Still half-asleep in my jammies, at age 4, I shuffled down the hallway of the Rooks County farmhouse. Clutching my trusty stuffed dog, Bowser, a golf-ball sized hailstone zoomed toward me on the hardwood floor.
Mom was holding my baby brother in her arms, herding her children to safety. And fast. In the living room, my father struggled with a tarp to cover what was now a picture window-sized hole in the north wall of the house.
We had just moved back to the farm after my father graduated from K-State. It was the Bob Boozer era, and our little family lived in the Blue Valley trailer court. Many of today’s mobile home parks come complete with community storm shelters, but back then, not so much.
An outlier to Kansas, when he got here, his respect for the power of storms was borne from experience. So much so, that when he designed and built the farmhouse, he included a sub-basement, complete with four bunks.
Nineteen years later, I stood on an Interstate 70 overpass near the Ellis County Fairgrounds west of Hays. When trucks passed below at 80 miles per hour, I lost my footing in the backdraft.
It was humid, but there was cold air aloft. By then, I had caught on to Kansas weather patterns. Spring and summer meant tornado weather. Scanning the horizon, I saw them to the southwest. Two distinct funnels, dipping in and out of the thunderstorm. Headed my way. On an exposed overpass. Young and fearless. Wise and intelligent were still a few years off.
I did my job. Described the approaching storm live on the radio, then wrestled a 15-pound tripod and TV camera to capture videotaped footage for the 10 o’clock news. Tasks completed, I floored the station’s ‘81 Ford Fairmont wagon, rotating funnel clouds looming larger in the rear-view.
The Fairmont sported what at that very moment was a maddeningly lethargic six-banger. I was on the two-way radio with a colleague.
“During your eulogy, tell ‘em, ‘He’d still be with us, had management sprung for a V8.’”
A decade later, at a TV station in Topeka, the morning after a tornado touched down, I was the only warm body in the newsroom. In covering storm aftermath, we would often take bets about how long it would take a victim to utter these fateful words: “It sounded like a freight train.”
Since they’re not built to withstand tornadoes, these aftermath interviews often came amid the splinters and twisted aluminum ruins of a mobile home or two. After the freight train analogies, the on-camera soundbites were predictable. Conduct enough demolished trailer house interviews and a newsroom idiom is adopted.
“The fewer the teeth, the better the bite.”
It’s not a judgment of trailer dwellers, it’s a demographic description, and it’s probably an example of the cynicism often inherent in newsrooms. Those who live in mobile homes tend to trend lower economically. My father emptied the trash in the Blue Valley trailer park to make ends meet back in the day.
Long after I left the “stick a camera and microphone in their face and ask how they feel after their home was destroyed” business, I was watching a Topeka TV station in the spring of 2008 as a tornado topped the Flint Hills and entered Manhattan near Miller Ranch.
When I saw debris flying up from where the tornado was ripping through someone’s house, I rounded up my wife and dogs and headed for the basement. Three years later, as I ran along the Linear Trail, metal debris from a flattened hardware store remained stuck high in the cottonwoods on the banks of Wildcat Creek.
I guess my personal experience with severe weather certifies my bona fides as a lifelong Kansan. I can sense tornado weather the minute I step into it. I know what to look for on a radar map and have a healthy respect for the power of severe weather. Like many Kansans, I’ve also done my share of standing on the deck with tornado warning sirens blaring all about me.
I figure the odds are still with me.
Mike Matson’s column appears every other weekend in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com.