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Not Eudora
By Harry Welty
Published
Aug. 1, 2008

Gone with the Wind

As a little kid growing up in Topeka , Kansas , my family would often troop down to the basement when civil defense sirens warned us that conditions were ripe for tornados. I always wanted to stay above ground to see a twister like the one that blew Dorothy Galeís house onto the Wicked Witch of the East. When one did plow through a nearby farmstead or hamlet my Dad would pack us into the car so we could gawk at uprooted trees.

Three years after my Dad moved us to southern Minnesota , the far northern end of Tornado Alley, a finger of God ripped through seven miles of Topeka . It was two blocks wide at its worst and did extensive damage for a block on either side of that.

My Grandmother survived because she and her daughter, my Aunt Mary, were visiting her step motherís apartment six blocks from her home. This apartment was in one of the block wide zones on either side of the main event. Aunt Mary refused to let her hop in her car and drive home after the sirens sounded. The three women bustled to the basement and listened as the freight train passed overhead.

In the stillness that followed my Grandmother raced to her car to check on her home. It took her an hour to find a path free of fallen trees to reach it. It had blown off its foundation and was resting next to Eleventh Street . Her brick garage was gone.

I had just finished the ninth grade and was ruing my Fatherís unwillingness to head immediately south to survey the damage. This left all the fun of the initial clean up to my uncles.

When we finally made it to Topeka , a week after the disaster, the devastation was still breathtaking. It was the costliest tornado disaster in US history up to that time, $100 million in 1966 dollars. The elm trees that hadnít already succumbed to Dutch Elm were limbless specters. I only had 12 exposures in my Yashica camera and had to husband them carefully on my long walk to Nanaís. Everything I saw along the familiar route was worthy of a picture. My non gawking mission was to look for salvageable items especially silverware that Uncle Ned and Frank had missed.

I could look down into the corner of the basement where my Grandmother dutifully hid when tornados threatened. Had she been there on June 8th she would have been buried by bricks flying loose from her garage. Had she survived this battering she might have drowned from the downpour that accompanied the wind. Had she survived this she might have been electrocuted by downed live wires that fell into the basement. Or, she could have been blown away like my Aunt Maryís little black dog which had been left in the sunroom. Its name wasnít Toto but it should have been. He found his way back to the house a few days later after a harrowing trip that my Grandmother would have been unlikely to survive. Indeed five or six residents of my Grandmotherís block were among the 17 killed by the tornado. Two more were killed at the bowling alley across the street when the billiard table they hid under crushed them

The ceiling over the front stairway was sky. The back stairs had been twisted so that descending them required me to step on the once vertical risers the treads having abandoned their horizontal position.

I spent an hour digging through the debris. I found one decorative porcelain plate that had somehow escaped chipping and a number of silver spoons. I carried these trophies back along with the dozen pictures I had taken. You can see the state capitol dome in one of them beyond Nanaís house. It narrowly missed the fate of the 10 story National Reserve Life Insurance Building a little to its right.

My Grandmother had opened my first savings account with a five dollar deposit in the Savings and Loan located in the National Reserve's first floor. The tower had also housed a barber shop where my father was getting a trim the time a man leapt to his death outside the plate glass window. The National Reserve tilted after the tornado hit it and had to be evacuated. The Companyís motto was painted on the side of the building facing my Grandmotherís home: "A refuge in time of storm,"

The morning after, as other Topekans sifted through the debris of 800 destroyed and 3,000 damaged homes, my Grandmother went looking for a place to stay. Her alacrity got her a nice apartment at a reasonable rent just before scarcity drove prices through the roof.

Itís often said that progress follows disaster like light follows at the end of a storm. Today you can buy a happy meal at the McDonalds that took the place of my Grandmotherís home.

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.lincolndemocrat.com