The day a piece of my past blew away

By Matt Dunn ( When I’d heard that a tornado had passed through Holly, Colorado last week, cutting a 300-yard wide swath through the center of town, I wondered if my grandfather’s former home might have been spared. The next day’s photos in the Rocky Mountain News, sitting in the reception area of my dental office, showed that it had not been.

On page 4 and page 8, the views of Roy Dunn’s former home marked a melancholy spectacle. One corner room still had four walls around it – the room I stayed in when helping out on wheat harvests – but the rest were long gone. (See also items 3, 5, and 7 in this online slide show.)

Setting foot in Holly a few days later, I walked towards the intersection of Park Avenue and Highland Street, hoping to get a last look at the old family outpost before its remnant bricks and bits of drywall were to be hauled away.

The town I once knew was scarcely recognizable. Some houses were reduced to nothing but foundation, some were missing windows and roofs, while others showed holes in their sides from projectiles having passed through. Street signs were gone, trees and phone poles had been snapped like toothpicks, the windows of dozens of parked cars had fractured into thousands of glass cubes spread on the ground around them.

Talking briefly with one Holly resident, he mentioned that one of his neighbors had a phone call from near Dodge City, Kansas – over 100 miles away – where someone found a cancelled check in their yard and called the number. “Sent by air mail,” the fellow chuckled.

In the jumbles of wreckage I noticed a red fragment of a PlayStation DVD, presumably a neighborhood grade-schooler’s, on the edge of a grass lawn. I visited with an emergency volunteer as she combed the ground for stray bullets and shotgun shells, placing them in a burlap bag. She didn’t want any kids playing with those.

Walking on, I realized I’d marched past my destination without having any idea of where I was. Backtracking a bit, through the traffic of energetic volunteers, came the jolting view that the one-time center of countless family gatherings simply wasn’t there anymore, nor were several of the neighboring homes.

Roy Dunn came to the southeastern Colorado plains in the 1940s to experiment with dryland wheat farming. Working then as a professional heavyweight wrestler, crisscrossing America on an unpredictable schedule, he figured he could tend to his land between matches.

The experiment proved a success, and for upwards of 60 years he raised crop after crop of golden Colorado wheat.

As a teenager I was routinely dispatched from the Denver suburbs to partake in the family farming enterprise, putting in plenty of hot hours alone on a tractor. During harvests, my job was to help haul grain from the combines to the Co-Op’s.

It was fantastic work, as far as I was concerned. No matter how hot it got, no matter how many biting flies swirled around the tractor cab, it was genuine adult responsibility – and great excitement to be out of the suburbs. With the tractor radio stuck on the same station each year, I eventually developed an abiding love of AM country music.

I also developed a sense of awe at the miracles of agriculture, having absorbed many a grandfatherly sermon on the proper way to “raise wheat.”

After sundown, I’d often join my grandfather on evening drives around Holly to inspect “the weather.” He was an expert at gauging the distances of cloudbanks, and at predicting how much rain might be expected in each corner of his land. It was the farmer’s job to adapt his fields as perfectly as possible to what Mother Nature had to offer. A similar job, in many respects, to his former profession of wrestling.

Not long after my grandfather passed away six years ago, at the age of 90, Keith and Renee Denis moved into the house. I was able to chat with Keith and Renee on their front lawn, as a bulldozer was busy knocking down their remaining few walls.

On Wednesday night when they heard an unusual train-like noise in the neighborhood, they thought they might get into their car and drive a ways out of town. On their way to the garage door, windows started to shatter. A second or two later, the roof blew off the house.

Holding onto one another, they felt themselves being lifted upwards, as if gravity had shifted into reverse. Thankfully, around then, the interior wall to the garage came down on top of them, pinning them to the floor, holding them stationary.

Renee attributes the falling wall to having saved their lives. No matter what had happened to their house and all of their bestrewn belongings, they would yet live to talk about their encounter and start the process of rebuilding their lives.

Remaining upbeat, Renee looked forward to a new house, hinting to her husband that “a walk-in closet” might be a nice addition. “And a basement too,” Keith added.

The residents of rural, agricultural Colorado are all-too-familiar with the workings of Mother Nature. Meteorology is the undisputed anchor of the economy, and topic number one in town cafes. Day in and day out the weather is discussed, monitored, scrutinized – and always accepted.

Some crop years are better than others, and sometimes storms grow violent. It’s just the way nature works. You grow and build when you can, you rebuild when you need to.

During his 37 years of living in Holly, my grandfather witnessed many a tornado in the area, but none that had ever made it to town. The luck of the draw, I suppose. Though there was one tragic fatality from Wednesday’s unwelcome visitor, there could easily have been dozens more.

Driving back towards Denver that night, remembering the family camaraderie of yesterday’s wheat harvests, saddened with pictures of the new devastation – the muffled steel guitars on the AM country radio station sounded the way they always had, in the only place where they can sound just that way, out there on Colorado’s flattened southeastern plains.