by Jack M. Bickham
Jack Bickham brought his considerable skills as a journalist and a novelist to tell of the weeklong journey of a trio of lethal, tornado-spawning low pressure systems across the United States in 1975.
Bickman alternates National Weather Service forecasts, watches and warnings with personal on-the-ground observations of characters as the weather unfolds.
While there’s loads of fascinating science in this book, it never takes the spotlight from the weather’s impact on people’s lives. The eyewitness accounts reveal amazing information about tornadoes in a personal and realistic way.
There’s Milly Tyler, a Kentucky hill country grandmother, who herded her two grandsons and a neighbor boy into a flimsy house just ahead of a tornado. She finds herself in the weird, pulsating, pearly light of continuous lightening coming from inside a tornado. And then is tossed through the house like a rag as the tornado rages by pulling the house apart.
A Kansas farmer, J. M. Stine, sees an approaching tornado, gets his wife, two sons and the family dog into the storm cellar. As he fights the wind to pull the doors shut, he sees the tornado lift off the ground and pass overhead.
“He could look far up into the tornado. The cloudy walls spun, tubular rolls of cloud, and slender veins of lightning flickered constantly up and down on the insides, lighting the central cavity which seemed clear. Farther up — Stine had no way of guessing how high — there was constant lightning flashing in a greenish murk.”
Storm chaser Bill Fredrick is in a low-flying Cessna taking photos and recording observations about the path of a recent tornado. A radio relay comes in from Louisville, KY, regarding an Air Force pilot in an RB-71 at 64,000 feet who will be flying over one of the storm lines and has volunteered to make observations. Fredrick asks him to pick the tallest cloud he sees and fly over it. The Air Force pilot reports back that the entire top of the cloud is a big swirl funneling downward. From deep within the cone, a waterspout is shooting a 100 feet into the air.
Other stories and characters are woven throughout the book. Ed Stephens, director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, is responsible for collecting and sharing weather information, making forecasts and giving severe weather alerts to weather stations across the nation. As his team works round the clock to assess multiple unfolding situations, Congressman Buck Tatinger, an avowed enemy of bureaucrats and fat budgets, is on a personal fact-finding mission, questioning everything critically as the meteorologists work.
Stephens’ brother-in-law, Mike Coyle, is mayor of Thatcher, OH. Three times, he’s led campaigns to pass bond elections that among other things would have improved the city’s storm alert system. Three times they’ve failed. As Coyle assesses the devastation left behind by a tornado, he finds himself giving people hope and courage in dealing with the disaster. For the first time, he has the leverage to get business leaders to come together to work for the good of the whole community, not just their vested interests. Knowing that Thatcher has been irretrievably changed, he begins to see how it might be a change for the better.
This book is exceptionally well-researched. Bickman examines the weather from a transcontinental, jet stream level down to the power and mechanics of a relatively small thunderstorm. He tells readers how tornados get started and debunks myths such as the belief that rivers and mountains can deflect tornados. His characters face the consequences of being in various types of structures when a tornado hits; good and bad things to do in a storm; and places to shelter. All of this information is given in an organic, interesting way. This book will keep you turning pages long into the night.
In 1975, when this story was set, the National Weather Service was staffed disproportionately with white men in the 51 to 58 years old category. Most had been trained as meteorologists in the military. In Stephens’ office, men are plotting storm data in pencil on a sheet of clear film placed over a map.
Although he never says so, Bickman’s story may have been inspired by the April 3, 1974, outbreak of 148 tornadoes in 13 states and a Canadian province. At the time, it was the deadliest tornado outbreak in history. It was superceded 36 years later when 360 tornadoes swept through 21 states in 2011. By then, the world of meteorology had been radically changed by computers and an expanding satellite network.
One last note: This book is not to be mistaken for the 1996 movie “Twister.” The movie was a celebrity-infested blockbuster in love with its own special effects. It featured competing teams of storm chasers trying to perfect data-gathering instruments that could be released into the funnel of a tornado.
Note to readers: If you enjoy stories of natural disaster’s you may also enjoy Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larsen. Kim Cross’s nonfiction work, What Stands in a Storm, is about the 2011 superstorm that set off 349 tornadoes in 21 towns from Texas to New York.
The Author: Jack M. Bickham (1930 – 1997)
Novelist Jack M. Bickham was hired by the University of Oklahoma in 1969 and became a full professor 10 years later. He directed the annual short course on professional writing from 1973 to 1990. He was honored by the University for teaching excellence by being named the David Ross Boyd Professor. He was a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame.
He wrote more than 75 published novels in many genres, some under the pseudonyms John Miles and Arthur Williams. He wrote three series featuring Wildcat O’Shea, Charity Ross and Brad Smith, which was set in the world of tennis. Two of his novels were turned into movies, “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975) and “Baker’s Hawk” (1976).
In addition to stand-alone novels, he wrote a number of books about the craft of novel and fiction writing.