It’s tornado season again in the Midwest. Actually, it’s tornado season year-round in my part of the world, but right now the storms are much more numerous, frequent and intense. Tornados activate different senses for different people. For some, fear is the primary feeling. Others experience tension, angst, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased sense of hearing, optical illusions as they gaze into the western sky, or all of the above. For me, the tornado warning brings on the smells of kerosene, oil cloth and canned peaches.
Nobody, living or dead, was more afraid of tornados than my late mother. Before we first moved to the farm where I grew up, my mother demanded a storm cellar be built in the side of a hill close to where the house would eventually be erected, before she would even agree to the move. As I remember, it was about 8 feet wide and 12 feet long, with 8-inch steel-reinforced concrete walls, floor and ceiling, with about 3 feet of dirt on top of the roof that blended right into the side of that hill. I should know all the dimensions, because I spent many nights sleeping in that cellar during tornado season.
Keep in mind that my childhood was long before live-action radar and community-wide siren systems activated by tornado alerts from the National Weather Service. If it was springtime and there were dark clouds in the west, the Crownover family was headed to the storm cellar. My father wasn’t scared of storms in the least, but mom insisted that he join us in the cellar, lest he would be the only family member killed by what she was certain was, “a twister just over that western hill.” So, to keep peace in the family, dad always joined us as well.
Inside the cellar was an old army cot with an oil cloth canvas that we all sat upon until sleep overtook us. That aromatic smell permeated the cool, damp climate of the cellar and I can still smell it today when the western horizon turns black. There was no electricity in our little bunker, but mom always made sure the kerosene lamp was full and that there was always a box of wooden matches next to it. It was a special treat to read by that old ‘coal oil’ lamp just as we had in my younger days. The cellar was lined with shelves, packed from floor to ceiling with the canned produce of last year’s garden harvest, along with canned meats and fruits. Since peaches were my favorite, I could usually talk mom into opening a quart of those yellow-fruited delights – if we stayed past my usual bedtime. I would, more often than not, eat enough to make me sick.
So while my mother paced in fear from the impending tornado (none ever struck our place in the 20 years we lived there), I would relax on the cot, reading a school book by the kerosene lamp, nibbling on sweet peaches from a mason jar while dad would keep going outside and coming back in with the weather report, “I think it’s OK to go back to the house.” Mom always wanted to wait another half-hour or so to make sure it was safe. It was quite the life.
After our sons graduated and moved on, my wife relocated our bedroom into the basement that had served as our den during the kids’ childhood. Judy’s not afraid of storms, but surmised that the basement just made more sense. At night, I usually pay little attention to tornado warnings or severe weather alerts, knowing we’re about as safe and secure as we’re going to get. It, too, has 8-inch, steel-reinforced concrete walls. I must confess that we have a nice bed down there instead of an old army cot that gives off petroleum fumes. But, if you look close enough, you’ll find a kerosene lamp on a shelf and a can of peaches beside it – just in case.
Jerry Crownover farms in Lawrence County. He is a former professor of Agriculture Education at Missouri State University, and is an author and professional speaker. To contact Jerry, go to and click on ‘Contact Us.’


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