Great Plains Anywhere: John Wunder
Today's guest is John Wunder, Emeritus Professor of History and former Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies. Though he spent his career studying the history and cultures of the Plains, his recent work has shifted into creative prose poetry about growing up in the region. We talked with Professor Wunder and asked him to share a poem about Great Plains tornadoes.
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[00:00:00.150]Welcome to Great Plains: Anywhere.
[00:00:02.160]A Paul A. Olson lecture
[00:00:03.780]from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:05.430]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:00:08.370]Today's guest is John Wunder,
[00:00:10.020]Emeritus Professor of History and former Director
[00:00:12.690]of the Center for Great Plains Studies.
[00:00:14.940]Though he spent his career studying the history
[00:00:16.890]and cultures of the Plains, his recent work has shifted
[00:00:19.920]into creative prose poetry about growing up in the region.
[00:00:24.000]We talked with Professor Wunder
[00:00:25.260]and asked him to share a poem about Great Plains tornadoes.
[00:00:29.010]The University of Nebraska is a land-grant institution
[00:00:32.070]with campuses and programs on the past, present,
[00:00:35.040]and future homelands of the Pawnee, Ponca, Otoe-Missouria,
[00:00:39.810]Omaha, Dakota, Lakota, Kaw, Cheyenne,
[00:00:43.380]and Arapaho Peoples,
[00:00:45.000]as well as those of the relocated Ho-Chunk, Sac and Fox,
[00:00:48.540]and Iowa Peoples.
[00:00:53.400]I was retiring,
[00:00:55.560]and I was also physically having trouble getting around.
[00:01:02.070]And so I told my children this.
[00:01:07.410]And I have children not too far off,
[00:01:11.760]age-wise, than your children.
[00:01:14.430]And they said,
[00:01:20.527]"Dad, we know your legs don't work very well
[00:01:24.480]and this is a serious problem,
[00:01:27.450]but you still have a brain, use it."
[00:01:31.140]Well, that kind of struck home.
[00:01:34.800]And so then I thought, well, how could I use my brain
[00:01:38.850]if I can't go to archives,
[00:01:40.770]and I can't go to places
[00:01:44.610]where historical events occurred?
[00:01:47.520]And so that led me to think
[00:01:51.900]about maybe writing poetry.
[00:02:00.360]Anyone who grows up in,
[00:02:03.270]I'll just say rural Nebraska,
[00:02:06.840]knows about tornadoes.
[00:02:09.450]They are dangerous and deadly.
[00:02:11.880]One must take precautions to survive destructive tornadoes.
[00:02:17.400]Before a tornado hits,
[00:02:19.890]there are often warnings that make sure one takes cover.
[00:02:25.500]First off, there's an eerie silence.
[00:02:29.910]One notices the winds stop.
[00:02:34.170]Those gentle breezes are suddenly not there.
[00:02:38.970]Next, birds stop chirping.
[00:02:43.470]They seem to know that something is up.
[00:02:47.610]The sun hides behind a thick blanket of clouds.
[00:02:53.130]It can be the middle of a brilliantly sunny day,
[00:02:56.700]then suddenly, breezes stop,
[00:02:58.770]birds no longer sing,
[00:03:00.780]and dark, ominous clouds blot out the sunshine.
[00:03:05.640]As quickly as silence descends upon the land,
[00:03:10.170]the winds return, but these are not friendly airs.
[00:03:15.930]These winds are powerful gusts,
[00:03:18.210]and soon there may be rain
[00:03:20.970]and even hailstones driven to the earth.
[00:03:24.870]Tornadoes begin with swirling clouds,
[00:03:27.810]and the winds become very strong.
[00:03:31.440]Observing these happenings means one should take cover.
[00:03:35.880]In my first years,
[00:03:37.260]I was aware of no less than three tornadoes
[00:03:40.500]that struck on or near my hometown of Dysart, Iowa.
[00:03:51.120]The first one came on a sunny afternoon.
[00:03:54.510]All of the traits so far documented occurred,
[00:03:58.050]and my mom insisted we go to the cellar, southwest corner.
[00:04:03.960]That relocation proved terribly boring
[00:04:06.870]to a 12-year-old boy.
[00:04:09.300]With no likelihood of a tornado, we went back upstairs.
[00:04:13.530]And at that point, our dining room
[00:04:16.050]and living room windows began to groan.
[00:04:21.060]The window panes were being both sucked outward
[00:04:24.270]and then pushed inward.
[00:04:27.240]There wasn't a cloud and twirling winds outside,
[00:04:30.750]but there were preliminary signs of it,
[00:04:33.960]and I was very excited by these developments.
[00:04:37.710]My mother screamed at me
[00:04:39.180]to come with her back down to the basement.
[00:04:42.930]I eventually did so, and we rode it out.
[00:04:47.490]I subsequently learned that a tornado had flown
[00:04:50.790]down Main Street, high above the houses there.
[00:04:54.660]We had "dodged a bullet," quote, as people intoned.
[00:04:59.850]But at the two ends of Main Street,
[00:05:03.180]no such bullet had missed.
[00:05:06.240]After birds started to sing again and the rain stopped,
[00:05:09.810]I walked down Main Street.
[00:05:12.780]I saw friends
[00:05:13.770]who said the tornado had hit the Main Street park.
[00:05:18.570]Lots of kids had been in the park,
[00:05:21.120]and on this occasion, it being Saturday,
[00:05:23.670]kids had ridden their bikes to the park.
[00:05:28.470]They caught a bus ride to a nearby town for a baseball game.
[00:05:33.840]When they returned,
[00:05:35.070]they found their bicycles were, amazingly, in tree branches.
[00:05:40.950]I don't recall them being damaged,
[00:05:43.920]they were just achieving new heights.
[00:05:48.000]I then learned about my grandfather's furniture store
[00:05:51.750]in the southern end of the business district.
[00:05:55.710]He was an undertaker,
[00:05:58.110]and lived with my grandmother in a funeral home.
[00:06:02.730]I and my cousins liked to play hide and seek
[00:06:05.640]among the caskets on display,
[00:06:08.790]both in the house and in his downtown store.
[00:06:15.750]Furniture store owners
[00:06:17.310]and funeral practices were often merged
[00:06:20.820]because the funeral director had to make the caskets.
[00:06:28.830]Known as DC,
[00:06:30.270]which stood for his first and middle name, Detloff Claus,
[00:06:35.790]my grandfather was a stern and hardworking man
[00:06:39.360]of Germanic stock.
[00:06:43.020]I do not recall ever having fun times with him.
[00:06:47.610]He certainly did not like the tornado causing several
[00:06:51.300]of his furniture store windows to burst.
[00:06:55.560]The windows were repaired by Monday store opening.
[00:07:00.180]That first tornado was not a major event for me.
[00:07:04.230]My mother was not happy about it.
[00:07:06.750]She feared tornadoes after our experience.
[00:07:10.650]And my father was out delivering fuel oil
[00:07:13.440]to several farmers, and he missed it.
[00:07:17.250]The second tornado that occurred two years later skipped
[00:07:20.700]over Dysart and slammed a neighboring village
[00:07:24.630]to the east, Garrison.
[00:07:27.870]It was a Sunday morning,
[00:07:29.310]and many folks were attending Garrison church services.
[00:07:34.350]We were at our Methodist church in Dysart,
[00:07:38.040]and in Garrison,
[00:07:39.120]when the noise of the tornado drowned
[00:07:42.480]out the sermon,
[00:07:44.520]the minister told the congregation to stand up
[00:07:47.730]and go to the basement for safety.
[00:07:51.450]There was a calm depopulation of the sanctuary,
[00:07:55.110]and everyone walked down the stairs,
[00:07:57.330]below the steeple, and into the kitchen and dining hall.
[00:08:02.730]The last persons to step onto the stairs,
[00:08:06.180]if my memory is accurate, were the local banker,
[00:08:10.470]the local Garrison school superintendent, and the minister.
[00:08:15.960]Then came a terrific explosion.
[00:08:19.050]The steeple splintered,
[00:08:20.940]and a heavy bell came crashing down into the stairway,
[00:08:25.620]killing all three men.
[00:08:28.530]Within seconds, economic, educational,
[00:08:31.740]and religious leadership of that small town were wiped out.
[00:08:37.860]It was a vast community tragedy.
[00:08:41.340]Quote, "Yes, those horrible losses happened with a tornado,"
[00:08:45.840]my mother observed.
[00:08:48.750]The third and last tornado, I directly experienced.
[00:08:53.130]During my first year of college at the University of Iowa,
[00:08:56.580]my father decided he would journey north
[00:08:59.010]to Minneapolis, Minnesota
[00:09:01.290]with several friends from Dysart
[00:09:04.290]to see the annual Iowa-Minnesota football game.
[00:09:09.990]It was a natural rivalry that many Iowans enjoyed,
[00:09:13.620]especially if Iowa won,
[00:09:15.930]and kept the Floyd of Rosedale pig trophy.
[00:09:20.820]I always thought it was a strange reason
[00:09:22.860]to play a football game.
[00:09:25.440]Given that my mother was paralyzed with MS,
[00:09:28.560]she needed someone to help take care of her,
[00:09:31.950]and so I had agreed to drive home on Saturday.
[00:09:36.930]The roadway to my house was easily driven
[00:09:40.380]from Iowa City to Belle Plaine,
[00:09:43.140]and then straight up to Dysart.
[00:09:45.540]If all went well, it took a little over an hour.
[00:09:51.360]I left Iowa City and my dorm residence around 9:30 AM,
[00:09:56.310]and I expected to arrive at home certainly by noon.
[00:10:00.900]As I was driving north on Highway 21,
[00:10:04.020]five miles south of Dysart.
[00:10:08.550]I came over the rise of the hill,
[00:10:11.100]and there, right in front of my car,
[00:10:13.290]was a swirling tornado.
[00:10:17.190]There had been sunny weather in Iowa City,
[00:10:19.830]but I had driven into a rainstorm.
[00:10:23.520]And I was driving slowly,
[00:10:25.590]but the suddenness of the event prevented me
[00:10:28.290]from being able to stop or turn my car.
[00:10:32.820]My car was lifted into the air
[00:10:35.100]and slammed down into a ditch going the opposite direction.
[00:10:41.670]I had not been injured, except for my pride,
[00:10:45.210]in that I had split the seam of my pants.
[00:10:50.070]There was, of course, the matter of my car being totaled
[00:10:54.090]because of a bent frame.
[00:10:58.710]A kind farmer came upon my distress.
[00:11:02.400]The tornado had hopped on ahead,
[00:11:05.130]and the sun had come back out.
[00:11:07.710]My car and my person were on display for the world to see.
[00:11:14.220]I needed to get to Dysart and check on my mother,
[00:11:17.880]and there was that daunting question.
[00:11:23.741]You gonna let them go?
[00:11:25.350]Yeah, they usually come right down here
[00:11:26.970]and make a huge noise.
[00:11:27.803]Well, maybe there's a tornado they're going to.
[00:11:30.263]Oh, he's actually turning.
[00:11:31.702]But let's wait a second.
[00:11:35.850]The daunting question was, what would I tell my father?
[00:11:40.980]The farmer graciously took me home
[00:11:43.380]and my mother was glad to see me.
[00:11:46.200]I got her up from her bed and we sat in the living room,
[00:11:49.740]conversing about my accident.
[00:11:54.120]What would I say to my father?
[00:11:58.140]That day, I fixed our lunch, and later dinner,
[00:12:01.260]and then I put my mother back to bed.
[00:12:04.290]This being a pre-pocket phone era,
[00:12:06.900]there was no need to alarm my father
[00:12:09.210]with an emergency call.
[00:12:12.420]What would I explain about my car to my dad?
[00:12:18.840]Thank goodness, the Hawkeyes prevailed.
[00:12:22.350]My father should be in a good mood
[00:12:24.750]when he got home that night, I intuited.
[00:12:29.160]Little did I know, he would be in a very good mood.
[00:12:33.990]He had had Jim Beam and 7UP specials on the plane.
[00:12:39.300]I was glad he rode with his friends after landing,
[00:12:43.320]and it was after 11:00 PM when he opened the kitchen door.
[00:12:49.530]I was waiting to see him and tell him about my car.
[00:12:53.617]"Dad, on my way home, I ran into a tornado
[00:12:56.880]and totaled my car, including two tires," I confessed.
[00:13:04.440]Quote, "Are you all right?" he asked.
[00:13:08.827]"Yes, I'm fine," I lied.
[00:13:13.447]"And your mother?"
[00:13:14.827]"Oh, yes, she's good. She's asleep."
[00:13:17.557]"Well, then," he said, "Let's just go to bed."
[00:13:23.220]He paused, "The car can wait for tomorrow.
[00:13:26.700]I'm just glad you're okay."
[00:13:29.940]I thought I heard my father chuckle
[00:13:32.160]as he went into my parents' bedroom.
[00:13:35.400]I slipped into mine
[00:13:36.900]and I quickly fell asleep, very relieved.
[00:13:41.010]Thus, my intimate and sobering relationship
[00:13:44.070]with tornadoes came to an end.
[00:13:46.800]I haven't been in one since then,
[00:13:49.230]and I find avoiding them to be a good thing.
[00:13:55.020]Note, in July of 2021,
[00:13:59.220]yet another tornado struck Dysart.
[00:14:03.120]A huge, black, swirling cloud converged
[00:14:06.450]on the southwest corner of the community
[00:14:08.910]where my parents had lived.
[00:14:11.850]It did significant damage in Dysart
[00:14:14.790]to relatively new houses and trees.
[00:14:18.660]It then moved on to farms and more trees.
[00:14:22.230]At this time, a friend sent me a video of this tornado
[00:14:25.983]as I was revising my poem on tornadoes.
[00:14:30.270]The reason why I chose to write
[00:14:32.400]what, it's called prose poetry,
[00:14:35.430]is because that's what I've written all my career, is prose.
[00:14:41.430]And so some of my poems are a bit long-winded,
[00:14:45.360]because after all,
[00:14:48.030]it is prose, but poetry.
[00:14:51.900]We'd like to thank John Wunder
[00:14:53.130]for speaking with us today.
[00:14:54.450]Find all of our short Great Plains talks and interviews
[00:14:57.270]as videos and podcasts at go.unl.edu/gplectures.
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