Random Thoughts

The power of lightning

... spectacular and dangerous

by Ann Robbins Talbot

There are few sights in nature as beautiful and as awe-inspiring as a flash of lightning. As a child I was taught to count slowly after a lightning flash – a thousand one, a thousand two, a thousand three. The number I ended with when the thunder finally crashed indicated the number of miles away the lightning was located. However unscientific that may have been, I could tell whether the storm was getting closer or leaving the area. When the streaks of lightning and the booms of thunder were stumbling over one another, the storm was upon us and sometimes it was scary.

National Geographic explains: “…the lightning flash superheats the surrounding air to a temperature five times hotter than that on the surface of the sun. Nearby air expands and vibrates, forming sound that we hear as thunder. Sound travels more slowly than light, so it seems that thunder occurs later.” It goes on to explain how the negative charge at the bottom of a cloud will seek a positive charge on earth, the meeting of the two causing the streak of lightning.

Lightning stories get into family lore, better told on a calm evening on the porch than in the middle of a cloudburst. One of my favorite stories featured me as a toddler. My parents had rented a little vacation cottage in Deerfield, New Hampshire, and we had a storm violent enough to wash out the only road into town. Being a fairly sedentary child, I was content to sit on the living room floor with my cloth books as the thunder rumbled around me. Lightning struck the side of the cottage, came out of the wall socket and rolled across the floor hitting me on the way. My parents grabbed me, expecting the worst. I didn’t have a mark on me.

Another happening occurred at the end of August, 1958. We had worked at a day camp all summer and received an unexpected bonus in our final paychecks. Rather than starting a savings account, we newlyweds splurged on a week’s rental of an ancient metal trailer near our relatives in Lanesville on the Annisquam River. One stormy evening we were playing rummy on the attached porch – my husband, mother, sister and I. I was back to the trailer. There was an enormous zap, a bright light and the smell of matches. The trailer had been hit by lightning and behind my head appeared a brilliant white ball, fading as quickly as it had come. My family expected that, at best, my hair would have been burned to a crisp. Again, fortunately, nothing. However they all remembered me looking quite Biblical, outlined by a giant halo.

A recent rainy week, filled with thunder and lightning, pointed out that lightning could indeed be dangerous. When spectators at a soccer game in Boston huddled under a tall tree for shelter, they experienced disaster. The tree was struck, the electrical charge traveling down the trunk, into the immense root system and up into the bodies of the crowd. Many were badly hurt, some with burns and some with heart problems. In the town of Hopkinton, a 20-year-old man was working at his computer during the storm. The electricity from a lightning strike surged through the computer into his body, and knocked him right out of his chair onto the floor. A half hour later and a few streets away, a 48-year-old man picked up an extension cord running from his yard to his house. A surge hit him and he also landed in the hospital. Neither man suffered from any burns.

Perhaps some of the Thunderstorm Rules I learned in my childhood were more than old-wives’-tales: Do not use appliances. Do not take a bath. Do not go outdoors. Do not stand under a tree. Keep a candle and matches handy. I still spend violent thunderstorms in a darkened room marveling at the beauty and the power of the lightning.


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