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Terry Woster

WOSTER: Snakes as scary as storms

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life Mitchell, 57301
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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

When a storm would fire up in the middle of the night back on the farm, Dad would always be the first one down in the cellar.

He didn't stay there. Oh, no. Much to Mother's dismay, no matter how vicious or long-lasting the storm, no matter if it was major-league hail, torrential rainfall, all the lightning and thunder that ever existed in the recorded history of the world or just a good, old-fashioned windstorm, Dad would perch with one foot on the top step and watch things develop and disappear.

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He was first into the cellar because someone had to check for rattlesnakes.

When a storm approached, Mother would shake us kids from our sleep, prod and scold us into jackets and boots and group us at the back door. Dad would already be on his way to the cellar to make his inspection. When he signaled, we dashed through the rain and wind. It wasn't often that a rattlesnake actually was found on the cellar steps, and with the heavy wooden door at the bottom of those steps, it was unlikely there'd be a snake in the cellar itself. A rattler (or a bull snake, and in the dark of night, who's really checking the difference?) showed up just often enough, though, to make me wait patiently, if drowsily, at the back door for the signal to rush for shelter.

Our storm cellar was a ways from the house. It was mostly underground, although you couldn't miss the spot. A dome of earth covered the cellar, and a black, cast-iron pipe stuck up about 3 feet above the dome. The pipe ventilated the underground shelter, and when you sat on one of the wood benches in the cellar, you could hear the wind moaning and whining through the ventilation pipe. We had several candles, some of which came from St. Mary's Church in Reliance, for light. The shifting air through the ventilation pipe made the flames on the candles move gently to and fro, casting eerie shadows on the earth walls of the cave in which we rode out the storm.

I never did figure out how the cellar was constructed. Obviously, some excavation was necessary. The floor of the cellar was at least 5 feet below the level of the ground above. It was easy to stand up in the place without bumping your head. It wasn't so easy to move around. The benches were along the walls. The center of the cellar was occupied by a heavy set of shelves. The shelves were packed with Mason jars filled with tomatoes and beans and whatever other vegetables we'd been able to raise in the garden just south of the cellar door.

I've mentioned before that Dad liked to get about 10 years ahead with his hay supply, that we had stacks and stacks and stacks of hay sitting around as insurance against the next multi-year drought? Mother was the same way with the canning. We probably had 10 years' worth of produce sitting on the shelves in the storm cellar when I was a child. I suppose we used some of it, but it always seemed to me that the jars simply sat and sat, moving only when shoved deeper onto the shelf by the current year's harvest.

The light from the flickering candles played against the jars on the shelves, creating a rainbow of colors for us kids to study as we leaned against the dirt wall and drifted in and out of sleep.

Sometimes it seemed we were down in the cellar for hours. Other times, it was over almost as quickly as it began. And sometimes, as I grew into a teenager, I summoned my courage, pulled the wooden door open and climbed the stairs to stand by Dad, waiting for flashes of lightning to show me the fierce clouds overhead, the house and garage, and across the farmyard to the west, the reassuring shape of the huge old barn.

I say that I summoned my courage and climbed the stairs. I do not say I ever offered to be first one down the steps on a stormy night.

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