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WOSTER: A study in farm storm cellars

If our present home had a storm cellar like the one back on the farm, Nancy and I might have hunkered down in it for a while Thursday night. We don't have such a shelter, not right at hand. We sat in the living room, listening to the rain that ha...

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

If our present home had a storm cellar like the one back on the farm, Nancy and I might have hunkered down in it for a while Thursday night.

We don't have such a shelter, not right at hand. We sat in the living room, listening to the rain that hammered the north windows and watching the heavy patio swing whip back and forth like a small kite in a whirlwind. Sheets of lightning lit the mass of menacing clouds above the roofs of neighboring houses. An occasional fork of lightning accompanied by a crack of thunder kept us from getting too comfortable.

The satellite feed on our television set came and went. When I checked the weather apps on my phone, I saw fairly widespread reports of 60-plus mph wind in the area. At least one 80 mph gust was reported. I don't know if those were official numbers, but the wind's howl made them seem possible.

It wasn't life-threatening, but it was harsh, not something a person would willingly face unprotected. It was the sort of storm that back on the farm would have had my mom waking us kids from our sound sleep and herding us out the back door and across the cracked sidewalk to the safety of the cellar.

We'd huddle at the cellar doorway while our dad checked the steps and lower landing for snakes. Then we'd stumble down the crumbling old steps and into the cellar. There we'd take seats on wood benches, lean back against the dirt walls and try to sleep. Our dad would go up the steps and stand in the doorway and track the storm. Our mom would light candles, and the flames would wink against the glass of the canned beets and tomatoes and beans on shelves in the center of the room.

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Whoever built the storm cellar simply excavated a space, fashioned a ceiling from thick planks and piled the excavated earth on top of the ceiling. The result was a cozy place five or six feet below the level of the surrounding landscape, with a huge mound of earth overhead and a doorway set vertically into the mound of earth at the head of the steps. That was great for my dad. In the doorway, he was above ground but protected, He had a ringside seat to nature's show.

I didn't know there was any other kind of storm shelter until I saw "The Wizard of Oz.'' The Gale's storm cellar was completely below the surrounding land. The doorway lay almost flat. Dorothy had to hold Toto and a dainty wicker basket in one hand and tug at the cellar door with the other. Then she stomped her foot and hollered, but Auntie Em and Uncle Henry just couldn't hear her.

Come to think of it, that scene is pretty unrealistic. I can buy panicked horses and screen doors flying in the wind. The unbelievable part is that Auntie Em ended up in the cellar without Dorothy. My mom, though deathly afraid of storms, would have stood at the door forever before she'd have left a child outside.

(Of course, my mom would have been looking for Dorothy long before the storm hit. I can't imagine any of us kids getting out of her sight long enough to pack a suitcase, grab the dog - we never owned a farm dog small enough to carry, anyway - and head down the road to meet the odd fortune teller with the horse and wagon. The Gales had a different farm lifestyle than we did.)

We did have a sort of a Gale cellar door that led to a space under our farmhouse. The door was flat on the ground next to the south door. But the steps led down to a dirt-walled space only large enough to hold our propane furnace and a collection of spiders and other creepy crawlers. I suggested once that it would be handier for storms if we enlarged the furnace space and took shelter there. Dad said what we had worked just fine.

I figure he didn't think he'd be able to track the storms from down in that furnace hole.

Related Topics: WEATHERTERRY WOSTER
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