Monday, April 11, 2005

A Storm Story
It was Palm Sunday, and a big treat was in store for the young family. Father, Mother, and the two boys, aged five and two, were heading up the highway a few miles to the next town to have a nice dinner. What made it doubly interesting to the kids--to the five-year-old, at least--was the car they were driving. It was a loaner from the dealership, and not the old familiar '57 Ford that was the only other car he could remember.

On the way home, the sky got dark and the wind blew. Father turned on the radio and the family heard that tornadoes were possible in the Rockford area. As the family pulled into the garage--which they wouldn't normally have done if they'd been driving their own car--one of the kids asked how far away Rockford was. "About 50 miles," Mother said. "Don't worry."

As soon as they were home, it was time for the two-year-old to go down for a nap. The five-year-old picked up a book and flipped on the TV. Outside, it got darker. The five-year-old didn't pay too much attention--until the TV winked off. "Hey, what happened?"

Father went to the kitchen window and suddenly shouted, "Head for the cellar!" Mother, who was tending to the two-year-old in the bedroom at the end of the hall, shouted, "What?" Father, more emphatic now, yelled, "Grab Danny and head for the cellar!" The five-year-old didn't need to be told twice. He scuttled down the stairs with the rest of the family, and when they were two or three steps from the bottom, he heard a window blow out behind them.

They huddled in the dark southwest corner of the basement for a few minutes. The five-year-old didn't exactly know what was happening, but he could tell from what he'd heard in his father's voice that it was serious.

It's not much of a story in the retelling. However, I was the five-year-old, and the story is one of my most vivid childhood memories. Forty years ago today, the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak, the second-worst such outbreak in American meteorological history, ripped through the Midwest. Although there were bigger and more destructive tornadoes elsewhere, especially in Indiana and Michigan, one of them hit my town--Monroe, Wisconsin.

What happened after we came up from the basement is substantially more blurry in my memory than the runup to the storm and the rush to get to shelter. My father says we were only downstairs five or ten minutes before he went out to see what had happened. We were fortunate in that the only significant damage to our house was a single broken window and some lost shingles. The roof was about two-thirds gone from our barn, however, and a machine shed was seriously damaged. It could have been far worse, and for our neighbors a few hundred yards up the road, it was--the roof was ripped off their house and most of their farm was leveled.

It wasn't until years later that my father described to me what he had actually seen. He could see the top of the cloud that was bearing down on us, but didn't stay to look long enough to see much more than that. While we waited it out in the basement, he said he fully expected the house to crash down around our ears--but apparently the tornado wasn't on the ground when it passed over our house. It was, however, when it reached the west side of the city of Monroe. Damage was in the millions and injuries in the dozens, but there were no fatalities--not in our area, anyhow, but there were more than 250 elsewhere in the Midwest on the same day.

The storm knocked out the electricity and the telephones, so if you wanted to find out what had happened to your family, friends, and neighbors, you had to go and ask them. Thus it wasn't long before one set of grandparents arrived from nearby Brodhead, having heard only that a tornado had hit southwest of Monroe and knowing little else.

That night, perhaps for the only time in his 60-plus years of dairy farming, my father didn't milk his cows. The next morning, he rigged up an ingenious gizmo to generate enough vacuum to run the milking machines. I never knew exactly what it was or how it worked, until I asked him--this afternoon. It seems that the windshield wipers on his early-50s farm truck were vacuum-operated, and it was possible to rig up an attachment to the truck's carburetor that generated sufficient vacuum to power a milking machine.

By the next day, the sheriff's department had issued passes to people who lived in the hardest-hit areas, which you had to display on your car to get access. They helped keep out sightseers, and presumably, the passes would also help keep out looters, although we'd have been shocked by looting in 1965 small-town Wisconsin.

Over the next several months, the barn was re-roofed and the machine shed rebuilt, and life returned to normal. But for years afterward, whenever the skies darkened and weather watches were issued, I would become sick with worry. I reacted that way until I got into radio, and I realized that the only time a radio guy can be absolutely sure people are hanging on his every word is during severe weather. At that point, I got over my weather fears pretty quickly, and became a severe weather adrenaline junkie.

Once, shortly after I started at a radio station in a new town and severe weather broke out, I asked my partner to clarify the location of a reported tornado. "Seven miles southwest of Miles, Iowa," I said. "Where is that?" She got a weird and worried look on her face and said, "That's . . . here." And indeed it was--the station was atop a hill in a flimsy little prefab building seven miles southwest of Miles, Iowa. But instead of heading for shelter, I ran outside to look for the tornado--and my self-imposed rule after that was this: Unless I saw a tornado heading straight for me from out the station window, I would remain at my post. I was even a certified tornado spotter for a while.

Today, radio weather coverage isn't what it used to be--many stations with satellite programming simply don't have live bodies to cover the weather. True, they're all hooked up to the Emergency Alert System, which broadcasts warnings automatically as they are issued by the National Weather Service, but if you miss the one-and-only announcement, you're out of luck--nobody's going to repeat it. Other station abdicate their responsibility entirely--I knew of a program director who told his staff, "If they want to know, they can turn on the Weather Channel." Once, while I was driving home in horizontal rain and high wind and searching the radio dial for information, I heard a DJ say, "A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of the listening area. If you want to know the details, give me a call on the listener line." If he'd been working for me, I'd have fired his ass on the spot--but he was probably only doing what he'd been told to do. My last radio job was at a more-music, less-talk classic rock station, but if the weather went bad while I was on the air, I covered it, figuring it would be easier to ask forgiveness for breaking the sacred format rules than permission to do so. It's been almost seven years since I last sat down behind a microphone and did a radio show. But when the skies go dark and the weather turns severe, I still miss it.

The severe weather forecasting and warning systems we utilize today, right down to the familiar distinction between a tornado watch and a tornado warning, are a direct result of lessons learned during the 1965 Palm Sunday outbreak. Of course, part of my fascination with the Palm Sunday tornado is because it's one of the oldest memories I have, and as such, in true navel-gazing baby boomer fashion, it reminds me just how much the world has changed from then to now--and just how elderly I'm becoming.

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