Friday, January 23, 2015

Down In The Basement Of Tornado Alley

My parents thought I would grow up to be a TV weathercaster, given my fascination with severe storms and how TV covered them. Growing up during the 1970's and 80's, I saw the technology improved every year.

Back in 1970's Kansas City, when TV needed to get a warning on, the weathercasters cut in and voiced over a "Tornado Warning" slide every time. I would hear Fred Broski or Dan Henry or Dave Dusik working with only the National Weather Service information. TV Radar didn't come to town until KMBC unveiled "Weatherdial Radar," a low-tech, yellow-and-black radar picture that was supposedly transmitted to the station over phone lines (hence the "dial" part). They upgraded a few years later to "Weathertrack Radar," which added color to differentiate storm intensity and more accuracy. The other stations eventually caught up, more or less.

But my real fascination started in the early 1980's, when TV stations started adding icons down in the corner of the screen when the weather turned bad. It started in the Topeka area, when WIBW added a simple [W] to the lower-right-hand corner. That "W" could be any kind of Tornado or Severe Thunderstorm "Watch." A few years later, Kansas City stations started adding icons saying "Tornado Watch" or "Severe Thunderstorm Watch." KCTV had a Severe Thunderstorm Watch icon so big, it had to have led people to call in and grumble. That simple [W] did have advantages.

On the radio, KMBZ tried an eerie audible icon. During a Tornado Watch, it would play a short high-pitched whistle about once a minute. Annoying for some, scary for others.

Sooner or later, a Tornado Warning gets issued, and the weathercaster comes on to tell you to get to the basement. Raytown is fortunate in dodging the twisters more times than fortune should allow.

"Has a tornado ever hit Raytown?" I asked the Queen Mother as a child.

"We had the Ruskin Heights Tornado," Her Majesty replied, "but that was back in the 50's. That was a big sucker."

"I remember I could see it coming down out of the clouds," said Queen Grandmother Lawson. She also told me how the Queen Mother, then a young princess, wanted to watch Lucille Ball on TV rather than get to the basement.

Most of the time in Raytown, we didn't have to. But on one stormy night in the mid 1970's, before my kid brother was born, Her Majesty and I ventured down there when a warning blasted out.

"We'll just be down here until the wind blows all the trees down," she said casually, hiding whatever real danger was out there. I remember patiently waiting about a half-hour in the light of the basement until the storm let up.

Mother and I walked back up the concrete steps to the playroom, and then the family room to look outside. Lightning danced across the sky, but we heard no rain or thunder. "It's just lightning," she told me, declaring it safe for us inside.

"Do you want to watch Baretta?" she asked.

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