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Tempting the fates

In to the Wind

September 27, 2011
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Editor’s Note: Mike is out of town. This is his column which first appeared in 2009.

It has been said that lightning never strikes the same place twice. I know that comment is false. Our tower here at Gilly Hollow has been hit twice in rapid succession; at least times I was aware and present. The radio towers atop the Empire State Building are hit several times each year. Urban legend zero; reality one.

It has also been said certain people attract lightning. There is real documentation certain people have been hit by lightning more than once. While never having been directly zapped, yours truly has had several close encounters. The first may not even count as a close call, but was one of the most dramatic events in my life.

It was a dark and dreary night, about this time of year. I was eleven, or was I twelve. My brother and I shared a bedroom. He told mom he was afraid he’d get electrocuted in our bedroom. From an early age he shared that bedroom with a mad scientist.

Earlier, that summer, I came into possession of a spool of enamel wire. There was enough wire on that spool to go from a nail pounded into the telephone pole at the corner of the property to the second story bedroom window. From the window, the wire snaked through the bedroom to a counter in what was called the “dressing room;” which was merely an alcove in the same room. On that counter sat an ancient Zenith shortwave radio. The warm glow from the tubes painted patterns on the wall in the darkened room through the grill at the back of the radio. The wire made a passable long wire antenna and brought the world into that room and into a young boy’s world.

The BBC, Radio Canada International, and other voices from afar told the boy there was a great big world out there beyond what could be seen from that second story window. Exotic music wafted into the young boy’s room. Visions and dreams of far away places fueled certain wanderlust.

So it went for some time. For one boy an uneasy existence with assorted wires and devices; for the other, the beginning of a lifelong adventure.

In both houses I lived in while growing up, there was a window to the outside right behind the kitchen sink. While doing dishes, or just using the sink, you could see the back yard and whatever was happening there. The big house my father built as my parents kept having children was no exception. From that window, if you looked closely, you could see that fine wire slanting down from the upstairs window to the pole.

It was after sunset Being careful to draw my glass of water and then shut off the faucet so I wouldn’t get yelled at for leaving it run, I tilted my head back to quaff the volume of water. With my eyes open, I could see the sky, just losing the last vestiges of twilight, the silhouette of trees behind the house, and the area of my long wire antenna.

As I was just about to finish that glass of water, there was, in the same instant a blinding flash of light and a very loud boom. From my vantage point, the explosion happened right before my eyes. Brilliant electric blue sparks filled the sky and as much of the neighborhood as I could see from that window. The thunderous boom shook both the house and my very existence. Dazed, amazed, and bewildered, I stood frozen at the sink wondering what had just happened. I’m not sure if the wetness down my pants was from spilling what was left of that glass of water down my front, or from having peed myself.

I was stunned. It took me a few seconds to regain both my wits and my sensate. From that experience I know what the term “blinded by the light” means. For a few moments I saw nothing but a bright splash of light, even with my eyes closed. I was also deafened from the frighteningly loud boom.

As I gained my composure, and everyone else began to come back to life after the event, it dawned on me what had happened. That long wire antenna had no doubt been hit by a bolt of lightning. As I ran to the stairwell to check out my bedroom, I yelled to my mom that I thought my wire had been hit by lightning.

I should add there was some gray area in my mind when I had erected that antenna that I was treading on shaky ground. Both my mom and my brother had told me you couldn’t attach such a device to a utility pole; it just wasn’t allowed. I managed to convince them it was OK, and that nothing was going to happen. To the non-scientist, that logic was not comforting, especially to my brother.

Now my logic and my deed were crashing in on my world. I raced upstairs to make sure the bedroom wasn’t on fire. Everything looked OK. I raced back downstairs and reported to everyone who had assembled that it didn’t look like there was any damage to the bedroom. As I blurted out my report, I made my way out the kitchen door to the back yard. The wire was still attached to the pole. It was higher up the pole than I could reach, even while standing on the chain link fence.

When I came back into the house, my mom told me I had better get that wire off the pole before somebody sees it. I grabbed a dust mob that was leaning again the utility closet and headed back upstairs. It took only seconds to open the window and remove the screen. Using the mop handle as a tool, I wound the wire and gave a sharp tug. Down came my pride and joy antenna.

Then we head sirens. They were getting closer. They were not however coming down our street.

The view from that kitchen window looked out over the back yard, down a steep hill, and at the roofs of the houses on the street behind ours. In the post sunset darkness, it wasn’t apparent our neighbor’s rather tall CB antenna wasn’t there any more. No, that bolt of lightning had turned it into molten metal which had sprayed the neighborhood with those brilliant blue sparks.

The focus was off me and my clandestine antenna. The firemen were concentrated on putting out the small fire in our neighbor’s house. If in that instant I thought my life, our home, and my hobby were dashed to pieces by nature, I can only imagine what was happening in the house at ground zero of that lightning bolt. Mine was a near miss; there’s was a direct hit.

Until next time—

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2009-2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.

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