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Goodbye, Columbus Day; hello, thoughts of a mighty wind

According to my October calendar, Monday is Columbus Day.

It's wrong, of course, proving once again you can never believe everything you read. Even large print.

The real Columbus Day is Oct. 12. But Congress deemed in 1971 that it would henceforth officially be celebrated on the Monday before the actual anniversary of the famed explorer's landing in the New World.

The result was a nonholiday holiday in which most working stiffs don't get a break even though the point was to create a three-day weekend. Go figure.

But we won't wander off into the weeds to rehash the debate about which Old World adventurer may have beaten our man Christopher to the New World punch.

Or the fact Native Americans had already been here for thousands of years before that historic day in 1492.

For me, the original Columbus Day will forever be associated with shrieking wind, flying debris and our elementary school bus driver shouting out to a higher power after our bus was grazed by a large tree crashing down on the highway.

That would be Oct. 12 of 1962, which fell on a Friday as it does again this year, half a century later.

Back then, I was 11 years old, a day-dreaming, unruly sixth-grader in the now-long-defunct Kerby Elementary School. For the Kerby-challenged, that would be the sleepy hamlet in the Illinois Valley about two dozen miles south of Grants Pass.

No doubt I was wishing the weather would worsen so we would get out of school. Talk about being careful of what you wish for.

I don't know about you, but I found the early 1960s to be a bleak period punctuated by tough times. First, our dad died of cancer in 1961, followed by the big blow on Columbus Day in '62, then the JFK assassination the following year and finally the 64 flood that filled our extremely humble abode with 4 feet of muddy water.

But you're right: it wasn't too shabby a decade for music, certainly better than anything upchucked in the 1970s.

In any case, 50 years ago on Oct. 12, the barometric pressure plummeted to 28.99 at the Medford airport, the Mail Tribune reported the next day. Some say it was the storm of the century, the aftermath of Typhoon Freda spawned out in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico. Others swore it was a hurricane.

No matter what it was called, it was a monstrous storm, one that cut a swath of disaster from Northern California to British Columbia.

When the winds died down, 46 people were dead, some 50,000 homes destroyed and more than $200 million in damage in 1962 bucks. In Corvallis, the wind was recorded at 127 mph that day.

I recall the morning dawned dark and blustery. Rain pelted us, coming down in sheets as we waited for the big, yellow bus to pick us up.

Kids would normally be roughhousing in the school playground in the morning before class. Not on this day. When we arrived at school, everyone was inside, even my fellow rowdies.

Through the rain-streaked panes, we watched the maelstrom of leaves and small limbs. It was the first time I had ever heard the wind scream, really scream.

If memory serves, we made it until about noon before the asphalt roofing shingles started sailing across the schoolyard like so many Frisbees.

By then, principal Bob Hambly had already decided to err on the side of caution. A well-liked, competent fellow who would retire as an assistant superintendent for the Josephine County School District, he had declared school over for the day.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that the following year he would give me swats from a large paddle he kept in his office. The transgression? Fighting. Yes, I deserved the corporal punishment. But in my defense, the fight was with a bully who had been pushing me around for days.

Back to the storm. A strong gust knocked over a large oak in the school parking area, but no urchins were smashed. We were already en route home.

We would usually have been pestering the driver, causing him to periodically yell, "Sit down back there!" or "Quiet down!" But the storm had done what the driver had never been able to do: we were quiet as proverbial church mice.

Just as the school bus was pulling to a stop in front of our house, a large tree blew down across the northbound lane on Highway 199. The main trunk just missed us.

"Praise the Lord!" our bus driver yelled as the limbs brushed against the bus.

For years I've assumed the driver was expressing relief that the tree missed the bus. But as I've grown longer of tooth I've become harassed by doubts.

I now suspect he was rejoicing he finally had a little peace and quiet from the pesky little ruffians, even though it took the storm of the century.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.