Take Cover!

The summer that Russ and Doug were 12 and Terri was 9, Pat drove them back to El Dorado, Kansas to spend the summer with their grandparents, Melba and Eddie Wygle. They had a great time boating, fishing, shooting skeet, and doing all the things that Melba and Eddie came up with to entertain them. They also got acquainted with some of the more sobering parts of Kansas life such as tornadoes.

Here in California, the kids were used to hearing the sirens of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. In Kansas, cities had installed sirens that could be heard for a mile or more. They were used to indicate that a tornado was coming and it was time to take cover. The kids didn’t actually experience a tornado that summer but a number of times they heard the warning siren and had to take cover in the neighbor’s cellar. This was enough to impress upon them that tornadoes were nothing to mess with.

In the summer of 1974, we rented a 35 foot motor home and made the trip to Kansas. The boys were 15; Terri was 12, as was her friend, Susan, who was traveling with us. When we arrived in Augusta, we went to the home of Aunt Rachel and Uncle Dave Peebler at 124 High Street. I parked the RV in a driveway in their back yard. When it was time for bed, the girls shared a bedroom, Pat and I were in a bedroom at the front of the house, and the boys were going to sleep in the RV. The boys were especially happy with this arrangement. It helped them maintain their image as independent young thinkers who didn’t have to conform to the conventions of mortals and sleep in the house…they would take care of themselves in the RV outside.

After some visiting, we said our “good nights” and headed for bed. It wasn’t long before a siren started screaming across the town. Pat and I didn’t worry about it because we knew two things that the kids didn’t know. The first was that it was a very nice evening with none of the tell-tale attributes of an unsettled tornado condition. The second was that Augusta has a volunteer fire department that alerts its members using the same siren as is used for tornado warnings. We recognized the siren immediately for what it was. The boys, however, were out in the RV alone, in a strange place that was already a little bit spooky. All of a sudden we heard a wild pounding on the back door (which was locked). Russ and Doug were yelling at the top of their lungs, “Let us in! Let us in! We’re going to die! The tornado is coming!” As I said, Pat and I were in the front bedroom and it was taking us a little time to reach the back door. Pat got to the door first and was trying to get it unlocked but not being familiar with it was fumbling around and not having much luck. The boys were getting more frantic every second and were screaming “Why won’t you let us in? Do you want us to die out here? Please! Please! Help!” Pat yelled back at them “Look at the sky…no clouds…no lightning…no twister…no noise…no strange atmosphere!” The boys were so shook up they wouldn’t listen and couldn’t think of anything but running to safety. Pat got lucky and got the door open and let the guys in and we tried to quiet them. They were excited and big-eyed and it took a little bit for what we were saying to register. When it finally sunk in that the siren was not for a tornado but was a call for the volunteer firemen, the boys settled down. Naturally, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Dave, and Terri and Susan heard the commotion and were all at the back door, too. As you can imagine, it took a while for us to settle down and think about sleeping again.

Dave Thomas
March 15, 2015


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