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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

There was lightning moving in quickly

I was almost struck by lightning once. 'Twas the summer of 1998 and I was hanging out in the Trail Room late one evening with Jason when the news came over the camp radio that a tornado warning had been issued. My job as a program area coordinator was to make sure the campers and counselors in my program area got to shelter quickly and safely, which was easy enough to do - I walked the fifty yards from the Trail Room to the Outpost where the Night Campers were cooking supper and said, "Hey, Jesse, we gotta go hang out in the basement for a while."

"Tornado?" asked Jesse.

"Yep," I replied.

"I told you," said Jesse (he'd been predicting bad weather since that afternoon), and then proceeded to round up the campers and other counselors and we walked back to the Trail Room. It was very calmly and efficiently handled. No one panicked, no one was driven barefoot down a dark muddy trail by a screaming crazy woman who was telling them they needed to hurry, damn it, did they want to get killed by a tornado? Not every program area could say as much that night, but that's another story that doesn't involve me almost getting killed by a huge white bolt of electric death, so I'll not digress further.

The Night Campers settled in the Trail Room basement and we sent Jason in search of fruity and/or sugary snacks and started making Wizard of Oz jokes and singing campfire tunes. Then the radio crackled and the Explorer coordinator's voice came over it asking if anyone had gotten her campers out of SITville.

Explorers are campers who've just finished third grade; most weeks they're the youngest kids on camp. Usually they stay in the cabins close to the main lodge (allowing for "close to the lodge" jokes (was that too obscure? Anyone get that?)), but that week they'd been bumped out to the SITville cabins (so named because the Staff-In-Training usually stayed there) so the main cabins could house confirmation campers. The SITville cabins are quite a bit closer to the Trail Room than they are to the main lodge and Lisa, the Explorer coordinator, was calling to inquire if anyone Trail Room-based would be willing to go get her campers. Seemed reasonable to me, and I was generally predisposed to do nice things for Lisa anyway, so I volunteered and set forth with my trusty gray hat into the pouring rain.

To get from the Trail Room to SITville one must walk along the west edge of Pioneer Plains, a large-ish (a couple of football fields, I'd say) open area in the middle of the woods with a campfire ring where the all-camp Sunday campfire is held. I think the lightning hit somewhere in the middle of the field as I was walking along the edge.

I've been a nerd pretty much my whole life. I can intelligently discuss the mechanism by which lightning happens and cite uninteresting facts like how a lightning bolt is hotter than the surface of the sun and how that heat energy creates a thunderclap - I'll bet you all can, too. That's sixth grade science stuff. It's one thing to know how it works, though, and another thing entirely to be right next to ground zero. The flash of light was overwhelming and incapacitating by itself - the world was suddenly lit up as if a billion people were all taking my picture at once. I felt the heat wave wash over me, followed immediately by the shock wave which would eventually become a simple thunderclap once it had had more time to dissipate. It was, altogether, very much so the sort of experience for which the poets once coined the phrase "holy crap!" I dove to the ground and lay face-down for a bit in the wet grass, hoping I hadn't been blinded and trying to convince myself I hadn't been killed. And, I think, trying to protect myself from the lightning strike, although I'm not sure what sort of aftershock I was expecting.

I lay there for a few minutes until I could see again and my ears had stopped ringing and I was tired of lying in wet grass in pouring rain. Then I walked the rest of the way to SITville and rounded up the Explorers, exactly none of whom had been woken up by the thunderclap from the lightning strike that had almost Crispy Critter-ed me. The air smelled like ozone and I had a weird taste in my mouth - being almost hit by lightning is very much a five-sense experience.

The next day I went back to Pioneer Plains and looked for the giant smoking crater that must have been left behind (yes, yes, I know, lightning isn't actually a "strike" in any literal sense and the actual bolt is actually going up. Still, it seemed to me that so immense an event would have left some sort of mark), but I didn't see anything. I told the story of my harrowing incident, but it received a pretty negative response - Lisa thought I was trying to make her feel bad by making my trip to get her campers sound like an ordeal and Jason pointed out the lack of smoking crater and told me he didn't believe me (just wait 'till he almost gets hit by lightning someday - two can play the Dismissive Unconcern game, li'l buddy...). So I dropped it; I used it as a message point at a couple of Thursday campfires and looked for a crater at Pioneer Plains when I walked by but it quickly faded from my queue of Oft Told Stories. Tonight, though, a similar story brought it back to mind for me.

Tonight a good friend of mine stopped by to show me his new motorcycle, a 2002 Yamaha something-or-other model crotch rocket racing bike (not exactly this one, but the same sort). It was a really impressive machine and we admired it for a bit and I debated taking it for a spin around the block but decided not to since I don't own a helmet and my motorcycle skills aren't nearly up to handling such a powerful beast. Motorcycle-admiring apparently having made us hungry, we decided to go grab a bite at Old Chicago. He told me he'd meet me there; he hadn't taken it out on the interstate yet and was eager to experience a little high-speed riding.

I'd been waiting at Old Chicago for about 15 minutes when my cell phone rang. It was him, and he sounded quite distraught and stressed. "I've had a wreck, man; I got run into by a freaking semi!" he informed me, only afterwards also noting that he was okay. I drove out to the crash site and found him on his phone detailing the event to the Coralville police. Apparently he was just off of the exit ramp and heading into Coralville when a semi truck pulled over into his lane - the trailer hit him in the shoulder and pushed him over and he and the bike skidded off the road and into gravel, where they both slid/rolled to a stop. The bike seemed to be mostly okay, although the left side's badly scraped up. He's astonishingly-much unhurt; he has a skinned knee and a badly pulled calf muscle and a great deal of general bruising (tomorrow morning's going to be no fun at all, buddy). His leather jacket's scraped up and dusty and some of the seams are torn, but it seems to have mostly done its job and taken the brunt of the gravel-sliding. His helmet's done for - it's beaten up badly enough that it'll have to be replaced - and that's the scariest bit by far. If he hadn't been wearing it he'd at the very least have a badly cut-up face and more likely be in the hospital right now with people anxiously wondering when he's going to wake up. Or if he and the bike had slid left instead of right or not crashed right where the road's curving left they could have been under the wheels of the semi trailer.

We took him home and he took several ibuprofen and iced his calf (frozen french fries work better than frozen vegetables, I learned) and watched him alternate between marveling at how lucky he was to not be more badly hurt and agonizing over over getting 15 minutes of riding time on his new bike.

It's amazing to me how fragile life really is. So many things - many of them nothing more than simple bad luck - can pop the bubble and just like that you're done. Whatever plans you might have had, whatever things you might have done, whatever life you may have brought to other people - gone like that because you happened to be standing in a lightning bolt's way or a semi driver decided to ignore protocol about lane changes. Or a hurricane rolls through your town or a politician ten thousand miles away decides his country needs something that your country has or some of your cells accidentally mutate into super cells and kill off their neighbors or an idiot with a gun decides it will somehow help him feel better to take your life or a million million other things. It's an immensely sobering thing to think about, and being at work here in the hospital certainly isn't helping.

So here's my bloggish advice to you, which you're welcome to take or to ignore or to roll your eyes at or whatever you like: take a couple of minutes right now and think about some of the things that make your life something that you wouldn't want to lose. Take some time to really notice them, to really appreciate them, now while you can.

And always wear your helmet.

Comments:
I believe your story about the lightning. I am so moved by your blog entry that I feel compelled to spend time with close friends, and reminisce about old times. Perhaps I will visit some good friends this weekend.
 
Oh... I forgot to mention: I think the song is called "Good Rain" by Storyhill. A John Hermonson song about meeting an old girlfriend again after being separated for a while.
 
Thanks, Charlie. I'm glad everyone is OK.
 
The poet's name, incidentally, was Amy Kahl.
 
"Good Rain" it is, it is. I'm not sure I agree with your synopsis of the song's plot, though - I think you're thinking of Dan Fogelberg's "Another Auld Lang Syne".

Thanks for going with your compellment, too - it was quite cool to see you and Carrie this weekend.
 
Another story I have never heard before. I am glad the lighning didn't hit you Charlie and I believe that it happened to you.

If you hadn't told us that he had been hit by a semi, I would never have guessed, and I am glad that he is fine too.

Also, I had a very nice time this weekend seeing you and Matt play at Mud River and spending the rest of the weekend have even more fun. Thanks for the great times!
 
I saw your picture by the lake and was drawn to your site (shot in Idaho maybe, but not Iowa). Beautiful shot--I've been by many such lakes and such as sight always makes me a bit homesick.

As for the lightning experience, you're lucky or God is watching out for you (probably the latter). I've never had one quite that close, but have been in scary situations where the lightning was popping all around and you smell the ozone. When hiking with friends, we'd spread out to minimize the risk!
 
Hi, sage! Welcome.

Certainly not shot in Iowa, as you say (alas) - that picture's from a backpacking trip to Banff National Park last summer. Mystic Lake; an insanely beautiful and peaceful little spot (mosquitoes notwithstanding) that can only be reached via an extremely grueling hike over Mystic Pass.

Wouldn't spreading out minimize the risk of the whole group getting hit by lightning while increasing the chances of somebody getting hit? There's an interesting sociology question here somewhere.
 
I've only day hiked in Banff--and it was in November. Beautiful.

As for your sociological question, spreading the group out means that if one gets hit, there's someone to do CPR!
 
Looks like I need to post in order to defend myself if nothing else...

I don't believe I ever told Charlie that I didn't believe him - in those days I would believe just about anything Charlie would tell me. I think it’s best to call that part artistic license that Charlie used to enhance the story (which is frequently used at my expense). Nevertheless, I leave it to you to decide who/what to believe.

Also, for those of you who haven't heard (officially) Karin and I are the proud parents of a baby boy. Gabriel Martin Hiner was born on Sept. 25th at 8:03. 8 lbs 5 oz and about 20 in. long. Everyone is getting along fine, but with less sleep than normal. Pictures available on request :).
 
So you don't believe that you didn't believe me?

Complicated.
 
Congratulations, Jason. Try to get some sleep.
 
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