Except for the Lightning
Except for the lightning, I’m a pretty lucky person. Just examine the facts:
1) I was born healthy into a happy, well-to-do family that wanted me desperately and was able to provide for me lavishly. Growing up I had every advantage and wanted for nothing.
2) It was abundantly clear from the start that I was gifted. Academics came easily to me. I skipped two grades in grammar school and graduated college (private school) in two years.
3) I was blessed with devastating good looks. Women adore me. I can eat whatever I want and I never gain an ounce. I’m tall and thin and have all my hair.
4) Upon turning 18, I inherited an enormous sum of money. For all intents and purposes I’ve never worked a day in my life, though in the last 10 years my net worth has more than doubled.
Beyond all that, I find fortune favors me in the day to day. I win all the coin tosses. There’s always a cab or a parking spot when I need one. I’ve never had the measles or jury duty.
Last week I found a $50 bill lying on the sidewalk, U. S. Grant smirking up at me. I bent down to pick it up, at which point my attorney—who was walking with me, as I’d just come from a meeting in which I was informed that a lawsuit against one of the companies I own a major stake in was going to be dismissed—shook his head with a big dumb wolf grin and said, “God damn, you have got to be the luckiest guy I know.”
I folded the $50 in half with a sharp crease and stuck it in my shirt pocket. “Except for the lightning,” I reminded him. He said nothing, looking uncomfortable, and we continued on in silence.
Both of my parents were struck and killed by lightning. Separate incidents, six months apart.
My mom first: she was out riding one of her horses, a chestnut mare named Ginger, at our house in the country. We were spending the summer there. Mom would wake up early every morning and go out riding through the woods and fields of our estate. She loved riding. That was the main reason my parents bought that property: so my mom could keep the horses there and have a place to ride.
She got caught out in one of those May thunderstorms that blow up out of nowhere, violently, suddenly, knocking down tree limbs and flooding streets and rivers. She was almost home, cantering across an open field maybe 200 yards from the stable, when she got hit. Danny, the groundskeeper, saw it happen. He said the horse stumbled forward for a few feet more, then fell to one side, and my mother fell off to the opposite side—like two pieces of a log falling away from each other when split by an axe.
My mother’s heart likely stopped the instant the lightning hit, the doctor told my father and me.
The horse lived, but only another 18 months (which, tragically, would turn out to be a year longer than my father). She was blind after that, and all the hair had burned off her tail and showed no signs of growing back. But she was well looked after for her remaining days, even though she was ill tempered and rude. She tried to eat my hair once, and bit me at least 10 times. She kicked my father right in the stomach just a month after Mom died. And one time she shat right on his foot, though I can’t really say for certain that was the fault of the poor blind horse.
My father took my mother’s death hard. He was a wreck immediately thereafter and for the rest of his life. Never a drinker before, at least not that I knew of, he attacked the bottle with abandon after Mom’s death. Filthy and stinking, driven crazy by grief and drink, he’d walk around the house and the grounds all day with a water glass full of gin and a bottle.
I was 15 when Mom died, and just a summer away from leaving home for school. It was terrible, of course, but the young are resilient. I grieved appropriately, and tried to busy myself as best I could preparing to leave for the fall semester.
When September came it was a gigantic relief to leave and get away from my father, though I felt guilty about it at the time and I still do today. But it was hard to watch him: before I left he’d taken to spending more and more of his time outside. He’d be gone from the house for days, passing out and sleeping in the woods or on a hillside he hadn’t the faculties to climb at the moment. He’d come back to the house every few days looking awful, slinking around quietly. Then he’d leave again without so much as a word, his arms loaded down with bottles of gin. Apparently he was stashing them all around the grounds. Years later I still turn up the occasional bottle of Beefeater’s in a hollowed-out tree trunk or behind a log in the woods around the house.
I couldn’t find him when it was time for me to leave. I left a note with Danny, asking him to deliver it to my father when he could. The note had my new address in the dormitory, promises that I’d be home for Thanksgiving, and assurances of love and understanding.
That was it. I left without saying good-bye, except for that sorry little note. I just had to get away. I was desperate to get on with my life, while he seemed desperate to end his.
The Monday before Thanksgiving I got a call from Danny. I’d talked to him just a few times since I left, trying to get updates on Dad, which were always the same: never good. But this was the first time he’d called me, and I knew right away what he was going to say. Or at least I knew most of it. The details I never would have guessed.
My father, of course, was dead. This came as no surprise. But the circumstances of his death were what came as a jolt.
In the three months I’d been gone, my father had only grown more drunk and bizarre. He had apparently climbed a gigantic chestnut tree that grew on the estate. How he got up there, Danny says no one knew for sure, but he was way up, right at the very top of this tree when Danny finally spotted him. He called the fire department right away, who responded immediately, but soon discovered they didn’t have a truck with a ladder long enough to reach him. So they had to call in another truck from Jasper County.
While they were waiting for the other truck a real nasty storm starting moving in. The sky became dark and the winds picked up to the point that they were worried that Dad would be blown right out of the tree.
But that’s not what happened. The rain started to come down, then the lightning. He was struck by lightning and knocked out of the tree, breaking his neck and back when he hit the ground. Danny told me the doctor couldn’t be sure if Dad was ultimately killed by the lightning strike or the impact of the fall.
I told him it didn’t matter.
I knew exactly where to lay the blame for my father’s death.
If Bruce Wayne’s parents had been killed by lightning rather than by crooks, Batman would have dedicated his life to fighting lightning instead of crime.
I’m not trying to compare myself to Batman, mind you. I don’t strap on a codpiece and cape and BAM! POW! fight with the thunderstorms. That would be crazy. Life isn’t a comic book.
That being said, I have dedicated my life to wiping out lightning: my one, overarching, mortal enemy. Some day I hope to stamp it out completely.
It is estimated that lightning strikes the Earth about 100 times every second. In a split second a single bolt of lightning reaches temperatures approaching 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or about five times hotter than the surface of the sun. This high temperature will immediately turn water or water vapor into high-pressure, superheated steam, the force of which can explode the clothes off your body or the bark off a tree, explode concrete, drywall, or any material containing even a small amount of moisture. If lightning strikes loose soil or sandy regions of the ground, the heat may fuse the soil or sand into glass. Lightning kills hundreds of people around the world each year, though due to under reporting it’s thought to be more like thousands each year. Additionally, lightning is responsible for countless wildfires, livestock deaths, and millions of dollars every year in property damage.
I have labs all over the world, employing some of the finest scientific and meteorological minds alive today, all working on the problem. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: we’re getting closer to an answer.
We’ve decided, for instance, not to try to wipe out rain altogether. We looked at that possibility, but in the end decided the cost/benefit ratio just wasn’t in its favor. And besides, this isn’t about the rain. We don’t have anything against rain. Rain is good. It’s just lightning we’re after here.
Not all rainstorms, obviously, produce lightning. That’s the key. So what our people are doing is examining both types of storms—the lightning producing and the non-lightning producing—and trying to determine what conditions are specific to each. Ultimately, we want to determine ways to encourage the conditions for the non-lightning producing storms and discourage the conditions for the lighting producing storms. If we can do that, we’re fairly confident we can kill lightning, and thus free mankind from the devastating effects of this age-old terror.
Imagine a life without lightning. I’m going to make it happen.
Recently word’s gotten out in the media about what I’m doing. I’m taking a bit of a beating in the press. People think me quite mad.
Throughout history great visionaries have often been persecuted. People don’t understand. They’re afraid of what’s different and hate what they don’t know. They’re terrified of someone who looks at the world and sees possibilities they never imagined.
I know, deep in my heart, that what I’m doing is important. I’m committed.
That’s why I’m headed for Brazil. One of our top laboratories is there in the city of Teresina, in the north of Brazil, which has the third-highest rate of occurrences of lightning strikes in the world. The surrounding region is referred to as Chapada do Corisco, or “Flash Lightning Flatlands." The stormy season there is just about to get underway and I’m going to be there with my team, collecting data, learning all we can about our awful electrical enemy.
Enigmatic Millionaire Struck Down by Mother Nature:
Bizarre Crusade Against Lightning Comes to Shocking Conclusion
By John Grogan, Associated Press
Teresina, Brazil—The reclusive multimillionaire who had dedicated his life and fortune to a puzzling campaign against lightning after, improbably, both his parents were killed six months apart by lightning strikes, died today after being struck himself in the fields outside the city of Teresina, Brazil. He was 33 years old.
Doctors called to the scene said the official cause of death was a heart attack brought on by the lightning strike.
Eyewitnesses said the deceased had wandered away from the “safety zone” to join several scientists conducting research in the field.
“He wasn’t more than 50 feet outside the safe zone when he got hit,” said Jamal Rae, who was there acting as a translator for the group of scientists and researchers. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was as if the lightning bolt started way off in the distance, spotted him, then turned in midair and came crashing down on him.”
There were at least 20 other scientists and researchers in the field. No one else was injured.
Copyright 2006, Matt McCarthy
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