Wind and Fire
Outhouses being tipped over was the sort of thing that happened on Halloween nights when teenage boys roamed Van Hook with nothing else to do. Outhouses being tipped over was the sort of thing that happened when tornadoes ripped through or very near Van Hook several times when we lived there.
One night a tornado came close to our house. The roar woke me up just like the one in Kansas. It tipped over our outhouse and moved it a good distance from the pit. It’s a good thing no one went out there until daylight. A neighbor’s house was not damaged but their outhouse was also tipped over.
The storm blew away the hay stack next to Guff Olson’s barn to the north of us but it didn’t damage any of his buildings. Even his outhouse was left standing. The dozen round, corrugated steel, temporary storage units by the railroad tracks about a quarter mile down the hill to the south from us sustained the most damage. The tornado crumpled them like aluminum soda cans stomped on by a playing boy. Boys my age spent hours playing in and around them and being amazed at how all of the wheat was gone.
Another tornado that summer hit the south side of town and lifted a wooden grain storage building from its foundation but there was no other damage. The tornado lifted the building turned it almost precisely 180 degrees and set back on its foundation. Adults talked about how little or none of the grain was lost. We boys were quite impressed when we saw the entry door with no steps and the steps and loading ramps on the other side with no doors. A wonderment to us was how all of the strong steel storage bins could have been more damaged in the earlier tornado.
A dry lightning storm started a prairie fire just about a quarter mile west of our place. The town siren alerted the volunteer fire department – nearly every man in town. Many times before the prairie fire the siren had been a signal for curious kids to run to watch the volunteers save a building. We arrived one or two at a time depending how far we had to run. The day of the prairie fire my shirttail cousins the Ranum boys and I arrived first. Some women were already using wet gunny sacks to smack the burning grass so we grabbed sacks and followed their lead.
An east wind blew the smoke and fire away from town when it started but the wind changed direction and the fire started moving our way. Van Hook’s only fire truck moved along the spreading fire line and men sprayed water but they could not keep up with the wind fanned fire. The fire line just got longer so by the time the truck got to one end, the matted grass was aflame at the other end. Someone pulled a water tank truck near the fire line so the fire truck could refill its tank. During refill time the fire gained ground towards town. Another person pulled a small water trailer to the fire site. When our sacks got nearly dry, we ran to the smaller water trailer to get the sack wet again and put our head under the spout to cool off. As soon as the fire truck tank was filled someone drove the water tanker back to the town well to be filled again.
It looked to me like the fire was making more progress than we were. Guff Olson appeared on the scene with his old cog wheel John Deer tractor pulling a twelve-foot wide eight-bottom plow. He drove the tractor and plow parallel to the fire line between us and the edge of town. Guff and his powerful tractor kept the plow moving at a slow but steady pace through the unbroken sod. He made two or three runs before the fire could advance to where he started. We kept the fire down until he turned over enough sod to break up the fuel source. His action may have saved the town or at least our home.
Burning prairie grass has a strange smell. The smell is not the same as clinkers and ashes on snow, but once you experience it, it is hard to forget. The next day it rained without lightning and wind. Wet, recently burnt grass has a strange and unforgettable smell too.