June 14, somewhere north of Martin, S.D. – We engaged in a little backtracking today before leaving Nebraska. We drove eight miles west to the hamlet of Nenzel and parked next to a quaint little park bordering U.S. 20, which coincidentally is the official population of Nenzel.
We stopped here briefly Tuesday night, when lightning was menacing the western sky. It didn’t feel right, so we continued on a bit farther till we stumbled into Cody, the town that’s too tough to die.
Tomorrow marks the 51st anniversary of Nenzel’s big day. On June 15, 1962, a tornado ripped through town and fuzzed the place something good. At least that’s how old Tom Huffman says it.
I found out about the Nenzel tornado yesterday, when I was talking with Mary Van Winkle at the Circle C grocery store in Cody. That’s a pretty good story in itself, one I’ll get to later. Mary told me her grandfather was the mayor of Nenzel for 63 years, until his death in 1992. Used to be the smallest incorporated town in the state.
She has a pretty good story about the night her family nearly forgot all about her as the big storm descended on Nenzel. She was a baby, so she has relied on the accounts provided by her family.
“It happened at night,” she said. “We had just finished supper. My mom had just washed all the winter clothes and put them up in the attic. That’s what she remembers. There was a wall in the kitchen between the kitchen and our garage that was attached. And that’s where I was in the high chair. All the sudden it got very still and the sky got pea-green and they all knew to head to the basement. So they all went to the basement and they forgot me. Seriously.
“My oldest sister, Caroline, who was 14 years older than me, remembered me. So she always reminded me that I owed her my life. The story goes that when it was over, that was the only wall that was left standing, and the high chair never moved. it was right there. So I told her, “nice try.”
Tornadoes, they’re awesome forces of nature. Hope I never get in the middle of one.
“My great-uncle used to have the store next to the bar, and I’d love to know what happened to the old photos he had in there,” she said. “There were chickens in masons jars. And my grandpa had hogs at that point, and they were just stabbed to the ground with just pieces of board, and the straw was driven into the walls like nails. Everything was gone.”
She said when she was a kid Nenzel had a population of 28. Once it was bigger, twice the size of Cody, with a lumberyard and a bank and a couple grocery stores. Her father, Dick Kehr, ran Dick’s Bar along with her mom.
“In Nenzel we had two streets, Main and Plum, she said. “My dad used to say ‘when you got to the end of Main, you were plum out of town.’ My dad had an eighth-grade education. He had to leave school to help on my grandpa’s ranch. My mom had a high school degree and a full-ride scholarship to an all-girls college. When they met with the school representatives, he said , ‘Nah, I think she wants to get married.'”
Mary Kehr graduated from Cody-Kilgore High School, class of 1979.
And so we had returned to Nenzel to chase the almost-51-year-old tornado. Schmit’s store, which presumably used to be the site of Mary’s grandpa’s store, is closed. So is the river rafting store across Main. Dick’s Bar across the street has long been closed. It’s not even a bar anymore.
Kim Schmit stopped and asked if we were looking for something.
“We’re looking for Nenzel,” I said.
I asked about the tornado. She said we could talk to her husband, but he wouldn’t be home for hours. She suggested we knock on Tom Huffman’s door. He lives in a house on a hill on the east flank of Nenzel.
At Max’s insistence, we frolicked in the playground for a few minutes before setting off through Tom’s and then skirting around the highway side of his house before our full U brought us to his front door. I knocked. He answered.
He said the tornado “fuzzed the town up pretty good.” Fuzzed up the Catholic Church. Fuzzed up his house. Fuzzed up the town right proper.
He said we could come in, but said he was in the middle of dinner. Even I’m not that rude. He wasn’t here when the tornado came through, he lived outside of town on a ranch.
We had a nice chat. His daughter lives in Silverdale, Wash., where I lived for six months in 1995. He talked about how she used to live in Kirkland, and all he had to do was get on I-90 and ride it all the way to exit 11 make a turn or two and be at her door.
Old Tom had a sourness about him, but he was a good egg to stand on his porch and accommodate our curiosity. He talked about getting caught up in a variable interest rate mortgage in the 1970s and losing his ranch. He muttered something derisive about our “great financial system.” For a second, I thought we were kindred spirits. Seventy-seven-year-old Tom Huffman has a firm handshake. Seems to be a solid, salt-of-the-earth citizen. Only kind they grow out here, David Brooks told me.
“The best way to see the country is in a Peterbilt truck,” he said. “I drove a Peterbilt for 15 years from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Canada, hauling grain. I had to do something after I lost my ranch.”
And Tom was kind enough to give us the benefit of his travels in western South Dakota. Said we shouldn’t miss the Badlands or the Black Hills. I nodded my head, smiled and said we’d do our best.
Tom also said we should go to Custer State Park. They got donkeys there. Best thing about that, he said, is kids can use the word “ass” without fear of parental reprisal. Because, you know, donkeys are asses.
More than he knew, that would be right up Max’s alley.
He said we might talk to Mary Nollete, who’s 85, or her son, Tim. They would know something. Mary, at least, bore first-hand witness to the fierce tornado. We would make the effort after saying goodbye to Tom, to no avail.
We stood there on Tom’s porch for 20 minutes chatting while his dinner got cold. Perhaps we should’ve just come in and made ourselves at home.
He said the population of Nenzel slipped as low as 8, before a preacher moved to town with his wife and five kids.
Then, without any warning signs, he said: “What do you think of Obama and all his scandals in Washington?”
It had been a while since someone came right out in the open with a distressing political broadside. Sure, my Cody friend Ron Schneider hinted around the fringes about government regulation and wrongheaded federal programs. But he had the decency to pull his punches.
I smiled again. I confessed I am no fan of Obama, but probably for different reasons. He said he was cool with the president. Sort of.
“I have nothing against Obama, because he’s not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes,” he said. “He said what he planned to do. He said he wanted to create a socialistic system. And that’s what he’s doing.”
I smiled again. If only, I whispered. I suggested we agree to loathe Obama and not show our work. I never raised my voice, I retained a genial expression throughout. Though I might’ve uttered something about Obamacare being corporate socialism.
But I detected no hard feelings. I had certainly had none.
We shook hands a few more times. I liked shaking his hand. Good, firm handshake, the kind you might seal a business deal with.
We said we’d go look for the donkeys in the Black Hills, and he wished us a safe trip. We even took a few photographs.
As we walked down his driveway toward Highway 20, Max offered his benediction:
“Let’s go see some ass.”