The Wizard of Oz” made Kansas synonymous with tornadoes. But it took the Topeka tornado of June 1966 to bring this Hollywood fiction to reality. That twister was, at the time, said to be the most costly tornado in our country’s history.
Even though I grew up three hours west of Topeka in Great Bend, that event had a dramatic effect on my life, particularly during the tornado season. Tornado drills, which were infrequent rituals, became mandatory in schools and brought a new set of do’s and don’ts to those of us in the hinterlands. One of the most important rules, repeated endlessly, was never, ever attempt to outdrive any twister. In fact, the rules included the directive to stop driving and crawl in the nearest ditch.
This order was on par with other truisms, like avoiding windows and invoking the Lord’s name in vain.
So in the years after the Topeka twister, spring always carried with it the fear that it was Great Bend’s turn for the big one. The one calming influence in this was Larry. He was, like most dads in the 1950s and ’60s, a model of composure. Always under control. Always in command.
And so in May 1969 when a huge twister hit the ground a couple of miles west of Great Bend, it appeared our day had arrived to join Dorothy and Toto. Our home on 17th street was not exactly a brick bomb shelter but still was hardly a trailer home. Still, the tornado was near Pawnee Rock and heading to GB. Mona and my four siblings huddled in the basement, each of us doing 30 laps around the beads.
But our Rock was missing. He was on his way home from the office.
Suddenly the front door flew open. Dad came flying down the stairs screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Everyone in the car. We’ve got to get out of here!”
It was the most outrageous thing I had ever heard in 10 years of life. From the Rock, no less. My older sister went from quiet sobs to screaming, “I’m too young to die!” Mom, of course, didn’t question the Rock. She gathered us up. Out we went and into the Chrysler Station Wagon—the model with plastic wood paneling.
Larry hit the gas. We were plastered to the back of the vinyl seats. “This is our only hope,” he said. The roads were empty. No cars, no people, no nothing. We headed east and then south.
Dad started running stop signs and red lights, and when he turned KVGB, the first thing we heard brought utter silence to the car:
“Whatever you do, do not, I repeat, DO NOT get in your car and attempt to outdrive the tornado.”
No one said a word.
The twister changed its path and spared the entire city. And we got home, piled out of the car and scattered throughout the house. My brothers and sisters pre tended nothing ever happened.
Without question, Larry’s move was pure genius.
Happy Father’s Day!
Write to Matt at his Website, matthewkeenan.com.