1968 Thomas Engelhart pulled up under the lean-to next to his barn and switched off the ignition of his old Case tractor, his whole body still vibrating from driving through the cornfields for ten hours. Like most jobs needing to be done on the farm, it was long and boring and second nature to him, to be accomplished without much thought, usually regardless of the weather. Although the sun was beginning to retreat into the lower quadrant of the sky, it was still 90 degrees and as humid as it could get and not rain. Cumulonimbus clouds reached far up into the sky to the west, with their fibrous anvil tops spreading out into each other covering hundreds of miles.
The orange colors of a typical Midwest sunset were beginning to form on their mash potato sides, and the slightest tint of purple was reflecting off of the underside of their cirrus crowns. What would be a cover photo for Sunset magazine only brought apprehension to Thomas as he wiped the sweat, salt and dust from his brow, doing little more than making a dark brown smear across his forehead. Thunderstorms. Life giving, life taking, unpredictable thunderstorms. Would his land be the recipient of badly needed rain, or just receive a sprinkling supplied from the ferocious winds that accompanied the outskirts of each cloud cell? Worse yet, would he be the one to have his fields beaten flat by the two minutes of half-inch hailstones that sometimes fell from these dissipating meteorological monsters? Only the next few hours would tell, he thought to himself, it was a craps-shoot at best.
He jumped down from the old gray tractor his father had once owned and started his inspection of the rest of the farm on his way back to the white two-story house that was his castle, and his prison. A trip through the barn and a glance at the cows showed him the milking had been done. In back of that he checked the water troughs for the penned in animals, and a quick look in the hen house proved that most of the eggs had been gathered. The vegetable garden showed signs of being hoed, or at least one had been dragged down the middle of the rows he suspected, and the bull was still where he was supposed to be. It wasn't that Thomas had any doubts that the rest of the family members knew what their chores were, but he just never knew when one of the children might conveniently forget to do something. Like the time the cows hadn't gotten milked and their udders had nearly burst. Or the time the bull had gotten loose, trampled half of the garden, and gored two steers and the flatbed Dodge before Thomas and a neighbor had tricked him back into the proper pasture. Things could go to hell in a hand basket mighty quick sometimes, his wife's untimely death had taught him that, God bless her soul.
As he walked towards the front porch his dogs ran out to meet him, and the cats, those goddamned cats, scattered to places unknown. His daughter adored them, and the hundreds of kittens that seemed to come with them every year, so he tolerated their existence. The truth was he would just as soon throw them all into a weighted burlap bag and dump them into the Platte River. He didn't like their sneaky, independent, unpredictable, uncontrollable ways, and there wasn't any price being paid for a pound of cat meat. As far as he was concerned they were worthless parasites, and rodent catchers on a farm were as worthless as tits on a boar, since the mice bred even faster than the cats.
He reached down to pat each of the dogs as they rubbed up against the legs of his Big Mac overhauls. Dogs were obedient, trainable, and loyal. You could always count on your dogs. They respected the hand that fed them, unlike cats and children, who were always testing the ties that bind. He conceded the fact that life was proceeding as it was meant to. It was just so damned hard without the maternal half around to keep the reins tight on the domestic front while he tried to squeeze a living out of this potential dust bowl known as Nebraska.
As he walked up the steps to the front door, he instantly felt that something was wrong. Missing were the aromas of dinner waiting to be promptly served upon his arrival. How could there be any smells of pot roast simmering in onions and carrots when the front door was still closed? Hell, it's ninety degrees outside and the goddamned door's closed, and the front windows too for that matter. Something's wrong, and by God he was going to set it right, he thought, as he grabbed the door handle expecting to throw it open and march inside.
His sweaty hands just spun around the worn brass door knob as his body crashed into the unopened door. Locked. A locked door on a farm? His adrenaline kicked in as he banged on the door, the window threatening to blow out the old cracked putty that held it in place. Somebody's gonna catch hell for this, he raged to himself. He'd worked hard all day, and he expected his dinner on time, on the table, and least of all, not to be locked out of his own damned house.
"I don't know what's going on in there, but open up this door before there's the devil to pay!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.
He figured that one of the children would have immediately opened the door, but his request was met only with silence. He stomped down the stairs and around the west side of the house, building up a head of steam that could have pulled a freight train up a grain silo, getting more pissed off as he passed each side window that was also shut. Anger began to give way to fear as he stopped long enough to peer through the dining room window.
Although the window was closed, and the air was still as it so often is just before an electrical storm, the thin summer curtains were blowing almost horizontal inside the house. The pages of the telephone book were flipping over as if being shuffled by an invisible casino dealer, and part of yesterday's newspaper was being sucked up the stairs to the second story as if trapped in a giant vacuum cleaner hose. Over the sound of his own blood coursing through his ears from his building rage, he could hear windows actually shaking in their frames.
For the first time in years he broke into a dead run, turning around the corner of the house as if he were executing a down and out pass pattern from his high school football days. While his brain had somewhat remembered the drill, his legs and feet had not, and he fell on one knee and crashed into the entry way to the potato cellar. He cursed aloud and got back up on his feet, not noticing the tear in his pants leg or the crimson stain starting to form around it. He half ran, half fell, the remaining ten feet to the back door, grabbing the handle as much to keep from falling on his face as to open it.
The screen door was latched from the inside by a hook, which gave way with a snap as he nearly ripped the entire thing off the hinges. The inner door was locked also, which by now he found as no surprise. He stood back a step and kicked it as hard as possible, for a split second feeling like some actor in one of the numerous cop shows the kids sometimes watched at night. He grimaced in pain, as the solid wood door barely gave at all. “So much for being the Hollywood hero,” though he wasn't really surprised. The back of the house was part of the original structure that had been built in the late 1800's, when things were supposed to outlive their owners. Without a second thought, he punched his hand through one of the windowpanes. He stared in disbelief at the shards of glass that flew across the kitchen level to the floor, and around the corner out of sight, never once giving into gravity and actually touching the ground. The sound inside the house was deafening.
He closed his eyes and shook his head once, trying to clear what must obviously be some kind of mirage. Maybe he was having one of those 'strokes' Doc McNally had warned him about, and he would wake up and this would all be gone, or he would be dead and St. Peter or the Devil himself would be sentencing him to hoe a thousand acres of corn by hand until Hell froze over. When he opened his eyes again, the Waring blender his kitchen had become was still churning. He reached his hand through the window and down past the inside handle where the skeleton key should have been and cut his armpit open on the glass.
He winced in pain and swore again. The key was gone. He yelled out the names of the children, but his voice just seemed to get sucked up into the vortex along with everything else that wasn't bolted down. He heard a crash as the old glazed cookie jar his mother had made by hand rocked off the counter by the stove and exploded into pieces, which began to get sucked across the floor and around the corner, along with the gingersnaps inside. They flew just above the jar pieces like little brown, out of control, Frisbees similar to the ones the kids had trained the dogs to catch.
Jesus H. Christ! He had to do something to get in the house, right now damn it! He began punching out the rest of the glass, using his forearm to bust out the wooden slats that held the windowpanes. There was an old chair sitting nearby that was used by whom ever had the potato peeling or pea shucking duty that week, which he drug over in front of the door and stepped upon to climb through the hole where the windows had been. As he tried to push himself through, some of the glass slashed through his bib overalls, nicking the skin on his chest and stomach, temporarily leaving him caught on the edge, teetering like a beached whale on a sandbar. He kicked again with his feet, tipping the chair over backwards, but it gave him enough momentum to fall through to the other side. He landed on his hands and knees, seeing blood on the floor in front of him. His panic level went up another notch, as his pulse rate approached the speed of sound. It took him a second to realize it was his own blood, which was little comfort considering an unexplainable tornado seemed to be ravaging the inside of his home, and nowhere else.
He scrambled to his feet again, only to be sucked through the kitchen past the counter where the cookie jar had been, and slamming up against the solid cherry dining room table set. An ornately carved chair back caught him in the ribs and sent sharp pains through his chest, totally taking his breath away. He raised his head and looked toward the stairway to the right, which led up to the upstairs bedrooms. He tried to yell again, but his names of his children only came out as raspy whispers, while the searing pain that came from the effort convinced him that his ribs were more than bruised.
A large, heavily framed picture was torn from the wall at the same moment, and skipped off the back off his head on it's way up the stairs, slamming his face into the hardwood table top. His vision began to darken, but he could still hear the tremendous roaring of wind and he felt his knees go weak. He could feel himself start to slip from the table, with the chair top counting each row of his ribs with a stab of pain as he slid towards the floor. He felt his hands starting to slide past the edges of the tabletop, and he grabbed hold for dear life, trying to will his legs back into commission at the same time. Somehow his worn out Sears and Roebuck boots found a footing on the smooth oak floor, and his knees locked extended in a last stand of defiance.
He raised his head, dazed from the impact, and could suddenly taste the coppery salt flavor of his own blood, which was running profusely from his nose down onto his lips. As he waited for some form of his breath to return, and his legs to respond again, he saw the first flash of lightning from the corner of his eyes. The inside of the house began to darken as the thunderstorm approached nearer, blocking out all remaining rays of the setting sun. He shook his head one more time, trying to clear the stars and cobwebs, spraying blood and saliva across the starched white table linen as blood trailed from his nose toward the stairway, carried on the wind.
When he finally gathered enough strength to stand again, he to began to be sucked towards the stairs, and he tried to slow his progress rather than to hurry it. Even though he was still grasping the tabletop, his sweaty hands were slowly losing their grip, until eventually all he was really holding was the table linen. Suddenly, as if in a bad dream and he was a magician who was trying to do the old pull out the tablecloth and leave the place settings trick, the whole top of the table was wiped cleaned as he was pulled towards the stairwell. He crashed into the wall, with the silverware, plates and candleholders right behind him, most of it glancing of his back and flying upstairs, although one dinner fork managed to stick him in the right calf. He yelled in pain as his cracked ribs yanked the chain on every nerve ending in his chest, but he held onto the handrail with all his remaining strength, not even noticing the fork bouncing back and forth in his lower leg.
His hair, pasty as it was from sweat, dirt and blood, wrapped around his head and pointed upward as if directing the way to go. A calendar slapped him on the back of the head, forcing him into a crouch, thinking that maybe next time it would be a lamp or a kitchen appliance. All he had to do now to advance was release his grip on the handrail and allow his feet to break traction with the floor. When the toe of his foot slammed into the next stair, he raised the other foot just high enough to clear the next step, and it too immediately shot forward. He repeated this process over and over until he was far enough up the stairwell to see onto the second floor. All of the doors were closed except the one to Edward's bedroom. There was debris everywhere, just swirling up against the closed doors and banging into walls, eventually ending up being inhaled into Edward's room. From his present angle, Thomas couldn't see inside the room, but from the slope of the pile protruding out of the door, he knew that over half of Edward's room was buried.
The noise was even louder at the top of the stairs, he hadn't heard anything like it since the first time he had heard a jet take off at the air show in Omaha. The vacuum was so intense that he had to take the last few stairs on his hands and knees, holding on to the railing with one hand and bracing against the opposite wall with the other. It was then that he heard a loud cracking sound above his head, and he looked up expecting to see a bolt of lightning bursting through the roof. What he saw instead was the access panel to the attic blowing apart, and the pieces of boards and small splinters were immediately attracted to the top of the pile in Edward's room, as if caught up in some kind of magnetic force field. Then, one by one, heavily filled cardboard boxes began falling out of the ceiling and onto the floor, one hitting Thomas across the side of his face as he ducked too late, and everything went black.
Later that evening, the line of thunderstorms produced by a cold front rolling across the plains from Colorado into Nebraska and Kansas, built up until their tops finally punched into the stratosphere. Once the hot moist air mixed with the jet stream and combined with the unique mixture of high and low pressure, tornadoes began to spawn in near record proportions. One of them, a particularly nasty storm cell, had shown up with three hook echoes on the weather radar at Offut Air Force Base in Omaha. Each one of these echoes was actually a tornado, which tore through several counties before turning into water spouts over the Missouri River and dissipating in Iowa. Left in their paths was the hit and miss ruin that only a tornado and one-inch hail can produce. Among the casualties were seven people, dozens of homes, hundreds of automobiles and livestock, and most of the Engelhart farm.