details -- lining up parking, juggling job duties for nearly 100 volunteers and making road signs to Hangar 5, normally packed with jets and cargo aircraft undergoing routine maintenance.

All that came to a halt the next day when terrorists crashed jetliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Elmendorf, its 6,500 active duty personnel and an estimated 13,000 spouses, children and civilian employees went on the highest alert.

Nicknamed ''Top Cover for America,'' the base is home to the 3rd Wing, comprised of F-15 fighters, cargo transport planes and E-3 AWACS radar planes. It's also home to the 11th Air Force and the Alaska Air Command under Lt. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who heads the Alaska NORAD region and is one of two Air Force generals authorized to order civilian airliners shot down that appear to be threatening U.S. cities.

The attacks came on a Tuesday. It wasn't until the following Sunday when Beaupre got a desperate phone call.

''Our treasurer called me and said 'What about the bazaar?''' Beaupre said. ''I thought we were going to have to cancel.''

High alert meant strict limits on civilians, said public affairs officer, Lt. Johnny Rea. Coming on the base required special invitations, random vehicle searches and escorts. Opening the base to unlimited access was simply not an option.

That would've meant putting out nearly 200 vendors who counted on the sales. All the money raised by the event, an average $17,000 to $18,000, for college scholarships, base morale events and civilian community charities, would've been lost. And the civilian community looked forward to it.

That's when the ''wives network'' kicked in, said club member Rena Fraser.

''You know how it works,'' Fraser said. ''One wife gets on the phone to another wife and says, 'Do you think the commander is going to let this go on?' We all just got on the phones and started calling around.

''Basically, the message was, 'We can still find a way to do this.'''

Col. Tim Van Splunder, 3rd support group commander, whose wife is also a spouses organization member, gave the OK. But there were conditions.

Vendors had to undergo detailed searches of their vehicles. The Friday night before the bazaar, vendors were directed to just one of the three gates onto the base and funneled off to a side parking lot. Then, military police dogs sniffed for contraband amid the knit goods and Eskimo masks and handmade soaps. Other officers used mirrors to peer under vehicle chassis. Escort cars led them to the hangar.

The day of the bazaar, civilians were allowed on base only as guests of people with authorized military identification, like active duty personnel or retirees.

And that's why Beaupre and her fellow organizers were skittish Friday night. Would anyone want to bother?

''It's the kind of life we're used to, living on a military installation,'' Frazer said. ''But for many of the civilians, it would be their first taste of it.''

But Friday night and Saturday morning, about 190 crafts people waited up to two hours to endure the sniffing and probing and came to sell. And, although the crowd was decidedly smaller than in previous years, shoppers came to browse and buy.

''I just feel I had to come,'' said Nancy Nolfi, peddling her handmade jewelry. ''We (vendors) committed to it, and it's their fund-raiser. And with things the way they are now for the military, now, more than ever, we need to be there for them.''

''I thought this might be a total waste of time,'' said Roxann Bartz, standing in her booth of country nicknacks. ''But I'm actually a little surprised at the crowd here.''

Most of the shoppers were military families, including those who live off base and from the Fort Richardson Army post that borders the Air Force base. But a few Anchorage neighbors found their way to the bazaar, too.

''I just had to get out here. I come every year,'' said Anchorage resident Susie Hall, who was browsing the goods with her friend Shannon Jones, widow of a naval officer. ''I got her to bring me out here. This is the big kickoff to the season. I couldn't miss it.''

Bazaar organizers took as a victory the fact that the bazaar even happened this year. They are already planning for next year.

''We've all got to learn to function in this new environment,'' said club president Cheryl Sorensen, who had stood out at the gate checkpoint Friday night and early Saturday morning greeting vendors. ''But we want life to go on as close to normal as possible. It's challenging, but it's not that it can't be done.''

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