It was a dry, hot day on our farm on the high plains of eastern Colorado, the kind of day that could produce a tornado. The weatherman said it was going to be over 100°F, with a small chance of afternoon rain. We felt lucky, because we were heading over to Hugo, the county seat of Lincoln County, for a wonderful, relaxing afternoon swimming in the cool waters of the Hugo Municipal Pool.
However, first we needed to stop in the small town of Flagler, about 14 miles from our farm, to pick up a friend of Kenny’s, Ted Moore. Then it was a drive about thirty five miles to get to the pool in Hugo.
We boys got in the pool and had a great time. Then, after a long swim, and diving off the high and low diving boards, and racing to see who was fastest or who could stay under water the longest time, and of course watching the girls (after all Ted Moore, a well-known Romeo, was with us) it was time to leave.
I got out of the water and got dressed right away. But Kenny and Ted lingered in the pool. So I was the first to get out to the car. Mommy came over to the driver’s side of the car, and opened the door to get in. I was standing by the passenger door talking to my mom over the top of the car.
A storm approaches
We had been watching a small storm approaching from the south west. It did not look menacing but there was a strange whirlwind that was going just in front of it. It seemed to be very ordinary, nothing to be concerned with, but I had never seen a whirlwind this close to a storm. We have many whirlwinds on the high plains all the time. So Mommy and I both thought it was nothing to worry about.
As the storm got closer, we saw the whirlwind crossing the railway tracks, about half a block from where we were standing. When a small summer whirlwind hits you, it is a refreshing break from the heat on the high plains, so we were not concerned. Plus it was half a block away.
Then the whirlwind crossed US 40. It was heading straight for a large metal building. When it hit the building, sheets of corrugated metal started flying in every direction and the tornado abruptly changed directions. IT WAS COMING DIRECTLY TOWARDS US! I just stood there with my eyes wide open, staring at it for what seemed an eternity. I could not believe that the whirlwind was actually a tornado, and that it could change directions so fast.
The tornado hits like a sledgehammer
The wind abruptly began to blow harder and the gravel picked up from the parking lot began pelting us. Mom screamed at me above the din to get into the car, as she herself was climbing in.
I grabbed the door latch and fought to get the door open wide enough to get inside the car. Finally I got inside and I felt a little safer. Mommy noticed another young person about my age who was trying to get behind our car for some protection. She had me roll down the window and ask him to get in also. By now the car was rocking like a ship in a storm. The young man gladly climbed in.
And then suddenly, just in a moment, everything settled down. The car was stable. But the whirlwind was now near the swimming pool. A few 50 gallon drums (which had once held pool chemicals but were now merely trash cans) were being tossed about like beach balls, rising high into the air. Umbrellas had been ripped from their masts, and it looked as if the fence might be collapsing.
My perception of time was starting to return to normal. When the tornado was approaching, time had seemed to slow down. What felt like minutes was in reality just a few seconds. Now, time was normal again.
Kenny and Ted were still in the dressing room area. I assumed they were totally oblivious to the mayhem that was going on outdoors. They later said that the power went off momentarily, but that was all. Obviously, the changing room building at the swimming pool had been built like a fortress!
Reunited after the tornado
When the boys came out of the changing room, they were able to see all the damage that had been done by the tornado. As they came to the car, Mommy and I were still watching the storm go up the hill north of town, and the 50 gallon drums were still floating in the air. (The young person who had taken shelter with us had left by then.) Finally, when everyone got in the car, we headed home.
As we left Hugo, a small thought sneaked into my head. “If I had my driver’s license, I would be chasing that tornado!”
But of course my mother was a very responsible adult driver, and she certainly did not want to follow that tornado! She came from Kansas, the heart of tornado alley, and wanted nothing to do with them. Many decades earlier our barn had been hit by a tornado and removed the shingles on the west side.
Some useful resources
- Severe Weather 101: Tornado Basics
- Tornado facts and information – National Geographic
- Tornadoes | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration