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Blowin' In The Wind

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Blowin' in the Wind

“C'mon, Bill. What'll it hurt for you to meet her?” The college roommates sat on the steps outside the cafeteria at Texas Tech.

Bill Harding shook his head. “I'm not interested, Dusty. I've got too much on my plate already. I don't need any romantic complications.”

“She's pretty. And smart. Pretty and smart's good.” Dustin Davis grinned at his friend. “Bill, she's as intent as you are on finding new ways to predict storms.”

“Give it up. I'm sure she's a lovely girl. Maybe after I get my degree in May.”

“You pass on her now, I won't guarantee someone else won't grab her by then.”

“Someone like you?”

“Don't I wish. Naw, she wouldn't give me the time of day. She's too focused on her own work. Her dad was taken by a tornado when she was a kid. She may even be more motivated than you.”

#

On the other end of campus, a gangling young man had cornered a slim young woman. “He's a senior, Jo, and smart as a whip.”

“How smart is a whip?” Jo frowned. “I'm not interested, Robert.”

He knew she was serious because she used his given name rather than his nickname, Rabbit. “Once he has his degree, I bet he'll go off and do everything you want to.”

“Good for him. But that's no reason for me to want to meet him.”

Rabbit frowned at her. “Do you really think you can go it alone?”

“So, you think we should get together on a professional level?”

He sighed. “You asked for a reason to meet him. Okay. He's good-looking.”

“And you think I care about that?”

“Jo, what do you care about? Besides chasing tornadoes, that is.”

“I repeat. I'm not interested.” She walked off, leaving her friend still frowning.

#

A few hours later, Jo Greene was in the campus library, searching for a book on the history of F5 tornadoes. She finally found the shelf, but as she reached for the book, a larger hand grabbed it.

“Hey, I wanted that.” She glared up at him.

“Well, I did, too.” He waved the book above her grasp. “Do you realize this is the most essential book on the subject?”

She crossed her arms over her narrow chest. “I wouldn't have wanted it otherwise. I need it for a paper I'm doing.”

“Oh, yeah? For what course?”

“Climatology 304.”

He nodded. “Higgins class. I did my paper on the differences between the effects of F4s and F5s.”

“You mean in addition to the force of the wind.” A flicker of interest appeared in her eyes.

“Of course. The damage they do. The destruction of property.”

“What about the destruction of families, huh?” Her eyes narrowed. “You may have studied all of that, but did you ever experience it?” Her voice was intense.

Bill took a step back. Who was this girl? “I've seen a few, done some field work, and seen the results. I'm not unaware of how devastating it can be to the people involved.”

“Well, I was one of those people. It's something you never forget.” She looked down at the floor.

He studied her. Slim, with long, straight blond hair, pretty enough, but that intensity was what drew you to her or pushed you away. At the moment he wasn't sure which it was for him. She intrigued him enough that he felt compelled to hand the book to her. “Why don't you take this. I can always read it when you finish.”

Her eyes flickered as she grabbed it. “Thanks. I'm sorry, I didn't get your name.”

“Bill Harding.” He smiled and held out his hand.

She studied it a few seconds before taking it. “Jo Greene.”

Something clicked in the back of his head. “A friend of mine thought I should meet you, but not like this.”

“Friend?” She frowned.

“Dustin Rhodes.”

“Dusty. Strange guy. Are you as strange?”

He chuckled. “No one's as strange as Dusty.”

“That's probably true.” She smiled for the first time and looked so much prettier.

"He said you were into tornadoes."

"I wouldn't put it that way. They...they fascinate me. And scare me. Someone has to find a way to give people more warning." If anything the intensity in her eyes increased and her lips set in a determined line.

"And you think that someone is you."

She stared at him a full minute. "Yes." Her voice was quiet but there was a lot of emotion in it, a passion that Bill responded to.

"I've been thinking about how to do that."

"You have?" Wary surprise filled her face.

"Yeah." He shook his head. "I'm not sure how, but we have to study what happens inside that funnel and how it relates to the conditions that produce it."

Her face cleared and she nodded. "Well, thanks for the book." She held it up. "I'll get it back quickly."

"You can bring it directly to me." He took out a pad and wrote down his name and phone number. "Call me when you finish, okay?"

"Sure. Sure." She walked away deep in thought.

He watched her go. Interesting girl.

##

Five days later, when Bill's phone rang, he was surprised by the voice at the other end.

"I finished the book. Would you like me to bring it to you?"

He'd been thinking about Jo since he met her in the library, about her determination and interest in tornadoes. "Meet me for coffee at three. Maybe we can talk about it."

She hesitated so long, he thought she was trying to find a way to say no. "Alright. Three at the coffee shop on Elm."

At three exactly he walked through the door of the shop. At first he didn't see her at a table in a far corner. In ten long strides, he reached her. "Afraid to be seen with me?" He smiled as he said it to tell her he was joking.

She looked stricken. "No! I mean, I..." She couldn't come up with a response that didn't confirm what he said.

"That's okay. So, what did you think of the book?"

"Strickland has no idea what he's talking about!" Her sudden animation didn't surprise him. It seemed there was only one subject she could talk about with passion. "Tornadoes don't travel in a straight line, not all of the time. That's why it's so hard to predict where they'll go next."

"What I wonder about is why they sometimes run out of energy when they strike ground and other times gain strength."

"Exactly!" Her eyes blazed. "Bill, if we could understand what's going on in that funnel, it would explain a lot and give us the data we need to predict the force and direction, give people warning so they can survive."

"It would take studying a real twister to learn all we need to know." He was almost as enthusiastic as she was. "I have some ideas about that, but I haven't worked out the mechanics yet."

Her mouth opened to say something, but no words came out. Instead, she looked into her coffee cup.

"Jo, I could use your help."

She looked up and pointed to herself. "Me?"

"Sure. You've got the drive. I'll assume you have the knowledge. You certainly have the interest."

"What did you have in mind?"

He rubbed his ear. "I don't know yet, except we need some way to get some sensors inside the funnel. It'll take someone good in mechanics, a couple of people who understand the kind of readings we'll need and some engineers to pick the monitors that will give us the most useful data. Dusty's on board, for what that's worth."

She actually smiled. It was a quirky kind of expression, accompanied by those bright eyes. "I'm in too."

#

They gathered a group of their classmates and friends, and started to put together a plan. Nothing went as quickly or easily as they thought, though, and most of them had other commitments they couldn't ignore, at least not completely. Things like family and school assignments.

Six months later, they'd built a prototype. It wasn't perfect, not by any means, but testing it would help them perfect the next version.

Meanwhile, Bill and Jo spent many hours together, almost totally absorbed by the work they had to do. That didn't stop him from studying her on occasion, the way her hair fell when she looked down at something they were working on, the way her eyes narrowed when she was concentrating. The infrequent smiles that lit up her face whenever they had a breakthrough.

Jo occasionally cast surreptitious glances his way, amazed that he didn't realize how good-looking he was, especially when the excitement of tackling a new problem animated his face.

When Bill suggested they had to devise an instrument pack and find a way to send it into a tornado, Jo quickly understood where he was going with the idea and added her own twist, insisting they include a way to measure temperature as well as wind speed. When Jo threw out the problem of how they could get close without being swept up themselves, Bill had a solution before very long. The rest of the team marveled at how well they worked together, but neither Bill nor Jo was aware of it.

Within six months they had their plan and design. They spent another couple of months building a prototype. In the middle of tornado season, almost a year after they began, they were ready to try out their invention.

"We have to name her," Bill insisted as they drove out with the pack in the back of Bill's pickup.

"Her?" Jo smirked.

"Sure. How about Windy?"

Her smirk became a frown. "Sounds like some old blowhard."

"That's what tornadoes do, isn't it." He saw she wasn't convinced. "Well, then, you come up with something."

"What do you think of when someone says 'tornado'?"

Bill shrugged. "Lots of wind and destruction, I guess."

"Besides that, and don't give me some scientific stuff."

"The Wizard of Oz."

"Right. Her name should be Dorothy." Jo's eyes flashed and that infrequent smile appeared.

Bill smiled, too. It was perfect. The girl Dorothy was struck by one of those things, and lived to tell about it. "Let's go tell the guys." He took Jo's hand and they ran together to the others, clustered around their trucks. "We came up with a name for her." Bill pointed to the contraption. "Dorothy."

Grins all around told him they all agreed. But now it was time to test her. They didn't have to wait long for a day when the forecasters predicted strong storm activity. They couldn't pinpoint where it would be or whether there would be any tornadoes, only that two weather systems would collide somewhere in the Texas panhandle or Oklahoma.

The team drove north to the parts of tornado alley that usually were hit the hardest by storms. Rabbit monitored the weather bands for reports, while Jo made actual observations and Bill drove. They used walkie-talkies to maintain communication between their vehicles.

"A funnel's been spotted sixty miles east of Oklahoma City." Rabbit's excited voice came through to the others.

Dusty checked his maps. "If we head northeast, we can cross it somewhere...here! Bill, take the next right."

The line of cars and trucks turned onto the county road. It was much narrower than the one they'd been on, but headed closer to where the twister was. As they drove, the sunny skies gave way to clouds. The crosswind buffeted them. As they drew closer to I 40, Jo spotted it. "There. Southeast of here. Dusty, is there a road we can take to get closer?"

"There doesn't seem to be."

"Who needs a road?" Bill gunned the engine and took off across a fallow field. The others followed. As they closed in on the storm, all eyes were in that direction. Everyone sat on the edge of their seats.

"This is it, boys and girls." Dusty grinned like a kid at Christmas.

"The rest of you, stay back. Let's get this package into that funnel." Bill didn't wait for a reply. Instead, with Jo at his side, he kept driving closer and closer. "Is it ready?"

"Ready."

He stopped the pick-up and they carried the package into the path of the storm. "Okay Jo, let's get out of here and drive back to the others."

They reached the rest of the team just as the funnel came close to the container holding the sensors. It side-swiped it, turning it over but without taking it or its contents.

With frowns all around, Bill was the first to speak. "We'll have to try again."

Jo didn't say a word. She collapsed to the ground.

Bill's hand rested on her shoulder. "Jo, we can't give up. This is too important."

"Don't you think I know that?" Anger laced her voice. "But how can we make it work?"

That opened the floodgates. Everyone had an idea. Or three.

"Let's get everything back to our workshop." With the tornado out of sight, Bill drove back to the drop point and loaded the back of the pickup with help from Dusty.

By the time they returned to the others, Jo had pulled out of her negative attitude. "Anyone know where we are?"

Dusty took out his maps. "We're not far from Medford."

"I thought so. My aunt lives near here in Wakita. Mind if we stop before we go back to the school?"

"Not much we can do today," Rabbit said. "Let's go visit your aunt." Half an hour later, they pulled their cars and trucks into the tiny town of Wakita.

"I should go tell my aunt we're here, prepare her for the onslaught." Jo climbed out of the cab of Bill's pickup and walked a few steps, then ran across from where they'd parked. "Aunt Meg! I'm home, and I brought some of my friends from school."

Before she even reached the door, it opened and Meg came out, beaming, her arms open wide to embrace Jo. "Welcome, home. Come in, come in." She looked over Jo's shoulder. "The rest of you, too. Come on in. You all look famished."

They didn't need another invitation. Dusty was the first to reach Jo and her aunt. "Hi. I'm Dusty." He held out a hand.

As they all trooped inside, Jo attempted to introduce them all.

"Well, it's so nice to have a bunch of youngsters here. Jo, you should come by more often and bring your friends."

"We're usually closer to school, but happened to be nearby," Jo explained.

Meg looked at each of them in turn as her eyes showed a realization. "The tornado, the one that passed to the south."

"We're running some experiments, or at least trying to," Rabbit told her.

She appeared to want to say something about it, but instead she bustled off to the kitchen. "Jo, come help me put together some food for your friends."

Jo followed her. Their voices drifted back to the others, so they heard Meg say, "You're never going to give up, are you?"

"No. And my friends won't either."

"Well, at least I know you're not doing this alone. C'mon. I think I have some eggs and sausages and maybe even some hash browns. Wish you'da been able to give me more warning, though."

"More important that I give you warning if a tornado is coming this way."

Ten minutes later, the two of them carried in plates filled to the brim. They put them on the huge old wooden table. "Dig in," Meg insisted. "I'll bring some iced tea and lemonade."

It was the first meal they all had at Meg's but it wouldn't be the last. And the first Dorothy wasn't the last either.

Only the beginning.