Let Us Speak Now of Lightning, by B.J. Hollars

If asked to wager a guess on the site of the world’s first lightning strike, I’d place my money on Kifuka—a remote Congolese village 200 miles south of the equator. Even if Kifuka doesn’t hold the record for the first strike it certainly holds the record for the most; this, according to a 2004 report from NASA’s Lightning Imaging Sensor program (LIS), a satellite system that measures flash rate throughout the world. Each year, LIS constructs a “flash rate map,” a foreboding graphic highlighting the places on the planet most susceptible to strikes. Through no fault of its own—(aside from providing the lightning-ripe conditions of humidity and high elevations)—Kifuka remains at the center of the map: a bulls eye for the lightning bolts, a lightning rod for the land.

*

Some 7000 miles away, a lightning rod of another sort. His name was Roy Cleveland Sullivan (a.k.a. “The Human Lightning Rod,” a.k.a. “the Spark Ranger”) who, over a span of 35-years, endured no less than seven strikes during his tenure as a ranger in Shenandoah National Park.

After enduring his fifth strike in 1973, Sullivan earned a dubious spot in the record books, claiming the title of “world’s most lightning struck person.” Though the honor brought Sullivan his fifteen minutes of fame, it did little to lift him beyond sideshow status.

Throughout his life, Sullivan was mostly just your average, run-of-the-mill ranger.

That is, except for the lightning singed holes in his hat.

*

Let us speak now of lightning—of the thing itself, of the bolts that spring forth from the sky.

And let us speak also of our trespasses against it: how since the earliest strikes—which may or may not have occurred in Kifuka—we humans have done much to personify the phenomena as if brownnosing an untamable beast.

Ask a meteorologist, she’ll tell you: lightning is no beast. It possesses no hooves, no horns, no metal ring warmed by the exhales of a flaring nose. Far more often, lightning is described as a bolt or a ball or a fork or a sheet, or any number of other insentient things.

The key here is that lightning is always insentient.

It never lives, it never dies—all it does is strike.

*

And so, we must forgive it (mustn’t we?), for it knows not what it does.

It is but a swarm of electricity—blind and dumb—that lingers for a blink before fading.

Though if you asked Roy Sullivan, he’d tell you that its effects often linger much longer.

After enduring his sixth strike in 1976, Sullivan worked hard to maintain his religion’s party line.

“I’m not afraid of lightning,” Sullivan told reporters. “I figure the good Lord is looking out for me.”

Yet after the seventh strike, his party line began to shift.

“I don’t believe God is after me,” he was quick to report, though he added also: “If He was, the first bolt would have been enough.”

*

One bolt was enough for poor Ralph, the boy who died by lightning strike in July of 1961. Fifty years later, I dedicated a day of my life trying to find proof of him, scanning the ancient newspapers for hours, though I uncovered no record of his death. I’d first learned of him upon reading Paul Auster’s “Why Write?,” an essay consisting of five seemingly independent anecdotes, all of which crescendo to a shared theme on serendipity, as well as the writer’s prerogative to document the unpredictable flashes in our otherwise predictable lives.

Lightning, like serendipity, is unpredictable, as Ralph found one stormy afternoon. Young Auster and his bunkmate followed their counselors’ orders—crawling beneath the wire fence as lightning ripped the sky—though it was Ralph, so anxious to please, who became the lightning rod that day.

*

Yet lightning is more than its destruction.

When German inventor Otto Von Guericke first turned the crank of his “friction machine” in 1663, he marveled at the charge it produced. It was not lightning, per se, but it shared lightning’s qualities; namely, electricity that prompted bits of paper to rise and fall in the air.

This charge was harnessed further in 1745, when Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek created the Leyden jar, the 18th century’s version of lightning in a bottle. After collecting the charge, a proud van Musschenbroek tapped a finger to his specimen and endured a mighty zap.

Soon, others, too, desired to feel God’s wrath burst upon their bodies.

In Paris, 700 monks rolled up their robes and clasped hands as the shock sizzled through them.

Meanwhile, in America, Benjamin Franklin grabbed his key and kite and waited for the rain.

*

After retiring from his park ranger post shortly after the sixth strike, Sullivan bought himself a trailer in nearby Dooms, Virginia, not far from the park where he’d worked.

It seemed a logical choice for Sullivan—a chance to remain close to the land that he loved.

But if past occurrences were any indicator, that land didn’t love him back.

In an article written at the end of Sullivan’s career, a journalist from the Associated Press could hardly bite his tongue at Sullivan’s choice of retirement locale.

“He retired last year and had to move off the park, so he bought himself a house trailer and a piece of land nearby,” the reporter wrote faithfully, followed by that which he couldn’t hold back: “(though he might have for heaven’s sake, picked some other town).”

Indeed, he might’ve, but there was no guarantee that the town itself was to blame. The land, after all, was as oblivious as the lightning—merely the stage upon which the drama was set.

While scientists were weary to admit it, Sullivan concluded that he himself was the cause of the strikes.

“Best I can figure,” he said, “is that I have some chemical, some mineral, in my body that draws lightning.”

In an attempt to counteract the scourge, Sullivan assembled a lightning-repellant fortress; a trailer complete with no less than 12 lightning rods—four on the corners, six on the trees, and one each on the electric meter pole and TV antenna.

Every precaution was taken, every safeguard in place, but still, the lightning found him.

*

Perhaps there was no kite, no key, no wild-eyed Franklin running around in his knickers in the rain. Perhaps the story belongs in the annals of forefather lore alongside Washington’s wooden teeth and cherry tree.

Still, we love the image we’ve so carefully curated: the way those cedar sticks held firm as the wind tangled in Franklin’s hanky.

The way the threads in his twine performed their cobra dance as electricity buzzed through the key.

Perhaps the truth is irrelevant, the legend not nearly as powerful as the image: that of a cocksure, bespectacled Franklin daring the gods to give him their very worst.

*

Back in Virginia, Roy Cleveland Sullivan dared no one to do anything. All he wanted was for he and his family to be left alone. A husband and father of three, Sullivan often concerned himself with the safety of his loved ones, fearing his family might become collateral damage as a result of his mysterious magnetism.

When the wind picked up, he picked up also, quarantining himself in the kitchen while his family took to the living room. Alone, alongside the plates and saucers, Sullivan prepared himself for what he was sure would always come—the smell of sulfur, the bristling of hair, followed by the strike.

Sullivan often told of the chief ranger who, upon glancing the growing clouds in the sky, excused himself from Sullivan’s range. And he told also of the local restaurant that refused him service on the days that threatened rain.

“I can’t blame them,” Sullivan later admitted. “Who wants to be near somebody that’s all the time getting hit by lightning?”

*

One day Socrates was out walking a field when he passed a frightened farmer.

A storm was gathering overhead, and fearing the wrath of the gods, the farmer prepared himself for what he deemed was all-but certain death.

Socrates assured the farmer that his peril was not quite so perilous, his fate not yet so firmly sealed.

“That is not Zeus up there,” Socrates explained, “but a vortex of air.”

And so, the blasphemy had begun.

*

While trout fishing on a cool June morning in 1977, Sullivan once more endured the wrath of the gods. This time, he was in his boat when the lightning struck, zapping him into the water.

Under other conditions, it might’ve seemed comical—just some 65-year-old man enjoying a bit of fishing before being hurled headlong from his boat. And the situation might’ve seemed sillier still once we learned that on his drive home that day, the shocked and soaked Sullivan was accosted by a black bear who demanded the man’s freshly caught trout.

What might we call this but an act of God, a test of faith, or a punch line too good to pass up?

*

But perhaps we are too quick to blame God for lightning’s transgressions.

What God, after all, hides behind a thunderclap and picks off mortals below?

Don’t we prefer our God armed with sword and shield and churning into life’s battles alongside us? Or a peace-loving God whose lightning bolts are carved from olive branches.

But if God does strike us down—if lightning remains the weapon of choice—perhaps we might take some comfort in all that God has spared.

Lightning, after all, cannot kill everything. It picks it marks and moves on.

In 1833, a man described a lightning strike in which “each alternate horse on a team” was killed while “the intermediate horses…escaped.”

But I ask you, dear reader, have those horses truly escaped? Does a horse ever escape the horror of being bridled alongside a dead brother, one half of the band clip-copping its mirrored-corpses through the cobbled streets?

No, this was no triumphant Achilles dragging his Hector; this was a leisurely trot transformed to a funeral procession.

*

Once, many years back, I was the camp counselor bridling my troop of Ralphs into danger’s outstretched arms. In those days, I was mostly a boy myself. And it’s clear to me, in retrospect, that my many split-second decisions were the wrong ones.

I should never have ran those boys recklessly through the rains so that we might gather wood.

I should never have taken them swimming, either, on the moonless nights.

That summer, the dark was a threat and the light was a threat, and the snakebites and spider bites were always threats as well. Even the mosquitoes—when properly swarmed—threatened us with their boil-sized bites.

Some nights, those boys and I’d sit fireside before cocooning in our sleeping bags.

We’d laugh and joke for hours, filling our mouths with charred marshmallows (“Chubby bunny!”) while distant lightning rippled across the sky.

*

By the fall of 1983, lightning had finally had enough of Roy Sullivan. After a lifetime of strikes, Sullivan went six full years without so much as a whiff of sulfur in the air.

Who can say what long-term effects the lightning truly had on him? Who, but he, can ever know the fear of being shadowed by a flash?

No, it was not lightning that killed him, but a bullet, which Sullivan fired himself—his actions often attributed to an unrequited love.

“Who wants to be near somebody,” he’d said years before, “that’s all the time getting hit by lightning?”

*

One day Zeus lays down his bolt, Franklin his kite, and Sullivan just lies down. They have all had quite enough of lightning and know its destruction too well.

One day I, too, give up on that which I cannot harness, allowing the ancient newspapers to resettle, allowing Ralph to win his game of hide-and-seek.

Meanwhile, in Kifuka, for a thousand days, weary locals lift their heads to the sky.

In my own backyard, on a summer night, I, too, lift my head.

Was that a lightning bug? I wonder as I glimpse the flash. Or some other blitz of light?

Was it a devil or God or neither? I think. Beauty or chaos or both?

*

Once, round a campfire, I told a pack of boys a ghost story that struck fear into their small frames. Yet by story’s end, they all feared the part they shouldn’t have, overlooking the true threat in the opening line:

It was a dark and stormy night, I’d said, and lightning lit up the sky…

***

B.J. Hollars is the author of three nonfiction books—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in AmericaOpening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosaand Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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Comments

  1. pendergrasts says:

    Great story that follows Sullivan, a modern tragic character. My great-great grandmother was struck by lightening when she was walking down a city street in Memphis. The story goes that it left her deaf.

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