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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Tornado Edition

It is believed that a journal entry made by Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop on July 5, 1643, is the first recorded sighting of a tornado in what would become the United States. Winthrop was something of a weather geek and had begun keeping a daily diary of atmospheric conditions while aboard the Arabella en route to the New World in 1630. Winthrop’s report that July day read:

"There arose a sudden gust at N.W. so violent for half an hour as it blew down multitudes of trees. It lifted up their meeting house at Newbury, the people being in it. It darkened the air with dust, yet through God's great mercy it did no hurt, but only killed one Indian with the fall of a tree. It was straight between Linne [Lynn] and Hampton."

Winthrop didn’t mention a funnel-shaped cloud or a whirlwind (of course, he also stated that no one was hurt except for the Native American that was killed, so maybe descriptive prose wasn’t his forte). Nevertheless, most historians agree that the traveling, destructive wind Winthrop had witnessed was, in fact, a tornado.

The First Forecast

It seems unbelievable today, but as recently as 1940 Americans were dangerously ignorant of any approaching funnel clouds.

In fact, the word “tornado” was not even allowed to be mentioned in any weather broadcasts. That’s because the U.S. government, in all its wisdom, believed that merely uttering the word over the airwaves would set off a widespread panic. Of course, part of the problem was that the Weather Bureau (precursor to the National Weather Service) just didn’t have the technology necessary to accurately predict when a thunderstorm might turn deadly.

It wasn’t until 1942 that the Navy gave the Weather Bureau 25 surplus aircraft radars, which were then modified for ground meteorological use. On the evening of March 20, 1948, meteorologists Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller were on duty at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when they issued a base-wide report of 35 mph gusting winds without thunderstorms. At 9:00PM weather stations 20 miles southwest of their location reported lightning, and at 9:30 those same stations were pummeled by thunderstorms. By the time the Tinker AN-PQ-13 radar picked up the storm cells, a tornado had touched down at nearby Will Rogers Airport and quickly made its way to the base where it ultimately caused $10 million in damage. The financial fiasco prompted the Commanding General to “urge” his meteorological team to find a way to better predict such disastrous storms.

Fawbush and Miller spent the next 72 hours poring over surface and upper-air weather charts and compared them to charts from previous tornadic outbreaks. They found some definite similarities in weather patterns preceding each storm and, more importantly, on March 25, just five days after that twister had touched down on the base, they noted the same patterns on that morning’s weather charts. The two were most reluctant to issue an official warning since such a prediction had never before been broadcast, and besides, what were the odds of a tornado striking in the same place twice within a week?

Finally, with a feeling of dread, they sent out a carefully worded teletype warning of the possible impending storm. Although skeptical of the advisory, base officials diverted incoming aircraft, picked up loose objects and moved personnel to safe locations. Much to everyone’s surprise, a tornado did in fact touch down at Tinker Air Force Base shortly after 6:00PM that evening, causing $6 million in damage but no injuries. No one before had accurately predicted the likelihood of a tornado, much less early enough to warn local residents, and Fawbush and Miller became instant heroes in the meteorological community.

Hold It, Flash, Bang, Wallop!

The first tornado ever photographed touched ground in what is now South Dakota on August 28, 1884, and unbelievably – considering the cumbersome cameras of the day – not one but two shutterbugs were on the scene.

Several storm systems converged over the southeastern corner of the Dakota Territory that fateful day, resulting in at least four very strong tornadoes that resulted in six deaths and extensive property damage. Photographer J.C. Judkin captured a tintype image of one twister that struck near the city of Huron around 3:00PM, but the picture was ultimately lost by the folks Judkin had entrusted it to for engraving. Meanwhile, in nearby Howard City another camera buff named F.N. Robinson set up his equipment in the middle of a street intersection with the help of an assistant. According to Signal Corps weather observers the Howard twister was visible for an extended period of time on the horizon as it approached the city, which is probably why Robinson was able to snap three exposures of it. The clouds above the funnel in the one surviving photograph were retouched when it was originally developed, as was the standard practice at the time. (Image: F.N. Robinson photo 8/24/1884, Howard City, Dakota Territory)

We Interrupt This Program…

Only a few weeks after signing on as WKY-TV’s weatherman, Harry Volkman made broadcast history. The Oklahoma City station was near enough to Tinker Field that they could pick up weather alerts issued to personnel at the Air Force Base. On the afternoon of March 21, 1952, station manager P.A. “Buddy” Sugg learned that a “tornado risk” for central Oklahoma had been announced by meteorologists at the Base and he instructed Volkman to relay the information on the air. Volkman hesitated, worried that he could very well be arrested (since the word “tornado” was still officially verboten by the FCC), but Sugg told him, “They’d arrest me, not you; you’re just following my orders.”

Harry Volkman informed viewers of the impending storm, using the word “tornado” during a weather broadcast for the first time and probably saving some lives in the process, as that particular storm system ended up being the ninth deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history.

Choosing Words Carefully

April 11, 1965, was an unseasonably warm spring day (temperatures in the upper 80s) that had followed an unusually short winter in the Midwest. It was also Palm Sunday, which meant a lot of people were attending church services and weren’t near a radio or television. Those who were at home watching TV received conflicting messages from their local weather bulletins—some stations posted a “tornado alert” while others called the approaching storm system a “tornado forecast.” All of these factors added up to a string of 47 tornadoes that struck in less than 12 hours, killing a combined 271 people in Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.

A meeting was held after the disaster at the WMT studios in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with officials from the Kansas City Severe Storms Forecast Center and WMT meteorologist Conrad Johnson and news director Grant Price. Together they came up with a proposed nation-wide terminology when it came to twisters: a “watch” indicated that the weather conditions were such that a tornado might form, and a “warning” meant that a funnel cloud had definitely been spotted. The National Weather Service formally adopted the criteria recommended by the team later that year and went to work educating the public on the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.

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A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut
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In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.

But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.

That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."

Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."

The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."

Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.


At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."

The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."

The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.

It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.

Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.

In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."

Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.

Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.

As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

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American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
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The Bold Van Buren Sisters, Who Blazed a Trail Across America
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain

Descendants of American president Martin Van Buren, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren were born into a life of privilege that assured them the safe and respectable existences of society women. But with America on the brink of war, the sisters ditched their gilded cages for a cross-country adventure they hoped would change their beloved nation for the better.

By July 1916, America was readying to enter World War I, and 32-year-old Augusta and 26-year-old Adeline were eager to do their part as motorcycling military dispatch riders, transporting crucial communications to the front line. Women were flat-out barred from combat duty in the U.S., but as bikers with thousands of hours logged on the roaring vehicles, the Van Burens felt they were uniquely qualified for such arduous and dangerous missions. And they were determined to prove it. By the end of their journey, they would become the first women to travel across the country on two solo motorcycles.

Fittingly, Addie and Gussie—as they preferred to be called—set forth on Independence Day. From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they headed to the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. They had top-of-the-line bikes: $275 Indian Power Plus motorcycles that boasted Firestone "non-skid" tires and gas headlights that would allow them to barrel through the darkest nights. They had an indomitable spirit. They had each other. And they'd need all the courage and resources they could muster for this daunting endeavor.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi," their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren explained to the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram of the sisters' epic journey. "The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” The Lincoln Highway was far from the paved superhighways of today. Heavy rain proved a major problem, wiping out roads and throwing the Van Burens off-course and off their bikes. “They had no helmets. They just had goggles with a leather cap and leathers on. They were really exposed to the elements,” Van Buren said. “They had a tough time.” Yet weather and murky maps weren't their only obstacles.

Just west of Chicago, the motorcycling mavens were pulled over by police—not for the way they were driving but for the way they were dressed. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more comfy attire, dresses were still the norm. In some states it was actually illegal for women to wear pants. So the Van Burens' military-style leggings and leather riding breeches got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between arrests and weather delays, the sisters' one-month journey stretched into two.

By August, Addie and Gussie reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and earned their first record, becoming the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle. Running behind schedule, the sisters abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming, favoring a more direct path through the Rockies. Unfortunately, relentless rain transformed the mountains’ dirt paths to sucking mud that mercilessly trapped their tires. Exhausted, freezing, and filthy from their fruitless efforts to free their wheels, the dejected duo was forced to abandon their bikes and seek out help on foot. Hours and miles later, the sisters slid out of the darkness upon the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. They were quite the sight to the awed miners: two angel-faced ladies draped in leather and caked in mud.

The miners offered them rest and food, then helped the sisters free their bikes. But another brush with disaster came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the winds had whisked away the desert's path, and the pair was woefully low on water. Thankfully, their luck held up again: A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

 
Exhausted and elated, Addie and Gussie Van Buren reached San Francisco at long last on September 2, having traveled 5500 miles, and completed their journey on September 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. And still, they pressed on, traveling down to the Mexican border and Tijuana.

Their remarkable ride earned headlines, but much of the media coverage disappointed. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical import of their journey, publishing puff pieces about the ladies' curious "vacation." Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home to "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms." But most vexing, the U.S. government was unmoved, and rejected the Van Burens' application for dispatch service.

Following their cross-country adventure, the boundary-busting sisters pursued new passions. In a time when female lawyers were unheard of, Addie earned her law degree at prestigious New York University. Meanwhile, Gussie became a pilot, flying in Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines, an international organization dedicated to creating a supportive environment and opportunities for aviatrixes. With these accomplishments, each sister added credence to Gussie's famous maxim, "Woman can, if she will."

While their journey didn't deliver the immediate impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. Addie and Gussie's courageous spirit and intense independence is celebrated by descendants and admirers who have kept their legacy alive through cross-country rides that traced their path on the trip's 90th and 100th anniversaries. Plus, both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame in South Dakota and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame of Ohio have posthumously inducted the Van Burens as esteemed members.

Both Addie and Gussie enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them, and family that loved and still rally around them, decades after their deaths at ages 59 and 75 respectively. In their time, these headstrong and hearty sisters witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote. They cheered the female patriots who rushed into the workforce as World War II demanded. They relished in a world that was changing to meet them, the industrious, rebellious, and brave Van Burens.

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