Where Normal is Always Changing and Weird Remains Stable @

September 05, 1993|By KAROL V. MENZIE

Topeka, Kans. -- My sister called the day before I left for my annual trip home to visit the family. "I just wanted you to know that everything is perfectly fine in Kansas," she said. "There's not a cloud in the sky, it's 71 degrees, and the federal building is still being patrolled by armed men."

"Oh, yes," she added. "Bring old clothes, in case we have to sandbag."

Mercifully, we didn't. But everywhere we went, I found reminders that "normal" may always be changing, and perhaps only the weird stands still.

This year the Midwest even looks different. All over, areas hit by tons of rain but not flooded lie lush in the humid sunlight. Usually by August the grass is baked sere and brown, the trees are parched, the ponds are brackish and shrunken, the rivers but a memory. On this trip, it is green and dripping, like a tropical rain forest.

Disappointingly, a real patch of rain forest, an attraction at the Topeka Zoo, remains closed after an arson fire last year destroyed plants and killed many of the exotic birds and animals. The zoo is a usual stop; a particular Saturday in August is "ice day," when all creatures get a block of ice to amuse according to their species, and my 7-year-old nephew, the Ninja Warrior of Potwin, would like to go.

Instead, he ends up, armed to the teeth with plastic swords and rubber lawn darts, accompanying his mother and aunt to his grandmother's place in a senior high rise, where the terrors are those of failing flesh.

The adults in his charge need no reminders that the world is dangerous in all sorts of ways.

The fourth floor of the Frank C. Carlson Federal Building in Topeka is undergoing a complete remodeling to alleviate the memories of the people who watched in horror as a weapon-wielding assailant shot up the place like a two-bit outlaw at the O.K. Corral. The gunman finally shot himself in the head, leaving the hallways full of unexploded bombs. A law clerk on an errand was shot three times; she tore the shoulder pads out of her blouse to staunch the blood, covered herself with a wastebasket and reviewed torts from her recent bar exam to distract herself until help came, after 7 1/2 hours.

Changes in the land may be harder to rehabilitate. In many ways, the Midwest is a country created by the Army Corps of Engineers: a series of dams and lakes meant to manage the usually scarce water resources and to place them at the disposal of people. But people can only suppose; when nature chooses, she can remind us that we are only on, and not of, the planet.

The flooding looks worst around St. Louis; flying over, it's clear where the rivers should be, between the matched meander of trees; but as far as the eye can see the water stretches east and west, huge dark lakes dotted by treetops, roofs, an occasional boat, and the odd high spot with its clustered vehicles.

But the lands east and west of Topeka were hit hard. The Kansas River still covers parts of Lawrence, though a bridge that was briefly a diving board again spans an underpass. Near the river, the arched tops of an irrigation device loom above brown water like the relic of an ancient aqueduct, and just about as useful.

At St. Mary's, 20-odd miles west of Topeka, sandbags still ring some houses and stores, and a sandbag levee stretches down the river road.

Near Manhattan, 50 miles from Topeka, the Tuttle Creek reservoir spillway is still drawing camera-toting tourists. At the height of the flooding, water gushed around the sides of the floodgates and sloshed over the top. Authorities had no recourse but to release it. Fifty to sixty thousand cubic feet of water per second crashed over the concrete, raced along the spillway, hit the shallow wall at the end, leapt up and over and crashed down into a former picnic area.

The gates are closed now, and only a tiny spill of water courses down among the bodies of thousands of dead fish. But the ground beyond is scoured and twisted beyond recognition, a mud-colored confusion of rocks and sinkholes and running streams. It looks like Mars, with hydraulics.

Still further west, outside of Lucas, there are no sandbags, but Wilson Lake has burgeoned, taking over parking lots, boat ramps, roads (identifiable by the tops of street lights marching into the water), and at least one restroom, accessible now only by boat. A lone RV is parked atop a hill that has become an island. People drive to the water's new edge and stare in disbelief.

Lucas is our destination; besides the proximity of the lake, its chief celebrity comes from Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, a Civil War veteran, schoolteacher and unquestionable eccentric who spent the last 25 years of his long life constructing giant allegorical structures in concrete in the yard of his modest home, which is now called "The Garden of Eden and Cabin Home."

The statues, most of them 30 to 40 feet high, are a cross between totem poles and passion plays, with a little electrical switching station thrown in.

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