We’ve entered into the time of year when you’d best plan for pop-up thunderstorms in these mountains.
Oh, the official forecast may be for “a possibility of scattered thunderstorms” or “30 percent chance of precipitation,” but when they deliver there’s nothing scattered or 30 percent about them.
One of my very early memories involved being terrified by a relentless wave of bone-rattling thunder. Looking to reassure me, Mother said something to the effect that the noise was in fact merely the sound of dwarves up at the head of the creek bowling.
I’ll admit, the tale, which probably originated many decades earlier in “Rip Van Winkle,” did in fact calm me down. Only years later would I need to seek therapy for my deeply-held belief that the woods were filled with bowling ball-wielding dwarfs.
Not really. But the incident with the thunder probably did kick off my life-long series of misadventures with lightning, and more broadly, electricity.
Electrification was late to isolated pockets of these mountains. I remember Daddy gently prodding an old mountaineer up the creek that he ought to look into getting his house wired, holding forth on the various benefits such as lighting and cooking without worrying too much about burning the house down. He didn’t make the sale. The gent had never had it and figured thus he didn’t need it, and I guess he had a point.
We were warned about the dangers of electricity. I was pointedly told not to stick a bobby pin in an electrical outlet, and I never did after, at least after that first try. Neighbor Bill Buchanan had barely thrown the switch to his new electric fence when I marched down and grabbed it with both hands and had to be yanked off.
That was about the point I quit seeking out electricity. But the thing about electricity, here in the hills, is that sometimes it decides to seek you out.
The family was on an outing down to a remote stretch of river in the southern part of the county one summer day when a storm blew up out of nowhere. Climbing the hill back to the truck, it about took a good number of us out when a bolt of lightning hit the mountainside and spread out, hitting at the very least, if I recall correctly, my two brothers, myself and brother-in-law Mike. It pretty well rendered Mike numb; Howard and Gary had Prince Albert tins with worms in their back pockets, and the reaction of the tin killed them (the worms). All in all, the experience was akin to how it feels when you hit your thumb with a hammer, only it applies to your whole body.
I had a similar experience years later involving pushing a metal drill in a metal box under a barbed wire fence when a bolt hit just about on top of me. It ran down the fence quicker than my mind could react to the fact I was pushing a metal box with one hand and holding a conductive strand of wire with the other. My brain started out with “LET G-” and the next thing I knew I was other side of the fence, dazed but not much the worse for wear.
My hair was naturally (unnaturally?) curly for a decade or so after that one.
One type of lightning I haven’t seen here is ball lightning, but there’s a family tale.
One summer day, the story goes, this ball of plasma just sort of materialized in the living room. It wobbled drunkenly, bobbing around, and eventually veered up the chimney. It floated out of the house and settled a few feet above the well housing out back from the kitchen steps, hung in the air and exploded with a monstrous thunderclap.
I don’t know what set it off.
Maybe somebody stuck a bobby pin in it.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.