IF YOU want to get a Kansan talking, mention the weather. If you want to get a Kansan talking a lot, mention tornadoes.
Just about every Kansan has a tornado story. There was that cyclone that blew off the roof, or lifted George's cow and carried it a mile away before depositing the poor animal safely in Mike's pasture, or drove a slim piece of straw deep into an oak tree trunk. Part of the reason for this is that Kansas has so many twisters -- it's hard to avoid them! And another part is undoubtedly the raw power of these dangerous storms as they dance across the landscape -- truly a force to be respected, as the stories below will show.
Nora Hiatt remembers, "My parents were born and raised in Oswego KS. In 1947 they moved to the Pacific Northwest. My father died in 1964 leaving mom to raise 3 kids under the age of 10. My mom (Ethel Lorraine Hiatt -- her maiden name was Pruitt, and she always went by Lorraine) was a worrier and was scared of everything, or so it seemed to me growing up.
"One thing mom wasn't scared of was the thunder and lightning storms we occasionally have or even the windstorms. I can remember her making us go out in an electrical storm to look for the neighbor's dog who had run off. She said once that her mom was terrified of the storms back home and she was not going to have her kids raised that way. She told us how during a storm, grandma put as many blankets up to the windows as she could to keep the glow of the lightning out.
"Back in 1982 I drove my mom and aunt back to Oswego for the first time since my dad's funeral in 1964. My grandpa was very ill and I wanted so badly to see him again. She reluctantly agreed and off we went. The last time we had driven it was back in the early 60's before the interstate was complete and mom was terrified of Deadman's Pass in NE Oregon. She was much relieved to see the freeway bypassed old U.S. 30.
"We had a wonderful visit with my grandpa and my uncle. Our last night there we experienced an electrical storm I will never forget. The wind blew and you could read out doors at 10pm with no light except for the bolts of lightning. On the television screen was a little radar map of the area, and little marks showing where tornados were touching down. I was HYSTERICAL. I can remember my mom looking at me with complete disgust and telling me to calm down, this wasn't even a very big storm. She said there was nothing to worry about, if we were in danger the siren would sound and we would just go to the high school where the shelter was, or to a ditch.
"I will never ever forget how calm she was. I had never experienced a tornado and didn't want to. I should have known that mom knew how to protect her children, even if that child was 28 years old."
For Sandra Kerschner Green, it was the El Dorado tornado. "Even though I grew up in Idaho, all my relatives lived in Kansas. I well remember the Tornado in El Dorado, Kansas. We were visting my Aunt and Uncle Dale and Nita Kerschner. It was my Birthday, we were getting ready to take a picnic to the park. It had been am unbearable day, so hot and still. My cousin Nancy worked at the radio station, she came home and warned us about the Tornado. My Dad, Uncle Dale and Grandfather, Ralph Kerschner, went out and stood on the porch and saw it come. There was a storm cellar for the neighborhood, but there were too many of us to fit in. So my Aunt Nita's brother, Tom Wile, grabbed a bunch of us kids and headed for his house. It was so scary. All I wanted to do was go back to Idaho. Thank the Lord all of our El Dorado family were spared. I can remember making sandwiches and taking them down to the people who were out helping. I also remember the next night another Tornado came to El Dorado, but never touched down. My Uncle worked at the oil refinery. He said, everyone was running for cover. He didn't because he said if it came down, there would be no safe place. That must have been a bad year for Tornadoes because on the way back to Idaho, we ran into more tornadoes out at my Uncle Leslie Barnett's in Goodland. We were sure glad to get back to Idaho and its mountains.
"But I have to tell you, we came back to Kansas, almost every summer. My Kerschner Grandparents lived out of Madison, Kansas at Kembro, on oil lease. My McFann Grandparents lived outside of Claflin, on a oil lease. I spent many a nights in the root cellars. We never had lightning storms like they get in Kansas in Idaho. My Grandma Bertha Proehl McFann would always make us kids butter sandwiches to eat while we where in the root cellar. I can still smell the musty odor that was down there. But I was so thankful we had a safe place to go."
Kathy Hartman also remembers the El Dorado tornado. She says, "The El Dorado tornado was something. We lived on the west side of town. If you remember where the American Legion is, our property bordered the golf course. We saw it lumbering across the course.....looked like it was headed straight for us. It missed us by two blocks!
"Whew! I shall never forget it as long as I live. I think the death toll was 13. My dad and I were home alone.....my mother at work.....it was on a Saturday. My dad did the strangest thing, and I never thought to ask him why.
"When we saw the tornado lumbering across the golf course, instead of going to the basement, he put me and the dog in the car, and he headed west down Central Street, straight at the tornado (or it seemed like he was). The tornado was going slightly southeast as we were going west. We were so close, that I could see nothing but the huge dark cloud of the tornado, things flying everywhere. Dad turned north on Oil Hill Road....and we headed northeast from there.....he stopped under a bridge and we waited there until it was over. My mother could have killed him, when she found out what he did. He died when I was 16 ...... there are so many questions I would have liked to ask him, including why he chose that avenue of escape rather than the basement. Go figure .......
"After that was when they put up tornado sirens, and for the longest time, I lived in dread of storms."
It was a Kansas City tornado that impressed Letha La Galle Taylor: "May 20 (remembered because it's the day of my favorite Grandpa's birthday and my best grade school girlfriend's birthday) 1957? (may have been '55 or '56) -- I stood with my girlfriend's family in their vegetable garden between Bucyrus and Spring Hill, Kansas, and for at least an hour (probably longer) watched the Tornado that became known for its devastation of Lee's Summit move from Ottawa, Kansas, across the country into Kansas City [the tornado is most often remembered as the "Raytown tornado"]. We all thought it might be the end of the world. We had seen many tornados but this one looked to be a mile wide and a mile tall and we could see the debris being thrown out of the sides of it.
"That green look [of the sky] or the sound of a siren sends me for cover every time. It earned my eternal respect for nature's force!"
Steve Chinn clearly recalls the Kansas cyclone that he encountered as a boy living in Butler County, Kansas (Little Walnut Township) in the mid-seventies. "The Methodist parsonage at Leon, Kansas, did not have a basement. There was a garage-access crawl space under the house where the centipedes and grand daddy long-legs lived, but it was not a shelter from the storm. So anytime a tornado warning came along, we headed for the basement at the church.
"I forget what made us realize there was a tornado in the area. Maybe father had the radio or b/w television on, or maybe it was the siren that announced it was time to eat lunch or put out a fire.
"The first thing I remember about the tornado experience was that father, sister and myself were standing on the front porch looking toward the southeast. The air was moist and heavy; what I call 'hanging in the air.' It felt weird! People down the street were standing in front of 'The Shack' (formerly a grocery store) and pointing at the cloud. The trees were in the way, so we could not see the tornado.
"The tornado came through the area and followed the Little Walnut Creek. I do not know why, but tornadoes seem to like to follow rivers. Maybe it is something about the moisture content, or maybe they like to strip trees to get a little fiber in their diet. I sometimes refer to tornadoes as vacuum cleaners with a hole in the roof.
"A state highway trooper sped by our house on main street in Leon, Kansas. Father grabbed sister in his arms, and we ran across the gravel parking lot to the Leon United Methodist church. I think I was bare-footed, so the gravel was not all that comfortable. We took cover under a table in the basement along the north wall. It was always damp down thre, and that is why father had to frequently empty the bucket in the dehumidifier.
"The Lakin family lived northeast of Leon, and they were at home when the tornado came through. Little Walnut Creek was south of their house with a field, horse shed, and hay barn in between. Ronald Lakin or someone else in the family looked out the back window, and there the tornado was almost in the backyard. The parents grabbed the kids and ran for the basement. I think one of their daughters fell on the stairs going down. The tornado missed their house and their neighbor's house barely, but it did damage some buildings nearby. Judging by the condition of the trees aong the road east of there, I would say the tornado left the creek and headed north.
"We went down to the Little Walnut Creek behind the Lakin's house several days later. The Elm and other trees had been stripped of their leaves and some branches were gone. There was a dead cow or deer and other debris on the opposite bank opposite to where we viewing the damage. I forget if it rained that day, but by the creek it looked like it had flooded."
I was born and raised in Kansas, and of course I have my story too. The 1966 tornado that cut a mile-wide swath of destruction across Topeka started at Burnett's Mound in southwest Topeka, and my grandmother, Mrs. H. C. (Irma) Place, a very elegant lady, lived in an upstairs apartment just below that hill. At the time, my mother and stepfather were at the VA Hospital -- they didn't even know there had been a tornado until they left and started seeing what the tornado had left behind in its path. When they found out the tornado had come in over Burnett's Mound, they raced over as fast as they could to my grandmother's apartment.
When they arrived, they could see the roof had been torn off the building. Heart in her throat, my mother rushed up the stairs -- to find my grandmother sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigarette in her long cigarette holder. Gramma looked up and said calmly, as the insulation from where the roof had been filtered down around her, "Oh, hello, Jean."
My 87-year-old cousin Gordon McLinn has his stories too. At one time near Topeka, he was able to see from his porch two tornadoes, one to the east, and one to the west, both no more than five miles away. Another time, one tracked right by his porch, covered the long overhang with a foot of mud blown up there by the twister, and imbedded a piece of straw in the doorframe. The mark is still there today.
Want to get a Kansan talking? Mention tornadoes!