With March on the horizon, we’re now approaching the severe storm season, and I’ll be paying attention to forecasts and reports about tornadoes, building on a fascination that traces back to my early childhood. And thanks to an incredible database, TornadoHistoryProject.com, I can track down the history and path of the very first tornado I ever experienced, albeit down in the basement of my childhood Griffith, Indiana home.
It was July 20, 1962. Mom had taken my brother Jeff (almost 9 months old) and me (almost 3 years old) down to the basement by the time the tornado passed over our house. After it was safe to leave the basement, I went upstairs to see that our swing set had been knocked over. That was the worst of it. Thankfully it was a relatively weak tornado, with no reported injuries. However, as I’ve learned from the Tornado History Project, it had some staying power, traveling nearly 15 miles.
This is one of my earliest and sharpest childhood memories. In fact, I cannot recall anything else from that time making such imprint. My next firm memory comes from over a year later, when I was watching President Kennedy’s funeral.
I guess this helps to explain why I’ve been so captivated by tornadoes. In recent years, I’ve been going on storm chase tours and hanging out on Facebook with storm chasers and other bad weather enthusiasts. I guess some experiences just stick to the ribs, yes?
My first storm chase tour: May 2008 (May 2014)
As the boxes of papers in my condo unit storage area attest, I tend to save stuff! This stuff includes a small pile of mementos from the first Presidential candidate I ever supported and voted for, John B. Anderson of Illinois. I spent countless hours working as a volunteer for Anderson’s 1980 independent campaign, and it is one of my most memorable college experiences.
I’ve written earlier that during college and law school, I had every intention of launching a political career, so much that I was obsessed with the machinations of campaigns and elections. During this time, and especially through college, my own political views were very much in flux. I started college as an independent-minded Republican and finished as an independent-minded Democrat. But it’s also safe to say that my positions on issues were more knee-jerk than principled and well thought-out. regardless of whether I was leaning right or left!
Since then, my views have usually come out on the liberal side, but as to individuals I admire and respect in public life, I find myself drawn to people of character and integrity in ways that may transcend political partisanship. This may signify that I have come full circle, because John Anderson had those qualities in abundance.
In a way, my own political journey tracked that of Anderson, who for most of a long career in the House of Representatives was a strong conservative, rising to party leadership positions and representing a Rockford, Illinois district that returned him to office time and again. But in the wake of Vietnam and the social upheaval of the 60s and early 70s, Anderson began moving to the left, to the point where he entered the 1980 GOP primaries as a “liberal Republican,” a designation that would be virtually impossible today.
Anderson made a splash in the primaries and was gaining a following that cut across political lines, but he knew that his chances of winning the nomination — eventually secured by Ronald Reagan — were practically non-existent. So he decided to mount an independent Presidential campaign. He engaged in the arduous effort to get on the ballot across the country, and he picked a running mate, former Wisconsin Governor Patrick J. Lucey, a Democrat.
Although polling data showed Anderson with double digit support through the summer of 1980, he faded in the fall and garnered 7 percent of the November vote, far behind Reagan and the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter.
I served as the Northwest Indiana coordinator for the Anderson/Lucey campaign, an area covering Lake and Porter counties, two fairly heavily populated areas of the state. My position signified the degree to which the campaign had to rely on green volunteer talent. I coordinated a small organization of volunteers, served as a representative to the statewide campaign committee, participated in a couple of local debates, and even did some local radio interviews.
Some of the mementos pictured above are self-explanatory, but let me say a bit about three of them:
(1) The ALL CAPS letter on the left is a mailgram sent by Vice Presidential candidate Patrick J. Lucey to core Indiana volunteers, thanking us for a furious and ultimately successful petition effort to put him on the state’s November ballot. Lucey had been added to the ticket as Anderson’s running mate after petitions for Anderson had been submitted, so the Indiana courts required us to mount a second petition effort to secure his place as the VP candidate on the ballot.
(2) The newspaper article at top is a summer 1980 piece by the Gary Post-Tribune, featuring our small band of Anderson volunteers. It was one of my earliest press interviews about anything, and I recall how nervous I was speaking to the reporter! The article mentions an older couple, John and Kim Glennon, who served as den parents to our young volunteer group. Mrs. Glennon had attended law school with Anderson at the University of Illinois.
(3) The letter on the right was sent to key Anderson supporters after the November election, thanking us for our efforts on behalf of the campaign. I didn’t know if Anderson personally signed it or whether a robo-signing machine was used, but it was nice to receive the letter after working so hard for the campaign.
The 1980 election will forever be associated with President Reagan’s election and the nation’s rightward political shift, but I believe that Anderson’s story also symbolizes that change. After many years as a Republican loyalist, Anderson’s politics were moving left as his party’s positions were moving right. Anderson’s campaign platform was a mix of liberal social positions, strong support for workers’ rights, and moderate-to-liberal economic policies. His departure from the GOP anticipated the sharper ideological divisions that continue to confront America today.
In the years following the election, Anderson did a lot of teaching and lecturing, eventually becoming a law professor at Nova University in Florida and serving in leadership positions for various advocacy groups. He’s in his early 90s now. I’m not sure if he is still active as a teacher and advocate, but I hope he knows that his campaign made a strong impact on those of us who were fortunate to be a part of it.
Baring Parkway makes up two big rectangular plots of grass and trees in the Woodmar neighborhood of Hammond, Indiana, the small northwest Indiana city where I grew up. For me and many others during the late 60s and early 70s, it was our baseball diamond, football field, and — on one occasion — archeological dig.
Fields of dreams
Some of my best memories of those days are of playing pick up baseball games with improvised rules and teams made up of guys who showed up on any particular afternoon or early evening. It was slow pitch hardball; a batter could strike out but couldn’t wait out a walk. If we didn’t have enough players for full teams, a ball hit to an uncovered part of the outfield was considered an automatic out. There were no fences, so a home run had to be earned by hitting the ball far and running fast. (Umm, my home runs were few and far between.)
I spent chunks of five or six summers playing in those pick up games on Baring Parkway. When I started, I was pretty terrible. I could barely hit the ball, and my fielding skills were pretty bad too. Early on, if there was an odd number of players, I’d be designated the “official catcher,” which meant that I caught the slow lob pitches for both teams and didn’t get to bat. 😦 But I was becoming quite a baseball fan, so I stuck with it, enough so that I could hold my own at bat and in the field. Such improvements are the little things that can build a kid’s self-confidence.
Baseball was still America’s national pastime. Although I don’t want to over-romanticize those days, a love of the game was very much a part of the culture of this gritty little industrial city. Youth baseball leagues were very popular, and a fair number of future high school and even college standouts cut their teeth that way.
Our Baring Parkway games harbored no such sporting ambitions. We played for the fun of it, and by and large, the experience delivered. Furthermore, we mostly got along with each other, with only an occasional disagreement blowing up into fisticuffs.
The photo above shows a lush green park. Our makeshift baseball diamonds made Baring Parkway less picturesque, with carved out bases and basepaths pockmarking the landscape. But on a nice summer day, you could see kids enjoying themselves with a game of baseball, which I think was a good tradeoff.
Football was less popular those days, but occasionally we’d turn a stretch of the Parkway into a makeshift gridiron. We played both touch and tackle varieties, adding necessary rules such as minimum counts before a defender could rush the passer (“one Mississippi, two Mississippi…”). We usually played without safety equipment, but I cannot recall any injuries of note other than some bumps and bruises.
In search of dinosaurs
One early fall — I’m pretty sure as we were starting the 6th grade — a big utility company dug up much of the Parkway to do some work on the underground pipes. This meant a temporary suspension of its use as a playing field, but what we discovered there caused us to shelve our growing obsession with sports.
Unlike today, when fences, orange tape, and big signs will warn people (er, kids) to stay away, we could simply walk right into the work site. I cannot recall who first ventured into the excavation area, but I remember how quickly the news traveled among our small group of friends: There are lots of bones down there, as in bones from big animals.
And so we went, with small shovels and garden tools in hand, during early evenings and the weekends when the workers weren’t on site. And we dug up these big bones and all thought, whoa, I wonder if these are dinosaur bones???!!! We took bags of them to show & tell at our grade school, breathlessly speculating about whether they were the remains of giants that once roamed the planet.
Well folks, it turns out that none of our archeological discoveries will be found at your local natural history museum. Indeed, the fact that we also dug up rusty horseshoes at the site should’ve told us that we weren’t on the trail of a mighty T-Rex. But our excitement over this discovery allowed us to suspend disbelief, and also would make for a good childhood memory along the way.
Kids and unstructured time
Back in the day, a childhood for a someone born into America’s emerging middle class or robust working class came with free time, especially during summers after the school year ended. Sure, for some there were activities such as scouting, church groups, organized sports, and the like, but overall our days didn’t seem quite as packed as those of today’s young folks.
Although I’m not a parent, I understand how modern child raising often involves a lot more structured, adult-supervised activities than we saw with earlier generations. Still, it saddens me a bit that the kind of self-organized play that we engaged in on Baring Parkway is less and less of a typical kid’s experience. This was an era when parents (usually moms) could tell their kids to go outside and play, and about the only mild concern was whether you’d be home in time for dinner. Yup, times have changed.
Remember “The Time Tunnel,” the short-lived but fascinating television time travel drama from the mid-60s? Every new episode would find scientists Tony Newman and Doug Phillips landing in a different historical setting, usually on the eve of some major event, such as the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of Little Big Horn (General Custer and Crazy Horse), or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (Unfortunately, they never could persuade folks that disaster loomed.) To this day, I credit that show for helping to stoke a lifelong interest in history and to fuel my imagination with thoughts of going back in time.
What if time travel was possible? What places and times would I want to visit? Here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list, not exactly an exotic one, but it sure would be a fascinating set of journeys. Feel free to add yours in the comments!
New York City, 1880s — My favorite time travel novel, Jack Finney’s captivating Time and Again (1970), is set in early 1880s Manhattan. There’s a scene in the book when his protagonist, Si Morley, realizes that he made a successful journey back. It remains one of my most favorite reading moments, ever.
New York City, 1920s — I’d be at everything and anything by George Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, and Cole Porter. I’d be at the jazz clubs of Harlem. I’d be at Yankee Stadium watching Ruth & Gehrig. I’d be hanging out in Greenwich Village. I’d also want to check out student life at New York University, my law school alma mater. The 1920s is one of my favorite decades, and NYC of that time would make for a grand visit.
New York City, post-war 1940s and early 1950s — I can’t imagine a better place to drink in the spirit of America’s post-war optimism. I’d also venture out of Manhattan to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where I’d watch Jackie Robinson break baseball’s modern color barrier. I’m sure I’d spend plenty of time and money at the dozens of used bookstores in the city. And yes, I’d hang out in the Village during this period, too.
Chicago, 1893 — Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair. The photographs of it look stunning, a city bathed in light. It also marked Chicago’s arrival as a major city.
Chicago, 1920s — When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Albert Harper’s Chicago Crime Book (1969), which told tales of Al Capone and other famous gangsters. Thus was born a fascination with Chicago’s Roaring Twenties.
San Francisco and Berkeley, California, mid-to-late 1960s — I’d like to experience the whole California Dreamin’ thing. I’d be the squarest person in Berkeley’s People’s Park, but at least I’d be able to take good pictures.
London, late 1880s — Yeah, I’d sleuth around the East End to discover the identity of Jack the Ripper. I’d be drawn to the sinister side of Victorian London. I’ve also read about the food carts of the era and would like to give them a try.
London, 1940 — London during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. It’s such an iconic, defining, dramatic moment in British history. Just thinking about it has me imagining Edward R. Murrow’s radio broadcasts from London as the German bombs were falling around them.
Paris, 1920s — I probably wouldn’t stay long, but I’d want to check out that whole Left Bank scene and the Lost Generation. I’d hang out in Paris cafes and do a bit of writing. (Challenge: No outlets for my laptop.)
Washington D.C., 1861-65 — Washington during the American Civil War. Hot, miserable, and menacing. But fascinating nonetheless. And somehow I’d finagle a way to have a short chat with Abraham Lincoln.
Boston, Revolutionary Era — I live in a city where evidence of the early years of the American Revolution is all around us. How cool it would be to see Boston of that era, perhaps bumping into the likes of John Adams, Samuel Adams, and other remarkable figures of the day.
Salem, Massachusetts, 1600s — Will we ever know the full truth about the events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials? It would be fascinating to find out.
Ancient Athens — I’d follow Socrates as he traipses around the Athenian marketplace. I’d want to get some first hand lessons in how the ancient Greeks lived, and trace some of the origins of Greek mythology and philosophy.
Hawaii, 1920s — Among my treasured Hawaiian collectibles is a February, 1924 National Geographic magazine with 16 pages of incredible color illustrations of the Islands. I can only imagine seeing those sights in person! If I was on Maui during October 1926, I’d go to the hospital in the small town of Paia to say hi to the newborn baby who someday would be my mom. While on Maui, I’d take a train ride on the narrow-gauge Kahului Railroad.
Hawaii, 1950s — After WWII, Hawaii was making its way toward eventual statehood. Large passenger airplanes — still propeller-driven, as the jets wouldn’t arrive in the early 60s — now made air travel to the Islands a safe reality. The idea of Hawaii as America’s Pacific paradise was in full bloom.
Valparaiso, Indiana, early 1910s — Valparaiso University, my collegiate alma mater, was rescued by the Lutherans in the 1920s after a period of decline. Before that, however, it was a thriving, no-frills, secular college known as the “Poor Man’s Harvard” that provided collegiate, professional, and trade courses to young people who aspired to join America’s emerging middle class.
Hammond, Indiana, 1950s — Hammond was my hometown from grade school through high school, from the late 60s through late 70s. By then it was a city in decline, its jobs base shrinking due to the decline of steel mills and manufacturing in Northwest Indiana. But during the 50s it was a thriving small city and an emerging outer suburb of Chicago.
Airplanes — I would love to fly in two legendary, early passenger airplanes, the Ford Trimotor (late 1920s) and the DC-3 (mid 1930s).
Trains — How fun it would be to take the Pioneer Zephyr, one of the first modern diesel passenger trains, on its popular Chicago-to-Denver run during the 1930s.
I’m struck by the fact that this list doesn’t have much to do with my current work. Hardly anything about law, the labor movement, politics, and the like. Not much about war, either, despite that I read a lot about the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. I’m not sure quite what that says about my choices, but unless science develops affordable time travel during my lifetime, this is not a pressing matter.