Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Kansas wind takes aim at house on hill

July 15, 2001


Kansas may lack mountains and seashores, but no place on earth can match it for theatrical storms. Unfortunately, the chamber of commerce hasn't figured out how to pitch violent weather as a reason to visit the state.

Late afternoon: hot, sunny, clear. A low line of bluish clouds like smoke from a slow locomotive chugs across the horizon. The steady, daylong south wind abruptly dies. A radical, chilly gust swoops in from the north.

Fleecy, cottonball puffs of clouds balloon in an eye-blink to yeasty, cauliflower monsters. A field of livid, sagging cloud bags drifts in low and a sickly yellow-green light floods the west.

Now an east wind sends tattered clouds scudding across the sky. A few fat drops hit the pavement with an audible smack. Then the first squall hits and the downpour begins. Horizontal sheets race past. In an instant, the gutters overflow and a furious wind lashes and branches of trees, bending mighty oaks like blades of grass.

The sky is a carousel of dervish clouds. The first sirens begin to wail, raising a chorus of grieving dogs. Parents gather their children and flee to the basement pursued by visions of houses flying apart like matchsticks, of cars sucked up above the treetops like plastic toys.

We weren't naive about the weather in Kansas. I often stood on the back porch of our home in Lawrence, half wishing for a glimpse of a funnel cloud, while my family pleaded with me to take cover. I still drive an '87 truck dimpled by the legendary hailstorm that gave many of us an insurance windfall that spring.

We thought we knew all about the wind. But nothing had prepared us for the gale that singles out the hill where we've built our home in Vinland. It greets you in the morning the way a linebacker greets a quarterback. By noon you can lean into it at a 45-degree angle without falling down.

It pretends to retire in the evening. But while the rest of the world's sensible winds return to the bag from whence they came, this one is just on break. It jumps up again with the moon and stars and howls all night.

The wind had a good chuckle when we tried to cover the hill with straw as mulch for the new lawn. It huffed and puffed and blew it all away before it hit the ground. One afternoon I was admiring our evolving home when the forward edge of the newly laid shingles began to rise.

"Sid, Sid!" I cried to our builder. "The roof is coming off." Before I could stop him, the intrepid Sid had strapped on his tool belt and was up on the roof nailing it down. I watched him stand up at the edge of the precipice and I wondered if we'd both be killed if I tried to catch him when he fell.

"Don't worry," he said with a grin. "If I fell the wind would just blow me back up." He thought a minute. Then: "I'm glad we put those hurricane clips on the roof rafters.

Inside the house, the wind speaks with a dozen voices, groaning in the chimney, whining at the door and window frames: "I want in." It works on the nerves and more than once, I've shouted: "Shut up, leave me alone."

Here's what Willa Cather had to say about our winds: "Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Great Plains. They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in men's veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves."

Building a house on top of a hill "shows a kind of hubris," remarked a friend who disapproved of our home site. A house should be of a hill, not on it, wrote Frank Lloyd Wright. Feng shui cousels against building on top of a hill, because exposure to the four winds disperses "chi," the earth spirit or cosmic breath that flows over the land.

Why didn't we heed the authorities?

One day, my neighbor dropped by and recalled the storm 20 years ago that blew down one of the farm's barns. He worked two days, trying to extract the cattle that had been trapped in the wreckage.

"This isn't one of those places that tornados seem to seek out, is it? I asked.

"Like trailer parks?" he joked. Then in earnest: "Oh, yes it is." They come from the northwest, he added. He guessed the wind that leveled that barn was blowing at 200 mph.

As we spoke, twisters at their union hall were idly talking about the new house on the hill that needed taking down a notch or two. Well, all we are is dust in the wind, like chaff which the wind driveth. Lord, let us enjoy this place for a month or two before we go mad or get blown away.

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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