Hance Rapid at Mile 76.5 stands sentinel at the Colorado river’s entry into the Granite Gorge. The river drops 30 feet as it passes through a natural constriction formed by the Red Canyon. The dark dike cutting through the red Hakatai Shale is one of the most photographed features in the Canyon.
I found out more about the man the rapid was named after:
John Hance (1840 – January 8, 1919) is thought to be the first non-native resident of the Grand Canyon.
He opened the first tourist trail in the canyon before the canyon was a national park, giving tours of the canyon after his ca.1866 attempts at mining asbestos failed. “Captain” John Hance was said to be one of the Grand Canyon’s most colorful characters, and one early visitor declared that “To see the canyon only and not to see Captain John Hance, is to miss half the show.”
Hance delighted in telling canyon stories to visitors, favoring the whopper of a tale over mere facts. With a straight face, Hance told travelers how he had dug the canyon himself, piling the excavated earth down near Flagstaff (thus ‘explaining’ those mysterious then-unexplained dirt piles).
John Hance died in 1919, the year the Grand Canyon became a National Park, and was the first person buried in what would become the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.
(from wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, and archive.org)
In May 1891 one Charley Greenlaw wrote this in John Hance’s guestbook:
I can cheerfully say that this, the Grand Canon of the Colorado River, is the grandest sight of my life. As I noticed in this little book of Capt. John Hance, a great many people say indescribable. I can say nothing more. It is beyond reason to think of describing it in any way. You must see it to appreciate it. A grand sight of this kind and so few people know of it. By accident I formed the acquaintance of two ladies en route to the Grand Canon. I joined them. We have enjoyed our trip; the stage ride from Flagstaff to the Grand Canon is grand. Good horses, competent and accommodating drivers. I have seen the Yosemite, have visited California several different times, in fact seen all the principal points of interest in the United States, but the most wonderful, awe-inspiring piece of Nature’s own work is this, the Grand Canon of the Colorado River.
Another entry by J. Curtis Wasson told of the twelve hour stage coach journey after alighting from the Santa Fe Railroad Company’s train:
From Flagstaff at 7 o’clock a.m. our stage and six goes out.
Arriving at Little Springs Station, where a new relay of six horses is added, we make haste until the half-way station is reached, passing through a fine unbroken forest of Pinus ponderosa, quaking aspen, balsam fir, and spruce. The open forest, the waving grasses, the gorgeously colored mountain flowers, the occasional chirp of the forest songsters, the ice-cold springs traversing our smooth compact road, the peaks, clear-cut and massive, towering up nearly 14,000 feet into the blue above, the low rumbling of our great Concord stage, the sound of two dozen hoofs, the sharp crack of the driver’s whip, the clear, bracing atmosphere, every breath of which seems to stimulate, the indescribably beautiful Painted Desert outstretching for a hundred miles to our right.
One fain would linger on scenes like these but we have arrived at Cedar Station, and after partaking of a very refreshing luncheon we are given a new relay of horses and hasten over the desert portion of our ride to Moqui Station, where another relay is provided, which takes us to the hotel at the rim of the Grand canon, where we arrive at 7 o’clock p.m.
Leaving our Concord stage, giving our grips to the porter, not even waiting for “facial ablutions”, we hasten across the yard and up to the rim of the canon, when, looking over — the Chasm of the Creator, the Gulf of God, the Erosion of the Ages, that Erosive Entity, that Awful Abyss, lies in all its awfulness before us, — awful, yet grand; appalling, yet attractive; awe inspiring, yet fascinating in its greetings.
Lee’s Ferry on the right bank of the Colorado River, just above the mouth of the Paria River, at an elevation of 3,170 feet asl is the site of the start for most river trips through the Grand Canyon.
Originally called Lonely Dell by Mormon church-man with 19 wives and 67 children John D Lee, who established the ferry in 1872, it provided the only access across more than 300 miles of river for many years. Actually one of Lee’s 19 wives, Emma ran the ferry for a number of years while he was on the lam – hiding from the law for his leading part in the wicked 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The massacre near St George, Utah involved a group of emigrants known as the Fancher Party trekking west from Arkansas who were camped at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah preparing for their final push across the Mohave Desert when they were attacked by a group of Mormon Militia who disguised themselves as Native Americans so as to cowardly deflect blame for the attack.
It was a time of great tension between Mormons and the rest of the United States, and the massacred party was most likely attacked because they were not Mormons.
After an initial siege, the treacherous Lee approached the emigrants saying he’d negotiated safe passage for them with protection from their supposed Native American attackers if they surrendered their weapons. The group agreed, whereupon the militia proceeded to kill all but the children under 8 years of age.
One hundred and twenty men, women and children died that day. For almost two decades, the incident was covered up, but in 1874, Lee was brought to trial. Never denying his complicity in the massacre, Lee did insist – probably correctly – that he was acting on orders from high up in the church. He was the only one of about fifty men involved in the massacre to be brought to book. He was convicted and executed by firing squad in 1877.
His widow Emma Lee sold the ferry in 1879 for 100 milk cows to the Mormon Church who continued to operate it until 1910 when it was taken over by Coconino County, Arizona. The ferry stayed mostly in use until 1929 when the Navajo Bridge was completed. Ironically, the ferry was used to ship much of the material to build the bridge that put it out of business.
1984: There was only one bridge when we crossed to the right – or ‘north’ (rivers only have left or right banks – think about it) – bank of the river. It was completed in 1929. A larger parallel second bridge was added in 1995. The bridge we crossed is now used for pedestrian sight-seeing.
As a 17-yr-old in 1973 I flew from Jo’burg to Rio de Janeiro, then on to New York. This in an SAA Boeing 707 – a narrow-body, four-engined jet airliner built from 1958 to 1979, the first jet to be commercially successful. Dominating passenger air transport in the 1960s and remaining common through the 1970s, the 707 is generally credited with ushering in the jet age’. Wikipedia also says that 10 of them were still flying in 2013! Here’s one:
I flew on via Chicago to Oklahoma City, where I was met by Apache Rotarian Robert L Crews III.
I knew very little about flying and maybe that’s just as well.
January 2 – Attempting to land in Edmonton, Canada in blowing snow, a Pacific Western Airlines Boeing 707 carrying 86 head of cattle and a crew of five, crashed and caught fire. The entire crew was killed. The cattle? Who knows.
January 2 – Released from a psychiatric hospital days earlier, 37yr-old Charles Wenige hid in a lavatory aboard a Piedmont Airlines plane after it arrived in Baltimore, Maryland. When all the passengers had disembarked, he emerged and pointed a .45-calibre pistol at a crew member, demanding access to the liquor cabinet and to be flown to Canada. After two hours of negotiations, he agreed to release the stewardesses in exchange for a meeting with a psychiatrist and a priest. An FBI agent advised Wenige to tuck his pistol away in the priest’s presence. When Wenige did that, the agent overpowered and arrested him.
January 4 – As a Pacific Western airliner prepared to take off from Vancouver, Canada with 18 people on board, a passenger, 26yr-old Christopher Nielson, drew a gun and demanded $2 million in cash and to be flown to North Vietnam, threatening to blow up the airliner if his demands were not met. During negotiations he allowed most people to disembark, leaving three crew members aboard the plane with him. Police then stormed the plane and arrested him, finding that he was armed only with two toy guns.
January 5 – The mandatory security screening of all airline passengers began at all airports in the USA.
January 12 – The 197th and final American air-to-air victory of the Vietnam War.
January 15 – President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to all bombing, shelling and mining of North Vietnam.
A Boeing 707 chartered by Nigeria Airways crashed after the right main landing gear collapsed while the plane was landing in high winds in Nigeria. It was the deadliest aviation accident in history at the time.
January 27 – A U.S. Navy plane was shot down over South Vietnam – the last American fixed-wing aircraft lost in the Vietnam War.
January 27 – Frontier Airlines hired the first female pilot for any modern-day U.S. airline, Emily Warner. On the same day, the airline also hired its first African-American pilot, Bob Ashby.
On the way back at the end of that year, I flew in an Air India 747 – my first jumbo jet! – from New York to London. On the plane I read in an abandoned newspaper that Air India had been voted World’s Worst Airline – again.
I have since learned this: ‘The years 1971-1973 were very bad for Indian Airlines. The 1971-1972 Pakistan War didn’t help. The airline reported a 45 million rupee loss in 1973, the carrier’s largest to that point. Exacerbating the aforementioned crises was the continual strike being waged by labor. Management, concerned by growing labor costs and inefficiency, eventually locked out many of its workers, operating only a skeleton schedule with a non-union workforce’.
I notice groping is a problem on Air India and they now keep plastic handcuffs to bopha the culprits. I feel I have to report with some regret that none of those sari-clad hostesses groped me, despite their promises:
World Trade Centre
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan were opened in April 1973. I didn’t see – or consciously notice – them in December 1973. How unobservant is that!? And I must have seen them – I went up the Empire State building and looked around. Maybe I was staring at Central Park and the river?
bopha – isiZulu for bind, tie up (pronounce “bawpah”)
1984 was one of the very few years since 1960 that Colorado river water from the Grand Canyon actually reached the sea. High snow melt pushed it past the point where golf courses and old-age homes drain it of all its water and so – at last! – the waters of the Colorado reached the beautiful estuary at Baja California and flowed into the Sea of Cortez again!
Unknown to many, 1984 was also the ONLY year Mexicans would have been able to taste Mainstay cane spirits, distilled from South African sugar cane, mixed into that Colorado river water. Well, recycled Mainstay and river water, as the Mainstay that reached the sea had first passed through the kidneys of a mad bunch of South Africans that Chris Greeff had assembled to paddle through the famous American Canyon.
That’s because we were on the river sponsored by Mainstay Cane Spirits and South African Airways. The ‘Mainstay’ we drank was actually an SAA Boeing 747’s supply of tot bottles of whisky, brandy, gin, vodka, rum – and Mainstay cane spirits. We decanted all the little bottles we could find into two-litre plastic bottles to help the stewardesses on board with their end-of-Atlantic-crossing stock-take. We had resolved to drink the plane dry but man, they carry a lot of hooch on those big babies. Maybe in case they end up with all 350 passengers happening to be as thirsty as paddlers are? Here we are in Atlanta with the loot. Note the Mainstay sticker on one bottle held by our host Dave Jones, a paddler himself, for the US C2 team (?check):
Fifteen canoeists from South Africa joined our guide Cully Erdman and his delightful partner JoJo on a trip down the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to the take-out on Lake Mead three hundred miles downstream. We were accompanied by one other paddler, an Argentine José who was ticking off his bucket list, having climbed Everest. Five rubber inflatable rafts carried the food and the ‘Mainstay’ and hundreds of beers, plus a motley assortment of rapid riders from America and SA. Talking of motley: Us paddlers ranged from capable rough water paddlers to flatwater sprinters to happy trippers to complete novices. Some had Springbok colours, others had a lot of cheek.
First there were cars to hire, long drives and then ‘outfitting’ with kit for the trip.
Our hired people mover station wagons from Phoenix Arizona
‘Outfitting’ as the Yanks say
Outfitting was also needed for supplies and Greeff put himself in charge of catering for the liquid refreshments. He was good at maths back in Parys se hoerskool so he did some sums: Seventeen kayakers plus some rafters times 12 days times 10 beers each is, lessee . . . . . OK, and then for after breakfast we’ll need . . . .
Apparently the yanks thought he’d grossly over-catered and they were worried about how they were going to carry the left-over beer out of the canyon at the end. That’s if the rafts stayed afloat. Well, ons sal sien . .
Some twists in the tale: My boyhood kayaking heroes had been the van Riet brothers, Willem and Roelof, who won the Dusi three times just as I was first learning about the race ca 1970. As I started to participate in the race in 1972 Graeme Pope-Ellis won the first of his eventual fifteen Dusi wins. Both Willem and Graeme were with us on this trip, along with other paddling legends I had met in my recent entry into the world of canoeing. Having ‘paddled lonely‘ from 1970 to 1982, I was now rubbing shoulders with legends!
Me & Willem
Pope, Herve, Wendy, Chris
Another twist: In the year I first saw the Colorado river after walking/running down the Bright Angel trail from the South Rim to the Colorado’s swiftly-flowing clear green water, 1973, Willem had launched a boat at Lee’s Ferry, done an eskimo roll and come up with ice in his hair, causing him to postpone his trip. Now he was back, eleven years later – in the summer! And so was I.
The trip was put together by yet another iconic paddler Chris Greeff, winner of more kayak races than I’d had breakfasts. One of the craziest races he won was the Arctic Canoe Race on the border between Finland and Sweden. About 500km of good pool and drop rapids in cold water. When he arrived at the start with his sleek flatwater racing kayak (the others had wider, slower, more stable canoes) the local organisers thought ‘Ha! he intends portaging around all the rapids!’ They had heard of the Dusi and how mad South Africans run with kayaks on their heads, so they amended the rules: Every rapid avoided would incur a stiff time penalty. Chris grinned and agreed enthusiastically with their ruling: He was no Dusi runner and he had no intention of getting out of his boat!
On the trip, our American kayak and raft guides kept asking us about the sponsors stickers we had attached to kayaks and rafts. SAA they understood, South African Airways, but what was this “Mainstay” stuff? Ooh. you’ll see! Was all we’d say.
At ___ rapid on Day __ around the camp fire we hauled out our two-litre bottles filled with a suspicious amber liquid. THIS we said, was that famous stuff!
The first thing about Mainstay was its medicinal properties. Toekoe had turned blue from too much swimming, but after a slug of Mainstay he got his colour back as the before and after pictures clearly show:
As more Mainstay was swallowed, hilarity and a bit of insanity ensued. I have a picture frozen in my mind of Willem sprinting past me, running nimbly across the pontoons of a raft and launching himself in the darkness into the swift current of the Colorado running at 50 000cfs! Yee-ha!! A bit like this, but at night:
Besides the SAA loot Greeff had also arranged for beers on the trip. John Lee tells the story:
I recall how our Yankee rafting crew were somewhat taken aback at the rather large drinks order they received prior to the departure from Lees Ferry! Despite the huge stocks, somewhere downstream in the depths of the Grand Canyon, to their utter disbelief, the only liquid left was the raging Colorado River. Stocks had run dry .
There were some thirsty, desperate river runners in camp. We were way upstream from the next available beer at Phantom Ranch’s shop on the high rim.
Desperate times call for desperate measures …….
Some of us (hello Felix!) resorted to performing like seals, executing dashing eskimo rolls for passing J-Rigs, and being rewarded with frosties for our efforts!
One Captain (PF) Christiaan Lodewikus Greeff called quietly for volunteers, and assembled a raiding party (call them ‘SEALs’, one was a parabat) to address the situation. This unbeknown to our unsuspecting, law-abiding river crew .
In the dead of night, wearing beanies, faces blackened, they slid silently into the icy waters of the flooded Colorado River and headed into an upstream eddy towards the distant sounds of happy laughter from a neighbouring campsite .
Reaching tethered rafts, they found the holy Grand Canyon grail ……multiple nets strung from the rafts, laden with tins of sunset amber liquid.
Their return to our camp was triumphant.
I cannot recall the composition of that courageous group. Suffice it to say, that I am certain that it included one Lieutenant A Gordon-Peter (SAB).
The reaction of our guides, later, was somewhat different!
Mules heavily laden with liquor were later cajoled down the treacherous track from Phantom Ranch, and our evenings were once again fuelled with fun, laughter and Willie’s yarns!
In closing, who will ever forget that wonderful mirage in the middle of the shimmering Lake Mead – a very naked, very tall and statuesque blonde River Goddess on a drifting raft ………………… or was it ?
I dunno – but there was one naked lady I know of: JoJo posed butt naked for a stealthily-taken pic on George’s camera. What a sport, she removed her bikini top and bottom for the gentlemen doing research on just how much trouble George would get into with his wife back home.
At the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado the Little was flooding and massively silt-laden. We stopped on a skinny sandbank and had mud fights and mud rolls. The muddy water from the flooding Little Colorado (so thick the trout Felix Unite caught looked sadly lethargic) merged with the clear water coming out of Lake Powell and from here on we had traditionally red-coloured water – “colorado” in Latin. I fell out just downstream and got some of that muddy water up my snout. Back in Durban a month later I had to have an emergency sinus washout! As Saffeffricans say ‘Ah neely dahd!’
Lunch on a small sandbank – Five rafts, seventeen kayaks
Hikes up the side-canyons:
Thunder river falls up a side canyon. Canyon lore has it the ‘river’ flows into a ‘creek’ which flows into the Colorado River
I help Wendy Wollie-Wyn up (Walwyn)
Bernie Garcin – great mate; and WHAT a campsite!
Happy daze drifting in the current, lying back gazing up at the cliffs and watching the waterline as century after millenium of geological lines rose up out of the water and each day rose higher and higher above us. Willem the geologist would explain some of it to us.
Then you’d sit up and listen intently. Then peer ahead with a stretched neck and drift in a quickening current as the roar of the next rapid grew in the canyon air. The river was running at an estimated high 50 000cfs (about 1650 cumecs). Once you could see where it was, you pulled over and got out to scout it and plot your way through it.
Here’s Lava Falls:
For days before Lava the bullshit build-up built up: ‘Rain? That’s not rain! That’s the mist from LAVA FALLS!’
Arriving at Lava we hopped out and checked it out, butterflies no longer flying in formation. After scouting carefully most of us went left; a few went right. One – Ryan – went snorkeling straight into the big hole and got chomped, rinsed and spat out. His blue helmet can be seen in the picture if you have a magnifying glass. Our ladies commandeered one of the rafts and rowed it ladies-only down Lava!
At the usual take-out at Diamond Creek before Lake Mead the high water had washed away the road. We had to keep going. Miles later we hit the calm waters of Lake Mead. The river ran out of push, tamed by a damn dam. Paddling was over for most of us! We piled our kayaks onto the rafts and lay on them as they were tugged out by a motorboat to another take-out point on Lake Mead many miles downstream.
Except of course there was now no longer any ‘stream’ – we were on flat water. Greeff and a few other crazies, including Wendy Walwyn, who don’t have handbrakes, brains or limits, paddled the whole flat water way! Holy shit! I drank beer lying on a raft, gazing at the blue Arizona sky.
The canyon burro is a mournful bloke He very seldom gets a poke But when he DOES . . . . He LETS it soak As he revels in the joys of forni- CA-TION!
and (to the tune of He Ain’t Heavy):
Hy’s nie Swaar nie
Hy’s my Swaer . a . a . aer
We went down the Canyon twice
I always say we did the Canyon twice. Once we would bomb down in our kayaks, crashing through the exhilarating big water; The second time was much hairier, with bigger rapids, higher water and far more danger: That was when Willem would regale us with tales of his day on the water around the campfire at night. “Raconteur” is too mild a word! The word ‘MOERSE’ featured prominently in his epic tales. And this from a man who bombed ‘blind’ down the Cunene River in 1963.
Ernie van Biljon wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I got to go to America as a Rotary exchange student back in 1973.
What a lovely man.
Rotary held their interview and selection sessions at Greystones outside Estcourt (where I had attended a Veld & Vlei leadership course earlier that year):
Which three countries would you like to go to?
America, America, America – and I want to go to a small town, not a big city.
“OK, Smartass” they thought, and dispatched me to Apache, Oklahoma.
“There are two strict rules” they told us: “No falling in love, and strictly no driving while you’re there”. “Of course not . . . ” Well, I got none out of two right but it was just infatuation and the owner of the Chev Camaro covered for me in Apache and the owner of the VW Beetle covered for me in Canada.
Jim Stainton was aghast! He had just invited me along to a rock concert in Oklahoma City and I had immediately accepted. My motto in Apache was I only say YES to all invitations to travel. Only got a year, gotta go everywhere! His follow-up questions had forced me to admit my ignorance.
Don’t say that! Don’t say you don’t know who Chuck Berry is!
Hey! I was a seventeen-year-old Vrystater. I was lucky enough to know a lot about modern music, but turns out there was this gap in the fifties when I was one month and twenty days old and Maybellene hit the charts!
But I was willing to learn, I had a ball at that concert with Jim, and I have been a Chuck Berry fan ever since!
What I didn’t tell Jim is I had even less heard of Bo Diddley! He featured with Chuck and they rocked up a storm. ‘My ding-a-ling’ was really big just then! (ok, that didn’t sound just right, but anyway . . . knowaddimean . . )
He played all his hits with huge energy, holding the big stadium in the palm of his hand. He played ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘Nadine’, ‘No Particular Place to Go’, ‘Reelin’ and Rockin’’ ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Surfin’ U.S.A’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ etc. etc And ‘My ding-a-ling’.
That was 1973. I recently found a 2014 pic of Jim on the internets. That’s him in the red T:
Some Chuck Berry:
– “People don’t want to see seventeen pieces in neckties. They wanna see some jeans, some gettin’ down and some wigglin’.”
– “I love poetry. I love rhyming. Do you know, there are poets who don’t rhyme? Shakespeare don’ rhyme most of the time and that’s why I don’ like him.”
– “It amazes me when I hear people say ‘I want to go out and find out who I am’. I always knew who I was. I was going to be famous if it killed me.”
– “I would sing the blues if I had the blues.”
In 1963, Bo Diddley starred in a UK concert tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard. The supporting act was a little up-and-coming outfit called The Rolling Stones.
footnote: I asked a friend last year to bring some Chuck Berry to a gathering on my patio. I decided to catch up before so I looked him up on wikipedia – to learn he had died a few days before at the ripe ole age of 90. R.I.P Chuck Berry.
In Apache Oklahoma in 1973 I lived with the charismatic funeral home owner, fire chief, ambulance driver, hearse driver and tornado alert man, Robert L Crews III. In the funeral home. While I was there we sounded the siren for tornadoes twice and watched them approach. Once we even went down into the basement as it came so close. But both times it went back up into the clouds – didn’t touch ground.
Here’s the view on one of those days:
In May we heard of the Union City disaster. We drove there to look-see. The image that stuck the most in my mind was the main street with many buildings completely gone. One shop had some shelves still standing – with product on the shelves – but the roof and walls were gone.
I found this recently: Union City Tornado Makes History
NSSL revisits its past as it celebrates 40 years with NOAA – by Rachel Shortt
On May 24, 1973, a tornado rated F4 struck the Union City area and was the first tornado widely documented by science as part of storm chasing field research. NSSL out of Norman, Oklahoma placed numerous storm chasers around it to capture the life cycle on film.
As the devastating tornado tore through the small town of Union City, no one knew the tremendous impact it would have on the development of weather radar. Researchers from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory now look back on that day as a significant event in the history of severe weather research and forecasting.
And I was (sorta) there!
For a human interest story, see this article written in 1993, on the 20th anniversary of the tornado:
The tornado that people in Union City talk about the most twisted in from the northwest twenty years ago this week, killing two people and demolishing half the downtown buildings. It blew the cross atop St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church into a field six miles away.
Another tornado destroyed the same church in 1896, and another flattened fifteen farmhouses in 1927. Yet another reduced two barns on the edge of Union City to kindling and seemed hell-bent on roaring toward town until it hit the South Canadian River nearby, spun away to the east and died out.
Here in the heart of “Tornado Alley” almost everybody knows that a new tornado will eventually show up on the western horizon. But they also agree on this: There is not much use in being obsessed about it.
“You can’t let it rule your life,” said Leo Radtke, who in 1973 watched from the storm cellar as the house where he was born, as well as his new Chevrolet El Camino, was swept away. “If it hits, it hits, and you just start over again, which is what I did. It’s part of living in this country.”
Where the Winds Collide – ‘This country’ is a swath of the Great Plains stretching diagonally from the Texas Panhandle to southern Iowa where warm, moist winds from the Gulf of Mexico frequently collide with cold, dry winds from the west at this time of year, combining to produce more tornadoes here than in any comparably sized place on earth.
And while most of the attention is understandably focused on communities when they are actually hit, a more typical tableau of life in Tornado Alley is found in places like Union City, a town of about 1,000 people in central Oklahoma, 23 miles west of Oklahoma City. Here and in thousands of communities like it, tornadoes exist not as a present danger but as a grim memory and a future threat.
Early warning? – There have been major advances in the radar equipment that helps meteorologists to detect a tornado while it is forming and to warn of its approach. Because of those advances and improved communications through radio and television, there has been a steady decline in the average number of fatalities caused by tornadoes every year — from 311 people in the 1920’s to 138 in the 1950’s to 56 in the most recent 10-year period, according to the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
But the average warning time is still only 19 minutes, and many tornadoes cannot be detected at all until they hit the ground, meaning that the first warning is an old-fashioned one: a human being sees it and yells. And even when people know it is coming, a tornado remains one of the most destructive hazards of nature, a vortex of winds swirling at up to 300 miles an hour and often churning up everything in its path, making any effort to protect property generally futile. ‘There’s Nothing You Can Do’
“If your home is in the way, you’ve had it — there’s nothing you can do,” said Leo Demmer, 64, who has seen five tornadoes in his lifetime but escaped the path of all of them.
Mr. Demmer, a wheat farmer and cattle rancher, quickly added that he was talking more about property than people, who will almost always be safe if they manage to get underground, perhaps to the kind of storm cellar that sheltered Auntie Em and Uncle Henry when the tornado struck Kansas in the “Wizard of Oz.”
Mr. Demmer should know. As he spoke he was adding two and a half tons of concrete to help anchor his own storm cellar, made of two steel cargo containers sunk into his back yard. “It was frightening, it was beautiful, and here it was coming right at us,” Mr. Demmer said of the 1973 tornado. He snapped a few pictures, then headed for the cellar.
It was 20 years ago, but people who describe the tornado can make it sound as if it hit last week. Several recalled that in the hours and even minutes before the tornado struck, at 4:55 in the afternoon, it seemed like the balmiest of spring days.
A Scrapbook of Memories – “It was just real pretty out,” recalled Odessa Bromlow, the owner of the T&B Country Market, which at the time was a cafe. “I had just been to the beauty shop, and it was time for a shift change — then poof. The wind just started howling.” As she spoke, she flipped through a scrapbook she had put together full of headlines from the Oklahoma City papers. “Union City Devastated,” said one. “Twister Leaves Trail of Ruin,” read another. A Union City woman died because she could not get the door to her storm cellar open. The other victim was a man named Corp Sanders who had insisted on watching the tornado from a chair on his porch, even as the police officer screamed at him to run for cover.
Most People Stay – But while almost everybody here seems to have vivid memories of the tornado and the daze that settled over the town after it struck, most of those whose property was damaged eventually rebuilt and stayed put. Several people, asked what it was like to live in a place where each spring brought the threat of tornadoes, quickly said it was far preferable to living on either coast of the United States. On the east coast were hurricanes and on the west were earthquakes, they said, both of which can yield a far broader trail of destruction than a tornado.
“As terrible as it was, I’d rather deal with a tornado than an earthquake any day,” said Georgia Rother, the town clerk and treasurer. “With a tornado, at least you can see it coming. You can try to run away from it. With a quake, there’s no place to hide.” Others pointed out that even in Tornado Alley, the chances of getting killed or having a home destroyed by a tornado are very low — about as low as the chance of hitting the jackpot in a state lottery.
Early warning 2 – Many towns, including Union City, have installed emergency warning sirens on their streets — but only after experiencing the terror of a tornado when they did not have such devices.
Earlier this year Catoosa, a suburb of Tulsa, tabled as too expensive a motion to buy used warning sirens from a nearby town that was installing a more modern system. Then, in late April, a tornado struck, killing seven people and causing millions of dollars in damage. This week the neighboring town donated the used sirens to Catoosa.
For those who get their warnings by television, though, some experts fear an altogether different problem: too many warnings. Television stations throughout Kansas and Oklahoma have become ferociously competitive over the years. “Some of them will interrupt programs with a tornado alert at the slightest provocation,” said Frederick P. Ostby, the director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center. “It’s getting to the point where people feel they can’t see any television program in its entirety during tornado season. People are getting angry about it.”
Mobile homes and fatalism – Here in Union City, when people think about tornadoes at all, it is usually with fatalism. That was especially true in a mobile-home development on the south side of town. At one trailer some old tires and cement blocks were placed on the roof to give the unit a bit more heft if a storm hit. “But I don’t suppose it will make much of a difference,” said Beverly Brookshire, a 48-year-old waitress who lives in the trailer. “If it’s our time, it’s going to hit. I just pray, ‘Lord, don’t let it be our time.’ ” Mobile homes can be unsafe in even the weakest of tornadoes. “There’s kind of a folklore out there that tornadoes actually seek out trailer parks,” said Frederick J. Gadomski, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University. “But it’s not that at all. It’s really that because of poor construction, they’re simply more vulnerable.”
I was going to ski – we would have called it snow ski! – for the first time in my life. Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. We’d be catching a bus from Oklahoma, driving there and staying at the lodge. Jim Patterson was taking me on a host-Dad and Son special treat. In the previous summer (1973) he and Katie had taken us on a steam train ride nearby – the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge railroad.
My pic of the Animas River out the train window:
That was a glorious summer. But now we were going in winter:
As the day approached we watched the snow reports with bated breath. Nothing. No snow. The day before we were to leave the bad news came: Trip cancelled. True to form Jim looked on the bright side – he always did! – and invited me to join him in drowning our sorrows as he opened up the big heb cooler full of beer he had packed for the trip! Jim always put a good spin on everything!
I would have to wait till 1988 before my first snow skiing – in Austria.
When I got to Apache Oklahoma in 1973 I had already finished high school. Not much effort had gone into my matric and I was keen to put minimal effort into this second matric, or ‘senior year’, at Apache High. In my mind I had been sent to America to socialise and be an ambassador, ‘period’.
So I carefully selected my subjects – I had to take American history – I was OK with that. I learnt about George Washington. I had to take English (compulsory for all foreigners). I added typing, ag shop (agricultural workshop – farming, welding, etc making me a member of the FFA – Future Farmers of America), annual staff (making the school annual, acting as a journalist, selling ads in town – a hoot! Actually, they chose me, you couldn’t just elect to do it. I was lucky). I’m sure there was a sixth. Yes, Oklahoman history, I think. My mind wasn’t really on these details.
Here’s me focusing on my typing. I’m with fellow annual staffers Robbie Swanda and David Lodes slave over their hot typewriters. I reached a blistering 19 words a minute with ten mistakes.
Typing – roaring along at 19wpm with 10 mistakes
Robbie Swanda & David Lodes, fellow typists and Annual Staff members bashing out the Apache 1973 school annual
When I told host Dad Jim Patterson my subjects he grimaced. Then he grinned and said – “Peter, are you sure they didn’t offer basket weavin’!”
Jim was a great teacher. He taught me all about ‘counting fence posts’. He would pack a sixpack of Coors into a coolerbox full of ice and we would drive around the district in his old red Ford F150 pickup along the farm roads with Jim recounting all the tales of who lived where, what they farmed and some history of the area. We were ‘counting fence posts’.
Here’s Jim waking up on the back of that pickup one camping trip: