Weather station visit leads to Smokey sighting

Ryan Sandler is the “warning coordination meteorologist, or WCM, at the U.S. National Weather Service facility in Medford, or USNWSFM.

Though Ryan had never read my column, he proved up to the job of tour guide and teaching us curious lay folk everything about weather in 20 minutes. In addition to being a bit of a weather nerd, a potential meet-and-greet with Smokey the Bear and a new celebrity to my purview, Owlie Skywarn, reeled me in. I would like to shake the hand of the person who came up with that name.

Unlike myself today, (sorry, I’ve been reading P.G. Wodehouse again), Ryan took his job seriously, explaining about cumulus clouds, how they form, and that they can grow 60,000 to 70,000 feet high. As he illustrated various-sized hailstones, which perform the Highland Fling with the winds inside and hurtle to earth exhausted (potentially beaning someone and knocking them unconscious or worse), I glanced around for Smokey and Owlie. I saw neither, so I watched in horror as Ryan showed us a motivational photo of a poor man who had been the recipient of a lone lightning strike.

I mean, not that one isn’t sufficient. Had Owlie been among us, he or she may have hooted, “When thunder roars, go indoors or you’ll wind up with sores.”

Ryan showed us a small-scale lightning bolt simulator and invited anyone desiring to be shocked to “come on up.” To my surprise, I didn’t volunteer. Neither did any of my touring companions. Ryan assured us that a lightning bolt might register 50,000 degrees and millions of volts. No wonder that man’s shoulder looked like pastrami. The victim is recuperating, though slowly.

As Ryan gained momentum, I got the impression he might rather be in Kansas or Minnesota or someplace with bullier weather. For instance, we never get baseball-sized hail like the luck-outs in Florida. Or forget ever seeing a pick-up truck flung into the air by a tornado like our friends in Oklahoma.

“I’ve never seen a tornado,” Ryan admitted. “Don’t know if I’d want to be in one. It’d be kind of cool if it was in the distance.”

Then he gave himself away. “I’d like to be in a hurricane.”

Twenty meteorologists work at the facility near the airport, which is loaded with computer screens and radar equipment and is staffed and ready 24/7. I asked Mark the meteorologist if that meant I could call them up if I was having insomnia or felt depressed, and he said they weren’t psychologists. That’s OK. Sometimes all one needs is a good, solid weather forecast to put one right.

Next we ventured outdoors to learn about the $250 weather balloons they send up twice daily. I felt certain that Smokey and Owlie waited out there with the wisdom of the woods, but no. The balloons are costly, but they return valuable information obtainable by no other means. For instance, wetting one’s finger and sticking it into the wind may save money, but it doesn’t retrieve the same data and could be misunderstood.

After the talk, as I began walking away, a young man and his parents approached, saying they heard me say I wrote for the paper. Their son, Layton Homewood, Emperor of Curiosity (it says so on his business card) proceeded to sell me on the notion that no matter what he puts his hand to, coin results. So much coin that his parents had to call a halt to one endeavor. I asked if he wanted to be adopted, but his family seemed too nice for me to take advantage of the situation. After about 10 minutes he had me convinced he should be my agent, if I could only afford his rates. Oh, well. I joined the other kids and got my picture taken with Smokey, but Owlie was a no-show.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer. Email her at

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