Note: A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Thunderstorms are a fact of life in the Upper Midwest in summertime.
The big storms are caused by cold air masses colliding with warm air masses. We don’t have them very often up here in the Great Land; you’ll get a small rainy spell with a little lightning now and then, but not the big, towering boomers we got back in Iowa, mostly because there are almost never any warm air masses up in Alaska to collide with the cold air masses.
In truth I kind of miss them. (I don’t miss the sticky, humid heat that generally precedes them, though; not by a long shot.) There’s an excitement to the really big storms, and the good part is that they are usually followed by a cool spell. There’s nothing quite like the cool, clean air after a really big boomer.
But all that comes with a couple of costs. One of those is tornadoes, but I’ll take up that topic in another installment. The other would be lightning, and that favorite research subject of Ben Franklin’s has featured prominently in a couple of instances in my own young life.
Same Thing, Different Place
Colorado has its own share of thunderstorms as well, and at high altitudes, they can get a bit… weird.
One of that state’s interesting feature is the highest paved highway in the world, that being the Mount Evans Scenic Highway, which tops out on the 14,130-foot summit of that peak, where there is a small, domed observatory. One day, when my oldest daughter was about eight, I decided to take her up that highway to admire the incredible views from the summit.
When we got to the top of the road, though, there were gray clouds hovering overhead, seemingly within touching distance. They were grumbling with that weird, tinny sound that high-altitude lightning has.
The kid was excited, though, and the views were still there, so we got out of my pickup and started having a look around. There were several other groups already present, so I figured things would be OK.
As we admired the views, though, an odd buzzing sound kept intruding. I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t a sound an insect would make, and flying insects were not present on that bare, windswept peak in any case. I looked around for the source of the noise as the clouds muttered overhead.
Finally, I homed in on the source. The steel doors of the observatory dome opening and closed on a hinge supported by a steel armature that arced up over the top of the dome. And, as I watched, static electricity was arcing across the gap between dome and armature.
The clouds’ muttering got louder.
I called my daughter, who came running to my side. “We need to go,” I told her. She protested but not too much, as she was an unusually well-behaved child. As I took her hand, I heard a sharp pop.
About six feet away stood a college-age kid, wearing one of those retarded knit jester’s caps with a half-dozen tassels. The pop had been the sound of the cap levitating off his head, accompanied by his hair suddenly standing on end. “Whoa, dude,” he said to his friend, “did you see that?”
“Get down!” I shouted at him. I grabbed my kid, pushed her down to the rocky ground and, having no desire to have her see this guy incinerated in front of her young eyes, covered her face with my hands. We waited for a few moments for the inevitable strike…
…which turned out to be evitable after all. Nothing happened. The college kid, in his ignorance, continued to stand as he and his buddy made a fairly good “Beavis and Butthead laughing” impression. I got my daughter into the truck and got the hell out of there.
In my early twenties, I counted among my friends in low places several members of the local chapters of the Sons of Silence MC with whom, despite my not being a member of that august organization, I shared beers with on occasion. On the whole they were pretty decent enough guys, if you overlooked some of the less-than-legal aspects of their activities, and if you were on good terms with them, it greatly enhanced your place on everybody’s personal “don’t fuck with” list.
One on occasion, at an outdoor kegger in the back yard of the house the Sons owned down in Waterloo, I was introduced to one of their members who was a bit… off. His eyes were perpetually opened wide, and constantly roamed about as though he had little control of where his gaze went. Once in a while his eyes would seem to wander independently of each other, a phenomenon that was downright unsettling. His speech consisted mostly of slurs and the occasional outburst; his hair looked like Don King’s on a particularly bad hair day. Overall, his appearance and demeanor had most folks wondering about his physical and mental well-being, as he looked like a young Christopher Lloyd crossed with a Brillo pad and talked like someone who had just ingested far too much caffeine.
After making “conversation” with him for a few moments, I politely excused myself and approached another friend of mine, who I (and everyone else) knew only as Wolf. “What’s up with that guy?” I asked.
“He’s been hit by lightning,” Wolf replied. “Four times.”
“Four,” Wolf confirmed. He took a pull at a red Solo cup filled with Miller High Life and went on. “Once while he was fishing. Once walking across a plowed field. Once on his Harley on the highway, and once walking on the side of the road.”
“How the hell is he still alive?”
Wolf shrugged. “Nobody knows. Guy’s a human lightning rod. Why do you think we call him Sparky?”
Across the yard, Sparky was apparently recounting one of the incidents. “And there I was, ridin’ in the rain,” he expostulated, tossing his hands around wildly. Beer from his own red Solo cup flew around the yard, causing several people to duck. His right eye was focused on the young lady he was telling the story to, while the left wandered upward to look nervously at the clouds overhead. “And before I knew it! BOOM! I mean BOOM! Woke up in the cornfield, twenty feet from my scoot, both my boots was blowed off! Wow, man that hurt!” The young lady, grinning nervously, backed slowly away.
Of such things are local legends born. I lost touch with the group some time after that, and never did find out Sparky’s ultimate fate, but I suspect somehow that whatever happened to him, a big old dose of atmospheric static electricity was probably involved.
This One Time:
It’s not commonly appreciated how much fishing rods can attract the dreaded dose of atmospheric energy. Which brings us back to Allamakee County.
This is a story about Allamakee County, remember?
One late June afternoon during my thirteenth summer, my old buddy Jon and I bicycled over to the junction of North Bear and South Bear creeks, where the two smaller streams joined forces to form plain old Bear Creek, the same stream that ran through my parent’s property. Right after the tributaries combined were several good-sized pools, which usually held good populations of hungry trout in the cold, spring-fed water.
We fished throughout the afternoon, somehow not managing to limit out. As evening came on the sky grew dark, a cool wind freshened, and rain drops began to dapple the creek. Warm as the day had been, the clouds looked heavy, and we could hear thunder in the near distance.
“Gonna be a drencher,” Jon opined with all the wisdom his fourteen-year-old self could muster. “Won’t make it back to your house in time.”
“Guess we’d better find a place near here to wait it out. Think we could make the old trapper’s cabin up top?” I pointed to the hillside looming over us to the south.
Jon looked up the hill, at the steep slope covered with raspberry thickets. “Don’t think so,” he said. “Better find something closer.”
So, we decided to take shelter under the old iron bridge spanning Bear Creek near the old county campsite.
That’s right. A bridge. An iron bridge. In case you slept through your elementary school science classes, iron conducts electricity. The amount of iron you find in an old iron bridge, even a modest one like the old one spanning Bear Creek just upstream from Quandahl, can conduct a lot of electricity.
For about thirty minutes, we were well satisfied with our choice. We were still able to fish from the bank under the north end of the iron bridge, and the tightly fitted heavy oak planking of the bridge made a better than fair roof. But the rain grew heavier, the wind picked up, and the thunder slowly rolled in closer.
BOOM! A bolt touched down on the hilltop above us. Another struck a large cottonwood just a way upstream.
“Say,” I said, “you don’t think…”
“I mean, this bridge is iron. And there’s a lot of lightning coming in.”
“Don’t worry,” Jon said. His voice was filled with confidence. “We’re just fine. There are trees around taller than the bridge, nothing’s gonna hit…”
His voice was cut off by a sudden, blinding flash of light.
Near as we could figure out later, a bolt of lightning struck the top of the bridge, split up and ran down both sides of the iron framework, and jumped from there to the creek bank and the water. But what it looked like to us was this:
The initial blinding flash gave way to curtains of sparks and arcs of electricity hitting the ground from either side of the bridge. Strands of the electricity stuck down from the bridge frame to our fishing rods, which flew out of our hands. At the same moment, the very ground beneath our feet shook from the impossible, roaring CRACK of the super-heated bolt hitting the bridge. We both clapped our hands over our ears in agony.
Above our heads, the bridge frame rang like a bell. The air sizzled; the ground crackled. Runners and rivulets of white-hot electricity scampered around the creek bank, hitting the water and hissing, hitting the mud bank and sparkling, hitting our feet and making us dance like two demented jackrabbits suffering from a terminal case of St. Vitus’s Dance.
I made for the creek water, hoping to dunk my sparking, smoking shoes, but the water was alive, crackling with energy. Jon leaped and instinctively grabbed a piece of the iron bridge frame and hung there, yelping; the iron frame was teeming with electricity that ran through him and arced from his sneakers to the ground, but the current locked his muscles and wouldn’t let him let go.
Then, as suddenly as it came on, it was over. The rain really began to come down, turning the creek water white. A heavy, drenching rain like that would quickly make the creek rise; it was time to go.
I looked at Jon. Finally able to control his hands, he dropped to the mud of the creek bank. Streaks of soot discolored his face. His shoes, jeans and t-shirt smoldered. His smoking hair stood out at 90-degree angles from his scalp. Somehow, I knew I looked just the same.
“Let’s go,” Jon gasped. We ran for where our bikes were parked up on the approach to the bridge, climbed aboard and pedaled for home. When I stumbled in the front door, the Old Man looked up from his book and cast his optics over my scorched countenance.
“Got caught in the storm?” he said, his taciturn nature as always in evidence.
I nodded and headed off to dry off and change.
As I’ve said, I kind of miss those good old big summer thunderstorms. Alaska has its own weather phenomenon, of course, not least of which is snowfalls measured in feet and winter temps in the double-digits below zero. Nowadays most of our thunderstorm time happens in our biannual Redneck Yacht Club family reunions at Lake of the Ozarks, where we can safely enjoy the storm from the covered decks of our rented cabins.
You don’t get many really great stories out of doing things the safe way. And that’s OK. At my age, it’s probably for the best to have my recreations be a little more conservative – and a lot safer. Besides, I’d hate to think that I went through all those great youthful adventures and not learned a thing or two.
At least, I hope so.