Cold Air Aloft

1962

Still half-asleep in his jammies, the 4-year old boy shuffles down the hallway of the Rooks County, Kansas farmhouse. He's clutching his trusty stuffed dog, Bowzer. A golf-ball sized hailstone zooms toward him on the hardwood floor. The boy stops and picks it up. Cold to the touch.

"How'd this get here, Mom?"

His mother is holding his baby brother in her arms. She's rousted the baby, the boy and their 6-year old sister.

Basement bound. And fast. 

He hears the storm. When he reaches the end of the hallway, he sees it. In the living room, his father struggles with a tarp to cover what is now a picture window-sized hole in the north wall of their home.

1981

The young man stands on an Interstate 70 overpass near the Ellis County Fairgrounds west of Hays. When trucks pass below at 80 miles per hour, he loses his footing in the backdraft.

It's humid. But there's cold air aloft. Tornado weather, he thinks. The young man scans the horizon and sees them to the southwest. Two distinct funnels, dipping in and out of the thunderstorm. Headed his way.

On an exposed overpass.

Young and fearless. Wise and intelligent are still a few years off.

He does his job. Describes the approaching storm live on the radio. Shoots video. Flooring the radio-TV station's '81 Ford Fairmont wagon, the funnel clouds loom larger in his rear-view mirror.

The wagon sports what at this very moment is a maddeningly lethargic six-banger. He's 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.'"

2008

The man approaching the precipice of middle age watches live on TV as a tornado tops the Flint Hills and enters Manhattan near Miller Ranch. (One of the Topeka TV stations has a camera mounted high above the K-State campus.)

"Hey, that's just down the road."

When he sees debris flying up from where the tornado's ripping through someone's house, he rounds up his wife and dogs and heads for the basement.

Three years later, as he runs along the Linear Trail, he still sees metal debris from a flattened hardware store high in the cottonwoods that line Wildcat Creek.

2011

The man's son huddles in a bathroom in Dykes Library at the University of Kansas Medical School as tornadoes pop in and out of storm clouds over Wyandotte County. 

The son is just a few days away from his national medical board tests, so the studying continues unabated. Only the venue has changed: Wedged between the automatic paper towel dispenser and the urinal.

"Watch that backsplash, willya?"

He knows the ol' man will worry, so he fires off a text when the tornadoes cross the wide Missouri.

"All clear."