The Wide Angle: Memories of a town changed forever

Published 7:01 am Sunday, June 18, 2017

It’s one day removed by the time you read this, but Friday marked a rather significant anniversary for me and several others.

It was the day I learned what Mother Nature’s wrath was all about. On June 16, 1992, an F5 tornado, the only one on record for that year, touched down in northwest Nobles County and proceeded to rampage across southwestern Minnesota, impacting several communities but none more than the two I was most related to: Chandler and Lake Wilson.

In 1992, I was a freshly-graduated senior, with the world in front of me. From kindergarten I attended the co-opped school of the two towns, Chandler-Lake Wilson, spending my elementary days in my hometown of Lake Wilson and junior high and high school in Chandler.

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The towns were no different than, say, Adams or Grand Meadow. Small, where the common cliche of “everybody knows each other” is as true as Buffalo Ridge, a perceived barrier running north and south to the west of both communities. In those days, it was said the barrier would protect us from any kind of storm pounding down through the fields.

I don’t know where this train of thought came from, but on June 16 it seems Mother Nature disagreed.

A great story featured on the Worthington Daily Globe’s website, which I will include in this article, said the storm began its march at 5 p.m. Honestly, I don’t remember because at that point all I remembered were darkening clouds to the south and west that told no different of a tale than any other run-of-the-mill storm. It was exciting.

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved storms. The raw, untamed fury was indeed exciting, exhilarating and unknown. There was a primal interest in something so powerful.

So I welcomed the storm as its clouds grew more ominous, perhaps thinking, “well, we’re in for a good one.”

My first indication something was different was just how dark it was getting. The rain was another exclamation, but the hail was an exclamation point of sorts.

My mom, Linda Johnson, realized that the truck was still out so I offered to go put it in the garage, neither of us knowing that at the time my dad, David Johnson was literally trying to race the storm back.

Both were teachers for the school district.

The hail was nothing significant until I got in the truck and the dime-sized hail was beginning to grow to quarter-sized and the winds were picking up. I put the truck in, and ran for the house taking a chunk of ice to the head in the process.

I got in the house and dad pulled in shortly after just as the fury hit. The winds reared up out of a brisk breeze to pound our house and town. The fury ultimately drove us in the basement, instilling in me my first real bit of fear.

I had been through storms before, but nothing so furious and angry. If memory serves, it actually didn’t last long and when it was gone, the three of us examined the possible damage.

There was debris: Branches, small trees and more; our first clues that our town was now changed. At that moment, none of us knew the damage Lake Wilson sustained on the west edge.

We didn’t know about the rescue of a family —mom, dad, infant — that were flung in their car into a nearby field where they were rescued just moments later.

We didn’t know about Chandler.

I joked with friends about the storm afterwards, about being in basements.

A friend, Cory Nelson swung by the house and, said there was more damage on the west side of town, but even then we didn’t know the extent. As teens, we decided an investigation was in order.

Walking northwest from my block, we passed the Lutheran church’s pastor’s home. His wife, somewhat frantic, asked if we would check the church for him because that’s where she knew he had been.

I think, looking back, that’s when I knew something was very wrong. It was a bad storm, true, but I couldn’t understand why she was so nervous, so worried.

We got to the church and got our first real look at what had been the west side of Lake Wilson. Houses were flattened, debris thrown everywhere like toys from a child throwing a tantrum. People were everywhere, walking and running to help in any way they could.

All ideas of fun drained out of us.

Cory and I found the pastor, still hiding in the boiler room of the church. We told him his wife was looking for him and he left almost immediately, leaving Cory and I to investigate the church further for damage. I’m not sure if he asked us to or if we did it on our own volition, but two things stuck out immediately. The cross on top of the church was turned an exact 90 degrees and inside, perhaps an omen if you are the superstitious sort, a two-by-four had been driven through a large stained-glass window of Jesus Christ attending his flock, above the balcony. The only thing missing was Christ’s head.

Still, as much as Lake Wilson was altered forever, we still had no idea the fate of Chandler. In the hours and days that followed we came to realize that Chandler had nearly been wiped from existence. It was, simply, flattened.

The high school’s upper floors were sheared away, leaving a mangle of broken building. Ultimately, myself and my 12 classmates were the last class to graduate from Chandler-Lake Wilson, before the school was merged with Slayton to form Murray County Central.

There are hundreds of stories from that day and the days that followed, but for me personally, I learned a few things.

I learned what community meant and how we came together to clean the town and help our neighbors. In the years before and for a time after, I complained that it was just another small town with nothing to do, but in those days that community was everything.

I also learned that there was more to a love of storms. They were more than nature’s spectacle. They were something to be respected, something that demanded that respect. If you don’t respect the storm you risk being swallowed by it.

Miraculously, only one person died as a result of the storm. Call it what you will: divine intervention or blind, stupid luck, but it could have been much different. The power of that storm altered the course of these communities forever, both on the scale of the humanity that lived there and the towns themselves and while the community effort to clean up and rebuild still stands, what stands out the most is the storm and its raw, unkempt power. The ability to remind us just how little we meant  in the face of it.

That has stayed with me and in my time I’ve come face-to-face with two other tornados. A comparable tornado swept near Huron, South Dakota. So similar that it actually haunted me for a time. I thought, “It’s happened again.”

And then Austin itself got swideswiped a few years back.

Both of those times I knew what the storm was and while I’m not going to say I’m an expert of how storms behave or act, I will say I’ve come to understand my relationship to them.

In the face of the storm, we are nothing except for the resilience and perseverance to rebuild.

Looking back to June 1992 from my desk at the Austin Daily Herald, I kind of wonder just how lucky we were. I even wonder at the divinity of it all from time to time, from both sides. Did a god save us or curse us?

But I do know this, without community there was no rebuilding, no coming back. Both Chandler and Lake Wilson are still there with no signs of going anywhere soon and that’s something to be proud of. It shows we were stronger that day.

Still, not one storm passes all these days later where I don’t think about who we were and who we are now.

The storm taught us respect; we showed it strength.