John Dodge. If you have spent over three decades reading The Olympian, you know the name, and through him you know our town, our region, our environment, and Horsefeathers Farm, his home, a frequent subject for his popular column, “Soundings.” An investigative reporter, an editorial page columnist, and always a journalist, John Dodge is now the author of the book, A Deadly Wind: The 1962 Columbus Day Storm published by Oregon State University Press.
Dodge’s book began in the unlikeliest of places. On October 12, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the Columbus Day storm, Dodge and fellow Olympia writer, Jim Lynch, were enjoying a beer at Fish Tale Brewpub. Each had heard University of Washington Meteorologist Professor Cliff Mass’s radio interview from earlier in the day. Mass had wondered aloud “How is it possible that no one has written a book about the largest and strongest storm ever to hit the West Coast?”
“What do you think, Jim? Do you think I should give it a shot?” Dodge asked.
“Well, look at it this way, John,” Lynch replied. “Worst case scenario you don’t publish it, but you’ll know more about that darned storm than anyone else.”
They clinked glasses on the book’s premise. Neither of them knew it would take Dodge six years to track down storm survivors for interviews, ferret out photos hidden in dusty scrapbooks, watch miles of newspaper articles spool by on microfiche, and, ultimately, dedicate years to writing a book that brilliantly captures the character of the ruthless storm.
“John is a beloved storyteller,” Lynch said with a note of satisfaction in his voice. “A lot of what he brings to the book is like him—personal, honest, real. He can take little pieces of facts, truths, anecdotes and connect them. He was the perfect guy to write this book. He is a friendly, yet relentless reporter. He found those stories.”
Dodge recounted the memory of his book’s start with a laugh. “I’ve always been fascinated by severe weather—the yarns, the stories, the fiction, the non-fiction,” he said. “Writing this book was the perfect storm.”
Dodge’s comment, intentional or not, has a double meaning. On one hand, his new book is the “perfect storm” of bringing together professional interest, unexamined history, and a hallowed memory from his youth. But, on the other side, the 1962 Columbus Storm was literally—the perfect storm, an equal the Pacific Northwest has not experienced in 55 years.
The October 12 Columbus Day Storm was a non-tropical windstorm with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour. It blew up the west coast from northern California to Vancouver, British Columbia. Dozens of people died, hundreds more were injured, coastal towns and center of cities were destroyed and so many trees were toppled, over a million homes could have been built from their remains. John Dodge was not a reporter during that disaster—he was a 14-year-old boy residing in Thurston County.
“For people who lived through the storm, it was like Kennedy’s death, or the landing on the moon,” Dodge said. “People can tell you where they were when the storm happened. I remember they canceled the high school football game. My parents picked me up and we went to stay at our friends’ house. Our house was surrounded by trees, so my parents thought it would be safer to stay with friends. In the height of the storm, a giant tree fell on their property. We were lucky. It missed us. We could have been killed.”
For Dodge, the memory of driving along Martin Way, telephone poles scattered like toothpicks, his father steering around trees that had fallen or been blown across the road, made its mark on him. His childhood experience is part of the reason Dodge believes a journalist has both the obligation and the responsibility to tell a story with authenticity.
“I started with newspaper articles, scrapbooks, even a pamphlet someone put together,” Dodge said. “Back then there was a cursory lack of reporting. It was a reporting of facts. I thought there was a need for human interest.
“I kept getting more information; it kept me going. Serendipitous things led me to another story and another. I’m like Ken Kesey. I believe the need for mystery is greater than the need for answers.”
Tucked within the pages of A Deadly Wind: The 1962 Columbus Day Storm, Dodge’s powerful writing brings us an understanding of the storm that—until now—was an unknown story.
“Meteorologists have long puzzled over the Columbus Day Storm—its violent development, its stubborn persistence, its mighty reach, and its destructive power…The storm is an outlier, and outliers imply a sense of mystery. They reside in a place where not all is explained. And, so it is with the Columbus Day Storm, a powerful act of nature that allowed for, no, insisted on, gaps in knowledge, unanswered questions, and a cloud of mystery over a stormy world partly understood and partly left for us to ponder.”
The Olympia Film Society invites the community to the book launch of A Deadly Wind: The 1962 Columbus Day Storm on October 8 at 7:00 p.m. at the Capitol Theater. Browsers Book Shop will be on hand to sell copies of the book.
The Olympia Country and Golf Club welcomes John as the featured presenter of their fall lecture series on October 18 at 5:30 p.m. Call (360) 866-7121 to reserve your space.
The Lacey Timberland Library hosts John as a guest speaker on November 8 at 5:30 p.m. The public is welcome at all events.