(Pictured: This is not the tornado that struck my family’s farm 50 years ago today, although it looms that large in my memory.)
April 11, 1965 was Palm Sunday. Across the middle of the country, it’s the first warm spring day. In an old schoolhouse near his ranch in Texas, President Johnson signs the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s first law federally funding schools. Johnson, who had been a teacher himself as a young man, is joined for the ceremony by his first teacher. In today’s Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown battles the kite-eating tree. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford speaks at a dinner in Chicago and encourages support for the Israel Bonds Program. In his mostly lighthearted speech he compares Israel, “surrounded by a numerically larger and hostile army,” to the Congressional GOP, whom Ford says are similarly outnumbered by the Democrats. A gigantic tornado outbreak strikes the Midwest. Over approximately 11 hours, 47 tornadoes are reported from Iowa to Ohio. Storms in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio come with winds in excess of 200 MPH, and 271 people are killed. The most fatalities occur in Indiana, including 36 in and around Elkhart. Among the first communities to be hit is Monroe, Wisconsin, about 2:00 in the afternoon. The tornado carves a 27-mile path through Green, Rock, and Dane counties, destroying or damaging homes, businesses, and over 400 cars. Forty injuries are reported, but no fatalities. Winds in the Monroe tornado are estimated to have reached over 100 MPH.
A Texas entrepreneur announces the formation of the United States Football League, which will have six franchises in major cities. It is to begin play in the spring of 1966 with its championship game on Memorial Day, but the new professional league will never get off the ground. Conference finals continue in the National Basketball Association. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers take 3-2 leads in their respective series with wins today. In the National Hockey League, the Detroit Red Wings beat the Chicago Black Hawks 4-2 to take a 3-2 lead in their semifinal series. Marvin Panch wins the NASCAR Atlanta 500. Baseball’s regular season begins tomorrow; today the Chicago Cubs acquire pitcher Ted Abernathy from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for cash.
On TV tonight, ABC broadcasts Wagon Train and the sitcom Broadside, about a group of Navy WAVES assigned to a base in the South Pacific. Bonanza anchors NBC’s lineup. On CBS tonight, following Lassie and My Favorite Martian, Ed Sullivan welcomes Gerry and the Pacemakers (who are promoting their movie Ferry Cross the Mersey), Maurice Chevalier, and Soupy Sales among his guests. In London, the Beatles close the annual all-star concert presented by New Musical Express, which features the winners of the magazine’s annual popularity poll. It’s the third year the Beatles have appeared. Also on the bill: the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, Them, the Animals, the Kinks, and several other acts.
At WRIT in Milwaukee, several of the acts from the NME show are on the station’s latest survey. “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddie and the Dreamers is #1; “Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders moves to #2. The hottest record on the chart is “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits, moving from #20 to #3. (Herman’s version of “Silhouettes” makes another strong move, from #32 to 20.) Also new in the Top 10 are “Go Now” by the Moody Blues and “The Clapping Song” by Shirley Ellis. Also moving up: “Count Me In” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (to #22 from #34).
Perspective From the Present: The National Weather Service in Kansas City and local weather bureaus knew about the ripe conditions for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, so at about 10:45AM, they issued a Severe Weather Forecast, which was standard operating procedure at the time. At 1:00, they updated it to say that “one or two tornadoes” might occur, but they identified a huge area of threat—essentially from Madison to Peoria and Cedar Rapids to Chicago, about 50,000 square miles. But by then, tornadoes were already hitting Iowa. (My family and I heard that updated forecast on a Rockford, Illinois, radio station in the car on the way back from our Sunday dinner.) Further alerts were issued as the storms moved across Illinois and Indiana, but the terminology wasn’t clear enough about the urgency of the situation, and as a result, many people were unaware just how dangerous the storms were. In the aftermath, the National Weather Service devised the tornado watch and tornado warning terminology that we use today.
My first baseball glove, which I would get when I started playing organized ball three or four years hence, was a Ted Abernathy autographed model.
I wrote here recently about the 50th anniversary of my hometown’s high school basketball team winning the state championship—an event I have no memory of. Three weeks after that, however, came the first event of my life on which I can hang a precise date and say yes, that I definitely remember. It will be 50 years tomorrow.
April 11, 1965, was Palm Sunday. We’d been to church and Sunday school, and it’s likely that we little kids were given palm fronds to wave in a procession intended to remind us of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. So the five-year-old me was likely holding one as we rode from Monroe to Monticello, a little town up the road, for a special Sunday dinner out. I was in the back seat of a strange car, for my parents’ 1957 Ford something-or-other was in the shop and they were driving a loaner. My brother, not quite three, was probably at large in the back seat just like I was: there were no child seats and often no seat belts in those days.
After dinner at the Casino, your basic Wisconsin supper club, with the relish tray that came to your table, the basket of individually wrapped breadsticks and crackers, and the inevitable fried chicken I would have ordered, we drove the 15 minutes or so back home. The radio was on, and as we pulled into the garage, we heard the announcer talk about the possibility of bad weather in the Rockford area. “Where’s Rockford?” I asked. “It’s about 50 miles away,” my mother said. Implicit in her tone: “Don’t worry.”
We went inside and my mother put my brother down for nap. I flicked on the TV, picked up a book, and sat down on the couch.
I am not sure how much time had passed when the TV suddenly snapped off. “Hey!” I said. I saw my father looking out of the kitchen window toward the west. “Head for the cellar!” he cried. My mother’s voice came from down the hall where the bedrooms were. “What?” My father again, more urgent this time: “Grab Danny and head for the cellar!” The four of us hurried down the basement steps, but before we reached the bottom, we heard a crash behind us. We went to the southwest corner and waited. I didn’t know what was happening, and I don’t remember what I heard.
We’d been down there maybe five minutes before Dad declared it was safe to go back up. The crash we had heard was a single window being blown in, but the house was relatively unscathed. However, the roof was partly off our barn, and a machine shed that sat a few feet from the house was destroyed. Up the road, our neighbor’s farm buildings were a pile of rubble and the roof was completely torn off their house.
Those few minutes are remembered in my hometown, and by my family, as the Palm Sunday Tornado. My father had seen the top of the cloud, and we assume the tornado had been on the ground at the neighbors’. He told me years later that as we huddled in the basement, he was sure our roof was going to go, or worse—but the tornado must have hopped back up in the air to pass over our farm before touching down again on the west side of Monroe, where it did extensive damage. (Fortunately, nobody died, at least not in my town.)
Like the electricity, the telephone was out, so my father would have gone to the other side of the farm, where his parents lived, to check on them. It wasn’t long before my maternal grandparents pulled into the driveway from their home 30 minutes away, having heard on the radio that a tornado had struck southwest of Monroe. They were worried when they were unable to get us on the phone.
That night, my father’s cows went unmilked for the only time in his 50-plus years as a dairy farmer. The next morning, he managed to re-jigger the vacuum-powered windshield wipers on his old farm truck to generate enough vacuum to power a single milking machine. That day, we were issued passes to display on our vehicles saying we had the right to be in the area. The idea was to keep gawkers away and discourage looting. Although there was some of the latter (people were seen taking cheese from a damaged factory after the storm on Sunday), the former was a greater problem. Despite appeals to stay away, gawkers clogged Monroe’s main highways and arterial streets on Easter weekend, and extra sheriff’s deputies had to be called in for traffic control.
The machine shed was rebuilt. The barn was re-roofed. Life eventually returned to normal. And now 50 years have passed since that very vivid day.
Coming tomorrow: what happened elsewhere on April 11, 1965.
(Pictured: It was a day of showdowns—LBJ vs. George Wallace, UCLA vs. Michigan, and Matt Dillon vs. a bad guy. Perhaps not a day in your life, but definitely in mine.)
March 20, 1965, is a Saturday. Ahmadou Ahidjo is reelected president of Cameroon. In the United States, President Johnson announces that he will call up units of the Alabama National Guard to supervise a third civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery that is set to begin tomorrow. The first march two weeks ago turned violent when state troopers attacked marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. After making the announcement at the Texas White House, Johnson also discusses the situation in Vietnam and announces several federal appointments before taking questions from reporters. NASA continues preparations for tomorrow’s launch of Ranger 9, which will be the last of several probes sent to photograph the moon before intentionally being crashed into it. In today’s Peanuts strip, Lucy continues her weeklong battle against Linus’ security blanket. Inventor Leandro Malicay of Los Angeles files a patent application for a coconut shredding device. Fans of the the Chicago Cubs are mourning the death of play-by-play announcer Jack Quinlan, who died in a traffic accident last night in Arizona. He was 38, and had done Cubs games on radio since 1952. Actress Dorothy Malone of Peyton Place is on the cover of TV Guide.
Bonanza tops the primetime lineup on NBC tonight; CBS has episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Gunsmoke. In southern Wisconsin, regular programming on the local ABC affiliate is pre-empted by coverage of the state boys’ basketball tournament. Monroe completes an undefeated season by winning the championship 74-71 over Eau Claire Memorial. In Portland, Oregon, UCLA wins the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball championship over Michigan 91-80. It’s the second straight NCAA championship for UCLA. In the consolation game between losers of the national semifinals, Princeton beat Wichita State, 118-82. Princeton’s Bill Bradley is named the tournament’s most outstanding player. St. John’s defeats Villanova 55-51 to win the NIT.
Bob Dylan plays Buffalo, New York. The Motortown Revue, starring the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, and Stevie Wonder, begins its three-week tour of Europe at Astoria Hall in Finsbury Park, England. Judy Garland wraps up a week of appearances at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami. At WMCA in New York, B. Mitchel Reid does his last show before returning to KWFB in Los Angeles, from which he’d come two years before. “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes is #1 on the WMCA survey dated March 18; two other Motown songs are also in the Top 10: “Shotgun” by Junior Walker & the All-Stars at #7 and “My Girl” by the Temptations at #9. Three British Invasion stars are in the Top 10 also: the Beatles with “Eight Days a Week” at #3, Freddie and the Dreamers with “I’m Telling You Now” at #4, and Herman’s Hermits with “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” at #5. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” are also in the WMCA Top 10.
Perspective From the Present: Although Monroe has won state boys’ and girls’ basketball championships in more recent times, the 1965 team retains a great hold on the imagination of the locals. It was a one-class tournament back then, which meant that Monroe, a town of about 8,000 then, was competing against much bigger schools. (Monroe’s win came in the middle of a stretch in which Milwaukee Lincoln, a school that no longer exists, won four championships in seven years; one of the other schools qualifying for the 1965 tournament was the suburban Milwaukee school Wauwatosa East, my wife’s alma mater.) Thousands of fans greeted the champs when they returned to town on Sunday riding aboard a fire truck. The caravan of cars that greeted them as they came down Highway 69 is fondly remembered around town. Although I have no memory of it, my family was in one of them. Years later, the team picture of the 1965 champions would look down on us in the high school cafeteria every day.
(Pictured: the Electric Light Orchestra takes a bow in February 1977.)
February 28, 1977, is a Monday. President Jimmy Carter is in the Oval Office by 7AM today; his agenda includes afternoon meetings with five Democratic governors in town for the National Governors’ Conference, and with Mr. and Mrs. John Denver. At a press briefing, Carter’s deputy press secretary Walter Wurfel is asked about Carter’s statement during his presidential campaign that he would make available “every piece of information this country has” about UFO sightings. Wurfel says Carter was referring only to information that wasn’t “defense sensitive.” Any sensitive information would remain secret. Carter has family time in the evening, including about an hour in the White House bowling alley with the First Lady, his son Jeff, and other guests. Future country star Jason Aldean is born; Jack Benny’s sidekick Eddie “Rochester” Anderson dies at age 71. Linda Ronstadt is on the cover of Time; the cover story about her has a distinctly sexist edge. Ralph Nader is on the cover of People. In today’s Peanuts strip, Snoopy and Woodstock converse.
Jack Albertson of Chico and the Man gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On Dinah!, Dinah Shore welcomes author Alex Haley and several members of the cast of Roots, which aired last month and became a cultural phenomenon. Merv Griffin welcomes country singer Mel Tillis, actor David Soul, and Ed McMahon. On CBS tonight, long-running hits The Jeffersons and Maude are sandwiched around two newer sitcoms, Busting Loose, starring Adam Arkin as a young man who’s just moved out of his parents’ house, and All’s Fair, starring Richard Crenna and Bernadette Peters as a conservative newspaper columnist and liberal photographer who fall in love despite their political and age differences.
Ray Charles plays the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles; during the show, a fan jumps on stage with a rope and tries to strangle him. Concert security subdues the man before Charles is injured. The concert continues without further incident and no police report is ever filed. In Toronto, Keith Richards is arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play St. Louis. Genesis plays Buffalo, New York. The Electric Light Orchestra concludes a three-night stand at the Uptown Theater in Chicago. At WABC in New York City, George Michael is on the evening shift. On the station’s new Musicradio survey, officially out tomorrow, “Torn Between Two Lovers” by Mary Macgregor holds at #1 for a fourth week; “New Kid in Town” by the Eagles, which tops the Billboard Hot 100, holds at #2. The hottest song on the survey is Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” moving to #7 from #17. Also new in the Top 10: “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart at #8. The survey lists the Top 10 albums but doesn’t number them; first on the list is the soundtrack from A Star Is Born. Also listed: Hotel California, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Songs in the Key of Life, Boston, Rumours, Year of the Cat, Night Moves, Wings Over America, and Jethro Tull’s Songs From the Wood.
Perspective From the Present: The album charts from the winter of 1977 remain astounding after all this time. One album not listed is one I wanted for quite a while and received for my birthday, probably during the weekend before: Olé ELO, a compilation by the Electric Light Orchestra. My girlfriend gave it to me under protest, saying that an album didn’t seem like a personal-enough gift. Although I don’t recall the details after all this time, she probably gave me other, more personal gifts that weekend as well.
(Pictured: the space shuttle Challenger peers through the fog as it awaits launch.)
January 23, 1986, is a Thursday. In men’s college basketball, Minnesota beats Wisconsin 67-65 in Madison. Tomorrow, three Minnesota players will be arrested for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at a hotel after the game. Minnesota will forfeit its scheduled game against Northwestern on Sunday, and coach Jim Dutcher will resign over the incident. Scientists examining photos of Uranus taken by the Voyager II spacecraft discover a new moon orbiting the planet, which will be named Bianca. The launch of the space shuttle Challenger is postponed for a second straight day. It will be postponed three more times before being launched on
Monday, Tuesday, when it will explode 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew. The New York Times reports that claims by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos that he was a guerrilla resistance leader during the World War II Japanese occupation of the Philippines are false. The federal government reported yesterday that the economy grew in 1985 at the slowest rate since the recession year of 1982. In Gainesville, Florida, police dog Gero is killed in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. In today’s Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin tries a new plan to get out of going to school.
In Los Angeles, Luther Vandross has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving after a crash earlier this month that killed one person and injured four others. In December, he will plead no contest and get probation. The first class is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, and John Hammond. The Beatles are ineligible because by rule, inductees must be at least 25 years removed from their first hit record. Three days before the Super Bowl, the opposing quarterbacks, Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears and Tony Eason of the New England Patriots, appear on the Today Show along with NFL wives and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On TV tonight, ABC airs the movie Grease 2 and 20/20; NBC’s lineup includes The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues; CBS airs Magnum P. I., Simon and Simon, and Knots Landing.
AC/DC plays Edinburgh, Scotland, and Hot Tuna plays Boston. Motley Crue plays Essen, Germany, and KISS plays St. Louis. Aerosmith plays Reno, Nevada, and Stevie Ray Vaughan plays Utica, New York. At WKTI in Milwaukee, the station’s new music survey comes out tomorrow. “Burning Heart” by Survivor leaps to #1, displacing “Goodbye” by Night Ranger. The biggest mover in the Top 10 is “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, moving from #7 to #2. New in the Top 10 are “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean at #8 and “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister at #9. The biggest mover within the station’s Top 30 is “These Dreams” by Heart (#26 to #19). Also moving up big are “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy (to #12 from #18) and “Nikita” by Elton John (to #23 from #29). The highest debuting new song of the week is “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade at #26.
Perspective From the Present: In January 1986, I had just begun doing the morning show on WKAI. I pushed the buttons on a 90-minute farm and news block from 5:30 to 7AM, then did what was intended to be a wacky morning show from 7 to 10. As I have noted before, my partner and I weren’t being coached by anybody, and whatever entertaining stuff we came up with was mostly by accident. My working day was usually over between 12:30 and 1:00. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional magazine, so I’d get home in the afternoon to a quiet house and usually take a nap. Because I was program director, I was on call 24/7, so my naps were frequently interrupted. In January, I would have still put up with those interruptions. It wasn’t until spring that I started taking my phone off the hook. In later years I’ve realized that my career was never the same after that. I was never again as obsessed with radio as I had been until then.
(Pictured: a home alight for Christmas in 1972. One year later, the lights would be dimmed, and so would the American future.)
Last December, I wrote about how the holiday season of 1973 was a difficult one in America. On Monday, December 24, 1973, the evidence is right there on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal: “Persian Gulf Oil Prices Doubled.” OPEC’s gift to the West was to announce on Sunday that effective January 1, the new price per barrel would be $11.65, up from the current price of $5.11, which had represented a huge increase when it was announced in October, just after the Yom Kippur War. Related, at the bottom of the page, is the headline “Kissinger to Push Talks,” over a story about the latest Middle East peace efforts. Inside the paper is an article about preparations for the return of daylight time in January as an energy-saving measure.
All of that, however, represented only the most recent gut-punches in a year that was full of them. Although President Nixon had proclaimed “peace with honor” in Vietnam in January and the POWs had come home to great fanfare shortly after, we’d clearly lost the war, try as we might to deny it, or to cloak it in euphemisms about failing to accomplish our objectives. Watergate snowballed from political scandal in the winter to Constitutional crisis by fall. The dollar was officially devalued 10 percent, and the Great Inflation was increasing the price of everything and had doubled the price of meat.
But there is less ominous news in the paper, too. The Skylab astronauts are spending Christmas in orbit. (The distemper of 1973 even reaches into space: shortly after Christmas, the astronauts will go on strike, shutting down their communications and taking an unscheduled day off to protest the 16-hour workdays NASA demanded of them.) An article on an inside page is headlined “Big Foot Might Exist.” Pairings are set for the NFC and AFC Championship games on December 30th after Minnesota, Dallas, Oakland, and Miami won playoff games over the pre-Christmas weekend. A winter storm is moving through the central part of the country, and what the weather service calls a “travelers’ advisory” has been posted for southern Wisconsin, with a threat of freezing rain and snow.
If you go to the movies in Madison tonight or tomorrow, you can see Papillon, American Graffiti, The Sting, The Way We Were, Magnum Force—or Sex Clinic ’74, which seems to be a German film dubbed into English, although the dialogue is probably beside the point. If you watch TV tonight, you can see Gunsmoke and Medical Center or various Christmas specials—and Christmas music and/or church services on all three networks after the late news.
We do not have a Madison radio survey to go by, but we can guess what Madison’s radio stations were playing, based on the WLS survey from Chicago dated December 22, where Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” ascends to #1, knocking out Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.” Two of the hottest records on the survey have leaped into the top 10: “One Tin Soldier” by Coven to #7 from #19, and “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce to #9 from #20. (Croce’s album I Got a Name jumps from #6 to #1, dethroning The Singles: 1969-1973 by the Carpenters.) Other big upward movers on the singles chart are “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
On an inside page of the State Journal from 41 years ago today, an Associated Press story is headlined, “This Year’s Christmas Is Only Outwardly Dim.” and it quotes a couple of religious leaders on the crisis facing America: “We seem to be surrounded by a creeping ugliness in our affairs,” says one. “The hard truth is that a sense of desolation has come upon many.” But as religious leaders do, they remain optimistic: “The hope and eternal promise of Christmas are ours today as in all the years past. The fulfilling of them is up to ourselves.”
Honesty compels me to report that sounds like the lines Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield will write in a couple of years: “Hallelujah Noel be it heaven or hell / The Christmas we get we deserve.”
May you get the one you deserve this year, with those you’d most like to get it from.