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April 27, 1995

I believe it was in the late 1940s, maybe the early 1950s, when Perry citizens grew uneasy about the possibility of a tornado. Radio stations and TV had only recently started issuing public storm warnings. The competition among them to be first on the air with one of those announcements led to such a frenzy of breathless heralds of doom that the entire populace of this state bordered on hysteria whenever a cloud appeared in the blue. You know, pretty much like it is today when Gary, Mike and the others break in on regular programming to tell us it's raining somewhere.

Blackwell, our neighbor to the north, was devastated by a funnel one spring and that seemed to bring home the reality of it all. It dawned on many of us that it could indeed happen here. Not everyone trusted the radio-TV weather prophets. (Sound familiar?) But on the other hand, we didn't want to be wiped out by one of those terrible twisters, either. So the local citizenry and Civil Defense came up with a plan for a homegrown warning system.

Key to the program was a group of daring storm watchers to be recruited and trained in weather observation. When thunder boomers were imminent, the spotters were dispatched to strategic areas around town to report on the storm's path of travel and to attempt to gauge its speed. At the appropriate moment, storm sirens at the fire station were sounded and we all headed for the cellar or some other designated place of safety.

It was decided that a sort of command post was needed for all this, so a location was selected near the new city water tower on Fifteenth street, believed to be one of the highest elevations around town. There a steel tower, perhaps 20 feet tall, was erected, topped by a platform, also of steel, providing a crow's nest for a storm spotter to stand with a two-way radio strapped onto him. The radio required a long antenna to communicate with the CD center at the fire station. So what we had was a man standing at the highest point in Perry on a steel tower with a metal radio antenna waving over his head, sort of a human lightning rod. Thinking back on it now, it was like a sacrificial offering to appease the weather gods. It sounds bizarre today, but at the time it must have seemed like a good idea.

The public apparently agreed, too, because a group of private citizens formed what they called "Operation 'Fraidy Hole, Inc.," and sold "shares" at $10 each to pay for the construction of the tower. The needed funds were quickly raised, and each shareholder received a certificate. I've still got one somewhere. Lawyer Al T. Singletary and Civil Defense leader George Butler helped greatly with the project. They did what they thought was right and in the light of those times it was an appropriate response to the challenge.

Fortunately, lightning never struck an observer on our tower and after it was realized that the tower was not such a good idea, the structure was torn down. Shareholders never received a cash dividend, but on the other hand we did escape demolition in a storm.

We have come a long way since then. The point of this column is to lead into a review of how our local storm warning system has grown up and improved with new technology and better understanding of how storms behave. In a subsequent column, I'll pass along some information along that line.

In the meantime, if the storm sirens are blown, take the appropriate action and protect yourself. Our local spotters don't sound the alarm unless there is a genuine threat heading this way.