Gone in a Flash

The house was still shaking from the recent thunderous boom.

“Did you see that?!?”

Almost everyone had.

In my lifetime I have only been shaken, physically (and a little mentally) by the shockwave, by two thunder-booms. For years—as an adult—I used to work at a Boy Scout camp named Thunder Ridge. At the mountainous elevation of the camp, the storms could be pretty bad. The thunder and lightning would be right there, right above your head—not far above your head, right above your head. Once, during a particularly terrible storm, a lightning bolt shot down and shook the lodge. All the staff who were witness of it were in awe. Then it got worse.

Seconds later, another lightning bolt shot across the meadow—about 20 feet above and parallel with the ground, and ran the full length of the 500-yard meadow—that shook the very Earth. (I know what I wrote)

The bolt was only a few hundred feet away, and even from that distance, the bolt’s diameter had to be at twelve inches. I. Kid. You. Not. Twelve inches in diameter. It was like a long serpentine Chinese Dragon of electricity dancing its way across the open field. There. Then gone. As soon as the bolt had dissipated, the concussive shock wave made the six-foot by five-foot window at the front of the lodge ripple. The glass in the window frame rippled. RIPPLED! Like water! Like. Water. We all thought the glass would shatter. It didn’t.

Now, I know, dear reader, that it may be difficult to believe my tale. I understand. There is a saying that seeing is believing. Well, I did see it and I still wonder if I truly did see what I saw. After an impossible sight like that…

Anywho, back to the first. So, yeah, I was around six years old when lightning struck.

Now, I am sure you’ve all heard amazing stories of lightning strikes and what they’ve done. Or even some of you have captured it on film. That’s cool. Feel free to share your stories in the comments, or leave a link. I find lighting stories very interesting. I really do. Okay, really now, back to the first strike. My first strike.

So, I was about six years old, and it was just another day at home. The family had gathered around the kitchen table for the evening meal. As the day had drawn on, signs that a storm might begin had manifested. It wasn’t too dark or grey, it was just slightly cloudy. But there was a certain feeling in the air. It was almost electric. It was most certainly unforgettable.

On any given day—when I was younger—my family had supper together. It was custom. I think part of it was from my mother’s background, and the rest was ‘that’s just what you did, back then’. As the afternoon began to wrap itself up, supper was prepared, and the family came together. I don’t recall any of what we ate. I can see the table. It had ribbed metal trim and could separate down the center to add a leaf. I could tell you all about the carpet on that floor—I spent many an hour playing on it. It was gridded and yellow (it was perfect for playing games like Crossbows and Catapults). I can even see the room dividers.

Once upon a time, people used to section off their larger rooms with fake walls. Yup. It’s true. The opening from our front room almost exposed the entirety of our kitchen. And, I learned from my mother, that some things should remain private (like messes). So, like, if your kitchen has a few dirty dishes on the counter (which never happened in my home), something like a room divider could ‘hide’ it from guests. We had two of them, one on each side of the opening. They had tension springs on the tops and bottoms to hold them in place, framed of plastic wood (with real artificial woodgrains molded in), and they had yellow semi-translucent plastic sheets framed inside. The yellow plastic had raised circular rings molded onto one side to warp any image that might be seen through them—very ‘50s-’60s (this was the late ‘70s, early ‘80s). But, I don’t recall what we were having for dinner.

Well, as I had mentioned, there was threat of a storm. Nature made good on that threat.

There were six seated around the table (because there were two parents and four children). My mother was to my right, dad was opposite her. To my immediate left was my sister, Jolene. My brother was across the table from me, and to his immediate right was my other sister, Erin. As we ate, rain began to fall. Thunder sounded. And the occasional, distant flash of lightning could be hinted at, in the clouds. It was a nice day (I like the rain, okay. don’t judge).

As the meal progressed, we would take turns looking out the big sliding glass doors that were positioned behind Jolene and I. This was one of the greatest things about this house. I loved those big windows (I know, one was a sliding door). All the sunlight, and warmth. The snow that would stack up against them… All the sun… You could see the backyard and the sun. They were great on days like that one—all the joy of the rain, with all the joy of food not being rained on.

Our backyard was simple. I’ve mentioned it’s set up before. We had trees that lined one side of the property and another set that separated the garden patch from the rest of the yard. They were those kinds of trees that farmers use as windbreaks on the edges of their lots. Then, we had one tree that was a loner. An aspen, that just grew in an odd spot. We had a tree…

My home on Cheryl Street, Billings, Montana.

As the rain came down and the flashes flickered, my family was taking turns looking out the large sliding glass doors. My brother and Erin didn’t have to try very hard, they were facing it. My mother and father would sorta side-eye it. Jolene and I would occasionally turn to look, and when we did for too long, were told to turn back around and eat our dinner.

According to livescience.com, there is a way to count the time differential between when you see the lightning and hear the thunder to figure out about how far the lightning is from your location. Well, at six years old I had never heard of that trick (there was no internet). And, more importantly, it wouldn’t have mattered. The flash was there, gone, and before you could have even begun to think about the number 1, the thunder rattled our house. The lightning had touched down in our backyard.

“Did you see that?!?” Yes, five of us had. That tremendous bolt of energy had decided that it didn’t like our aspen tree and struck it down. That blazing bolt from the sky hit the tree’s trunk about eighteen inches up from the ground. The tree, being a tree, did the only thing it could do, being a tree: It fell over. On fire. It fell into our yard (very thoughtful), instead of onto our house—which it could have reached (again, very thoughtful). If it had fallen 90° toward our house, I would be dead. My sister, Jolene, would be dead. My brother and my other sister would most likely be dead. And both my parents would have been severely broken from the roof being collapsed—if not dead.

The aspen lay there in our yard. The side facing the sky was alight—the fire ran almost the full length of the thirty-foot trunk. Those newly born flames were slowly being extinguished by the same rain that brought the very thing that had taken the tree down. The foot-and-a-half stump was now just a smoldering protrusion from the dirt and grass that was our lawn. Shrapnel from the point of contact was strewn about the impact site in an almost fifteen-foot radius. Each broken fragment layed about our lawn, smoking and steaming in the light drizzle. Not your typical evening meal.

1) Where the table was (inside the house) that we were seated at. 2) Where the tree was and where the lighting hit. 3) Where the fallen, burning tree lay, after being struck by the lightning.

“Did you see that?!?” It had been declared in almost perfect unison.

Eventually, the fallen aspen tree was chainsawed into sections and hauled away. The stump was still in place when we moved away—years later. According to Google Maps, that stump has long since been taken out. I didn’t see when that happed, much like I never saw when it was formed. I had been the only one who was not looking at the moment the tree was felled.

“Did you see that?!?” No. No, I did not.

We had all been looking out at the storm. I had turned back to take another bite of food. In that all too brief instant, the lightning had come and struck the tree down. A moment before, it was there, then, it was gone—in a flash.

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