We invited a French exchange student to share our lives for six weeks one summer. Her first question after she deposited her luggage in the bedroom was, “Do you have tornadoes here?”
I paused a moment and answered thoughtfully, “Not many, and we always have plenty of warning.” I reminded her she was very brave to fly from Paris through several U.S. airports. If she could do that by herself, she shouldn’t worry about Kansas twisters.
The next day we walked around the section surrounding our house to introduce her to our country neighborhood. She promptly spotted orange construction fencing around a pile of rubble in the east pasture. That triggered a heavily accented, “What happened there?
“Oh, a tornado blew through last spring and took out our well house. That’s all that remains,” I responded. “Look at that cottonwood lying in the field. It used to grow right here by the road.”
Her brown eyes drilled into my green peepers as she demanded, “Did you know it was coming?”
We stopped walking while I considered her question. “What? The tornado? Well . . . not really. The weatherman missed on that one.”
It was a good thing Tucker, a golden retriever/greyhound cross walking beside us, couldn’t report. He’d been caught in the storm, and when we found him afterward, his long yellow fur was entangled with leaves and grass. We never knew exactly where he hid when the winds hit. What we did know was that he didn’t want to be outside in storms after that.
“But . . . I thought you said you had plenty of warning.” Imagine her strong French accent mixed with agitation as she confronted me.
I thought that was the end of our storm talks until we were driving down Old 40 toward Hays one morning. Alexandra immediately zeroed in on the twisted windmill on the south side of the road and the ¼ mile of mutilated tree row on the north side of the highway. “So what happened there?”
“Oh that. That was a tornado a few years back. It’s been a while. Nothing to worry about.”
I’m pretty sure I heard something rude mumbled in a foreign language, but I ignored it and reminded her we don’t have many tornadoes around here.
Another day during her visit, we headed toward Ogallah on Old 40. I’ve driven that road a thousand times and never thought about the farmstead surrounded by torn and damaged elms. Our exchange student didn’t miss a beat before turning to me and asking in her quaint manner, “Another tornado that doesn’t happen very often around here?”
“Right,” I smiled tightly,” realizing I didn’t want to drive her home on the Interstate past a farm twice damaged by tornadoes over the last decade. I also didn’t want to take her south of Ellis where she could view the foundation of a farmstead where a tornado sucked the house off while a family sheltered in the basement.
Our exchange student flew back to France without experiencing a single weather front that forced us to cower and pray in the basement. Looking back, I’m certain she experienced nothing more disconcerting than a few hot July days; however, she made me reconsider life on the western Kansas prairie. It’s not a place for sissies.