Wednesday, July 29, 2009


We've been having frequent and severe thunderstorms. Every afternoon the clouds build in the heat and every evening the lightning flashes, the thunder echoes between the mountains and the rain pours down. A few years ago, when I was living in what had been my childhood home, the house was struck by lightning. It had been a windless, hot day. There were clouds in the distance but nothing to indicate the kind of lightning bolt that came out of the blue (literally) and struck the peak of the house.
Burned scar just to right of roof peak where the lightning struck

I was on the front porch putting a batch of just picked tomatoes through the separator. I had my hand on the metal handle when the bolt struck. There was a tremendous BANG! My daughter came screaming down the stairs yelling about gunshots and I felt a horrible pain shoot through my arm and straight down the middle of me. Every hair on my head and arms was standing straight. I could not let go of the separator handle - it was as though my fingers were glued to the metal. Once the lightning bolt funneled through me to the ground, my hand came away from the handle, my knees crumpled and I fell to the floor.

My then partner Bob had been sitting in a chair on the porch, reading bits of the newspaper to me as I worked with the tomatoes. I remember catching a glimpse of his face as the lightning coursed through me. He said afterwards that he, too, thought the bang had been a gunshot and that I'd been hit, though he had no idea why my hair was "doing that funny dance" on my head. He rushed to help me off the floor and then, with thunder crashing and lightning suddenly sizzling all around us, he saw the boards that had been blown off the house. They were still smoking.
Bits and pieces of burned wood and the blasted off fascia board

"Fire!" he yelled and we sped up the stairs to the attic. An old mattress that had been leaning against some boxes opposite the window had a large, smoking hole in it. We grabbed it and hustled it down two flights of stairs and out into the pouring rain. Then we ran back in the house to see what else was burning. Under the attic window we could see the scorched path the bolt had taken. In the bedroom directly below, the bolt had exited just beneath the window, sending plaster dust clear across the room and embedding several rubber coated curtain hooks into the oak floor. We had to get a screwdriver to pry them out. Bits and pieces of charred wood littered the side yard.

The hole in the mattress where the bolt struck as it separated.

Almost all the appliances in the house were damaged. The well pump had been hit, the answering machine and the television would not work, and the stereo that had been plugged in but not turned on had its insides melted. It hissed and crackled until all the lightning in it ran its course. An insurance adjuster came to assess the damage. He said the heat inside the attic had attracted the lightning and added that it was a good thing the huge main bolt had split on impact. After it blew the fascia board off the roof peak and hit the mattress, one fork ran down the wall and emerged in the room below. The weakest fork hit me. "Otherwise," he said, looking at me and wagging his head slowly, "you'd be pfffft."

I wasn't pfffft, just badly frightened. I did have two small burns, one on the sole of each foot and for weeks afterwards my feet ached. Oddly, I began to remember things like long forgotten book and movie titles and events that had happened in childhood. I saw objects and colors with a clarity that has long since faded.

When I hear thunder now, I cringe and look about for a safe place to hide. The soles of my feet tingle and the hair on my arms begins to rise. I turn off the appliances and huddle under the kitchen table or curl up on the sofa with my eyes scrunched shut. I used to love the wildness of storms. Now they just scare me to pfffft.


Sky said...

wow - this is very scary. i remember seeing lightening dance across my dorm room floor when i was a junior. that was pretty scary to me then. but, what you describe would have me in serious anxiety at every storm. glad it was no worse.

Barbara said...

That's a real hair-raising story! I suppose you should count your lucky stars you survived. Many people don't. It's this sort of story that reminds me we're no match for nature.

Pauline said...

Sky - there were frequent thunderstorms when I was a child and even though we had lightning rods affixed to the roof, that house was hit at least three times with lightning that I know of and each time I was inside it!

I am very lucky, Barbara. Just yesterday a woman in NY was watching a storm from a window in her house and was struck. She had to be hospitalized.

qazse said...

Great post in so many ways. I love the use of "pfft" at the finish.

I do feel sad you go through such reactions during storms. Your contrast of before (I used to love the wildness of storms) and after was especially poignant to me.


Pauline said...

thanks for stopping by qazse. I'm sorry, too, that I can no longer revel in all that noise and light.

Meggie said...

What a frightening story! I was surprised reading it, that you were able to race up to help bring the mattress down. How lucky you were not Pffft! How lucky your house was not set ablaze.
One of our dogs is frightened witless at storms.

Brian Hayes said...

I too felt sad reading this post. It gets tuff as we are wobbling our way near the center of a sun! But grateful there's a keyboard with you under the covers. :-)

herhimnbryn said...

Oh my, P! What an experience. How frightening. Next tme we have such a storm I shall think of you.

JeannetteLS said...

Thank God you are okay. This reminds me of when I was sitting with my best friend on her front porch at "the camp"on Lake Winnepesaukee. We were watching a wonderful show of a thunderstorm sweeping across an island a mile away. The cloud stopped and suddenly grew. It was green. Then we realized it was coming straight for US. Like a ninny--I was just eleven--I RAN to my cottage on the other side of the island. An hour later we learned that a tiny tornado had gone between her yard and the next cottage and up and OVER the island, not thirty feet form where I'd been running. Scared the pfffft outa me. I do love your writing.

Pauline said...

meggie - i was too scared to sit still while Bob and my daughter raced about so I ran, too

lol brian - this happened some years ago. I still cower however, when the lightning flashes

HHB - think of me under the table!

Jeannette - thanks for stopping by. Glad you escaped unscathed. A tornado is scarier than a thunderstorm!

Roberta S said...

My God, Pauline. This is a most frightful story. I am so glad that you are going to be okay. And for goodness sake, no more playing with golf clubs, metal pails, or tomato separators (assuming it has metal parts), OUTSIDE during a thunderstorm. I even take off my earrings if I have to go out in a mean storm.

Your one great comfort, and mine too, cause I worry about you after reading this, is that lightning never strikes in the same place twice.

PhilipH said...

Now I know where the term "hair-raising" comes from!

You are so lucky to have survived that lightning strike. The power and ferocity of lightning is quite astounding. I can see why you now wary of thunderstorms.

The after-effects, like the clear memories and clarity of colours etc., is interesting. I wonder if this is similar to the use of electric shock treatment (ECT)?

Amazing tale, shocking in fact, and well told.

patteran said...

A stirring account of a terrifying brush with nature in its most powerful form.

Pauline said...

I wish it were true Roberta but lightning strikes anywhere it can to balance its charge and it can (and does) strike the same place more than once. There's not much comfort anywhere in a bad storm.

Philip - it was both scary and painful. I am lucky it was only a minor charge!

Dick, I think the worst part was its unexpectedness - that lightning bolt before any sign of a storm.

Molly said...

Amazing story! I'm glad you survived to tell us about it! I'm especially fascinated that you had such clarity and it brought old memories to the surface. I feel so cheated when I hear that we only use a tiny percentage of our brain's capabilities. We must be missing so much!

Ruth D~ said...

You clearly had a purpose, because that bolt could have been the death of you. I had a similar experience and I can still remember the pain up my arm.

Glad you lived to tell the tale.

focusfinder said...

Well I never! What some people will do to get a new hair do, eh?

Pauline said...

Molly - it was an odd phenomenon for sure. I wish I still had that clarity!

Ruth - I don't know about purpose but the way that insurance agent looked at me, I'd say I'm lucky

LOL B - if only it had improved my hair!