The black clouds swept across the sky at 50 miles an hour. Rain pelted windshields. Garbage-can lids blew across front yards. This was going to be a storm worthy of the name.
On the television screen, where the evening movie should have been, was a modest-looking, middle-aged fellow, standing beside a crosshatched map of central Oklahoma. "Okay," he said, crisply. "Let's go to the radar."
Forget national politics and Central America. The subject that comes up far more often than any other here is Oklahoma weather. And the name spoken in the same breath belongs to the weatherman for the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, Gary England.
In a state where weather is big news, and where it's biggest in the spring, England of KWTV is high priest. He has been the top-rated TV weatherman in Oklahoma for more than a decade. He routinely saves lives by pinpointing potential tornadoes on his radar screen and telling his viewers how to protect themselves. His traveling videotape show, "Those Terrible Twisters," plays to crowds of more than 1,500 everywhere it goes.
"He is an absolute phenomenon here," said Glen Phillips, TV editor at The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. "It is the most incredible thing I have ever seen."
Many would use the same expression to describe the weather here. According to Ken Crawford, area manager for the National Weather Service, the state has endured nearly 2,000 tornadoes in 35 years. They have killed 206 people, injured 2,888 and caused $26 million in property damage.
In addition, Oklahoma averages 80 days of rain a year, far above the national average. And the variety of weather within the state is remarkable. "It is not uncommon in a single day to talk about a tornado in the southeast section, heavy rain in the northeast, blowing dust in the southwest and snows in the far northwest," Crawford said.
Oklahoma's severe weather is caused by its proximity to the Rocky Mountains on the west and the Gulf of Mexico on the south. "That air comes over the mountains, joins with the moisture, and suddenly the low pressure forms in a matter of hours," England said. "The same thing happens in Memphis or Louisville. But if you live there, you have more notice."
In Oklahoma, those low-pressure pockets not only form quickly, but also they can start spinning with no notice at all. Seventy-five percent of Oklahoma's tornadoes occur in April, May and June. Although the state has had only two minor ones so far this spring, "the danger is always there," England said. So is England's excellent track record of warning his viewers that a twister is forming.
In May 1983, he broke into regular programming to warn southeastern Oklahoma viewers that a funnel was taking shape there. Twenty minutes later, a twister destroyed a trailer park near Ada, and several dozen people who might have been killed had escaped injury.
England was widely praised for his warning. But he won no friends at the National Weather Service, because his bulletin had beaten theirs by 15 minutes -- and he said so, on the air.
England made relations worse last year during the evening news show on his birthday. The anchorman asked him what presents he had received. "A letter bomb from the National Weather Service," England joked. All England will say on the record is that he is "not too popular with those guys." Crawford of the NWS says the relationship -- a bit like Oklahoma weather -- "has undergone . . . unsettled times."
Some local observers see the bad blood as jealousy. "Gary is popular," said Paul Potter, an associate professor of radio, TV and film at the University of Oklahoma. "He is announced as Oklahoma's No. 1 meteorologist, and people try to take potshots at you because of that."
However, England's popularity -- and accuracy -- never have been greater, largely because of his new toy: a $100,000 Doppler radar scanner. With it, England said, he can pinpoint a funnel "to an accuracy of 750 feet throughout the entire western two-thirds of Oklahoma. We can look 60 miles out and say, 'Hey, you folks in Weatherford near this-and-such intersection had better look out.'
"I absolutely love this new equipment," England said. "If it had hair, I'd marry it."
Of all people, England has never been in a tornado. "But I've come close," he said. "I've been here in the studio, and a big one whips up, and you hear the roof groaning, and you say to yourself, 'This is it, Mama!' "
So far, so good for England, as for Oklahoma in spring 1985. Is severe weather on the way? "I imagine we'll get slapped around pretty good pretty soon," England said. "I've been doing this a long time. I've got a gut feeling."