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Memories of Her Whirlwind Past


It took me a long time to adjust to living in Southern California for one reason: The houses have no basements.

You don't put an Iowa-born-and-raised person--or any Midwesterner, for that matter--in a basement-less house. If there is no basement, where in the heck do you run when the tornado hits?

There is precious little protection when the wrath of God is bearing down with spinning winds of 200 mph, rearranging entire towns in its path.

In places like Tulsa, Okla., and Topeka, Kan., a basement is quite possibly the most important room in the house. That certainly was the case in Iowa where I grew up and a lot of the new movie "Twister" was filmed.

I can still remember the bolt of adrenaline that slammed into my chest and sucked my breath away on many summer nights when I'd wake up to a hand firmly shaking my shoulder and a voice standing over me saying, "Hurry, get down to the basement! A tornado is coming!"

Seems like it happened a few times every spring or summer. We'd stumble to the basement so fast that there was no time to even grab a favorite stuffed animal. We'd sit huddled, silent in our tiny, red-brick basement, surrounded by my father's tools, while the winds screamed through the trees outside and branches snapped and the air raid siren at the high school whined.

It seems like those freaky storms mostly hit during the night. Sometimes, though, they developed late in the afternoon, usually after a stifling day where the humidity stuck to our bodies like glue. On those days, the sun would bear down in a cloudless sky, and yet you just knew a Big One was going to brew on the Western horizon by dinner time.

When it did, my mother would tell us, in a calm voice, that the skies "were threatening." Then she'd go to the big wooden crucifix that hung in our living room, slide open a compartment, take out a little bottle of holy water and sprinkle drops on the walls of our house, all the while mumbling some silent prayer.

I never felt particularly good about my future on those occasions. But we survived, and so do most people who ride out their lives in the land of the tornadoes.

As kids, we learned that if we were outdoors when a cyclone blew up to run to low-lying areas--ditches are popular--and cover our heads.

If in a car, we were told to drive away from the storm, usually to the northeast.

Eventually, one became a little blase about such prudence. One time my mother and I left a shopping mall on the outskirts of Des Moines and drove into a mass of black clouds, heavy wind and driving rain. On the radio were warnings that a twister was spotted near the road we were on.

"I don't see anything, Mom. Do you?" I said, straining to see through the torrents.

We made safe passage to the other side, but counted ourselves lucky.

In Des Moines, we weren't all that obsessed with twisters because the city is embraced by two rivers. Lore has it that tornadoes avoid rivers.

Tornadoes, however, definitely like the Pollock farm, down in Mount Ayr, Iowa, just north of the Missouri border, west of I-35 on Route 2.

The Pollock farm has been struck by twisters nine times since 1951, which is why I can never figure out why those storm chasers you see on PBS are always running around Oklahoma in their high-tech satellite vans chasing twisters and coming up empty. If they'd just pull up some lawn chairs on the Pollocks' porch, they could drink lemonade and enjoy the show.

The last one that hit, on March 24, was actually two twisters, says Patty Pollock, who has owned the farm with her husband, James, for 34 years.

As usual, the Pollocks heard the twister coming. "The wind sounds different when it's a tornado. We heard it, and Jim ran out on the porch and when he stepped out it threw him back through the door. He yelled, 'Tornado. Go to the basement.' We all ran, but by the time we got to the top of the basement stairs it was all over."

Later, surveying the damage to their two back-to-back farmsteads, the Pollocks realized that two tornadoes had touched down.

"The hen house will have to come down--what's left of it," Patty Pollock says. "The house was hit, but the house is OK; the porch was torn away and the roof was damaged, but not too bad. The house must be pretty strong because it keeps standing."

Well gee, Patty, after being touched by 10 tornadoes aren't you just a little bit afraid of them?

"Not really," she says. "I just accept that Iowa has tornadoes. I'd rather have tornadoes than earthquakes."

Me too.

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