Out of the Blue: A History of Lightning: Science, Superstition, and Amazing Stories of Survival

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9780385341165: Out of the Blue: A History of Lightning: Science, Superstition, and Amazing Stories of Survival

The odds of being hit by lightning each year are only about 1 in 750,000 in the U.S. And yet this rare phenomenon has inspired both fear and fascination for thousands of years.

Herman Melville called it “God’s burning finger.” The ancient Romans feared it as the wrath of God. Today we have a more scientific understanding, so why our eternal fascination with lightning? Out of the Blue attempts to understand this towering force of nature, exploring the changing perceptions of lightning from the earliest civilizations through Benjamin Franklin’s revolutionary experiments to the hair-raising adventures of storm chasers like David Hoadley, who’s been chronicling extreme weather for half a century.

Combining captivating fact with thrilling personal stories, Out of the Blue tells a remarkable true tale of fate and coincidence, science and superstition. It is a book for sports enthusiasts, outdoor adventurers, science and weather buffs, nature lovers, and anyone who has ever been awed or frightened by the sight of lightning.

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About the Author:

The Oscar-wining producer of the documentary Hotel Terminus, John S. Friedman has written for the New York Times and contributes regularly to The Nation. The editor of The Secret Histories, he lives in Sharon, Connecticut.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

An Awesome Flame


Everybody's afraid of lightning. Maybe it's built into the genes. It's a primal fear.
—DR. MARTIN UMAN

Lightning descends upon the American landscape in fiery arcs across the Great Plains on lonely summer nights and in brilliant streaks over the Rocky Mountains on lazy afternoons. It's also embedded in our oldest myths.

The stars are the campfires of the dead, and when we die, the great Thunderbird, lightning flashing from its eyes, carries our souls to the Milky Way. According to another Native legend, the Sun, father of twin boys, gave them magic arrows—lightning that strikes crooked and lightning that strikes straight. One day, the twins heard rumbling like the sound of an earthquake. It was the wake of the giant Yeitso3, who had smelled their scent. "How shall I kill them?" the giant wondered. He fired four arrows at the boys, but they missed.

Then the boy named Born of Water shot his own arrow and hit Yeitso. And the boy named Monster Slayer shot his arrow and it killed the giant. Afterward, the twins slayed other monsters with their magical arrows, and they made a huge thunderstorm sweep across the land. When the storm ended, a place called the Grand Canyon existed where once other terrible creatures had lived.

Memories of the indiscriminate power and terrible fascination of lightning have remained with me since childhood. When I rode on horseback in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northern New Mexico—the ancestral home of the Apaches, the Navajos, and the Pueblo Indians—thunderbolts flashed and crackled around me, and I feared I would never return home. The drama of the never-ending Southwestern sky and its storms—absent in the Northeast, where I have lived most of my life—shaped me in ways I am still exploring.

Ever since, I've wondered about the mysteries of lightning. What causes lightning, and what attracts and repels it? How can we protect against lightning, and when is it most dangerous? Why would one person walking in a field be struck and killed by lightning during a storm while his companion walks away unharmed? What happens physically to someone after being  struck?

In his great novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder observes that most "occasions of human woe had never been quite fit for scientific examination. They had lacked what our good savants were later to call proper control." As he ponders the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey, which killed several travelers in eighteenth-century Peru, Wilder's alter ego in the novel, Brother Juniper, collects "thousands of little facts and anecdotes and testimonies" to try to learn "why God had settled upon that person and upon that day for His demonstration of wisdom."

Lightning, too, was most often considered in earlier periods of history to be a pure act of God, beyond scientific explanation. Today, the discoveries of science and medicine have altered our perspectives far beyond Brother Juniper's imaginings.

Still, being struck inevitably raises existential questions about life and death, destiny and divine retribution. What did I do to deserve this? What should I do now? After all, when lightning strikes, there is no human cause. Believing that the testimony of survivors would yield the "thousands of little facts and anecdotes" underlying the human dimension of lightning, I set out on a journey to record their stories. Their accounts reveal a remarkable blend of willful choice and random coincidence, science and superstition. They tell of heroism, pain, hope, and sacrifice. Above all, they tell of their own inspiring spiritual changes.

At least forty-four people were killed by lightning in the United States in 2007. The reported number is lower than the actual number because some deaths due to lightning are not recorded as such. Lightning is the second-leading cause of fatalities in the U.S. related to violent weather. It causes more deaths than earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes. Only floods kill more people. But unlike these other natural disasters, lightning strikes are small, private tragedies, reserved for the unlucky few.

***
Lightning set my underclothes on fire," Roy Sullivan told a rapt audience watching the 1980s TV show That's Incredible! "Now, if you say that's not hot, I'd like to know what hot is."

A longtime ranger in Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Sullivan was born in Greene County, Virginia, on February 7, 1912. He was first hit by lightning in 1942, standing in a park lookout tower. He was lucky. His only injury was the loss of a big toenail. A brawny man with a broad, rugged face, Sullivan, who resembled the actor Gene Hackman, was struck again in 1969 while driving along a mountain road. This time the lightning only singed his eyebrows. But a year later, the outdoorsman was walking across his yard when lightning struck again, searing his left shoulder.

The fourth strike occurred in 1972, while Sullivan was working in a ranger station in Shenandoah National Park. It set his hair on fire, and he had to grab a bucket of water and pour it over his head to extinguish the flames. "I can be standing in a crowd of people, but it'll hit me," he said at the time. "I'm just allergic to lightning."

In 1973, while he was out on patrol in the park, Sullivan saw a storm cloud forming and drove away quickly. But the cloud, he said later, seemed to be following him. When he finally thought he had outrun it, he decided it was safe to leave his truck, but again he was struck. "I actually saw the bolt that hit me," he said. The next strike, the sixth, came in 1974 while he was checking a campsite near the Skyline Drive and left him with an injured ankle.

Then one Saturday morning in 1977, when he was fishing in a freshwater pool, lightning struck Sullivan for the seventh time—hitting the top of his head and traveling down his right side. With his hair singed and burns on his chest and stomach, he hurried to his car. But still he kept his wits about him. He later told a reporter that as he stumbled back down the trail, a bear appeared and tried to steal three trout from his fishing line. But Sullivan had the strength and courage to strike the bear with a branch. He recalled that it was the twenty-second bear he had hit on the head during his lifetime.

Sullivan owns a place in the Guinness World Records, not for the number of times he's decked a bear but for the distinction of being struck by lightning more recorded times than any other human being. Some reports state that he was hit an eighth time in the early 1980s. "Naturally people avoided me," he once recalled. "For instance, I was walking with the chief ranger one day when lightning struck way off. The chief said, 'I'll see you later.' "

On the one hand, Sullivan seemed to attract lightning. (He was dubbed "the human lightning rod" by the media.) On the other hand, he appeared to have some natural physical defense against its effects—despite the number of times he was struck, he wasn't killed or even seriously injured. A member of the Shenandoah Heights Baptist Church, Sullivan had conflicting thoughts about his own fate. He believed that an unseen force was trying to destroy him, and he became convinced after the fourth strike that the next bolt would kill him. Still, he once told a reporter, "I don't believe God is after me. If He were, the first bolt would have been enough."

After supposedly being rejected by the woman he loved, or perhaps from the fear and dread of future strikes, Roy Sullivan shot and killed himself in 1983 at the age of seventy-one. He was living at the time in a town called Dooms.

***
Linda Cooper seems to have it all. She is happily married and lives in an upscale neighborhood of Spartanburg, South Carolina. She has three daughters and three grandchildren. She likes her job as a computer lab supervisor at the local elementary school and generally enjoys life.

And yet, she suffers. Linda Cooper has been hit by lightning four times in her life. No other woman, as far as is known, has been struck as many times. Men account for about four times more lightning fatalities and injuries than women, as men are more likely to engage in agriculture, construction, and recreational outdoor activities.

I am sitting on a bench with Linda Cooper in a hallway of the MainStay Suites in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where a conference for lightning survivors is taking place. She is wearing a tailored red jacket, a blue dress, and a silver necklace. She speaks with a slight Southern accent and is poised and attractive. Complimented that at fifty-seven she looks ten years younger than her age, she replies brightly, "Makeup and curlers do wonders."

Cooper was born in Atlanta in 1950 and grew up in Miami. She was first struck by lightning on September 15, 1983, which had been a typical September day in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida—dismal and gray. It had been raining on and off all morning, and just after one p.m. it started to sprinkle again.
Setting out on a round of errands, Cooper had parked her car in front of the Coral Ridge post office, where she was going to mail a package. When she stepped onto the sidewalk, "it was like a hand grenade going off in my face," she recalls. "All I remember is a blinding white light and the loudest sound I have ever heard or could ever imagine hearing."

The next thing she knew, she was standing up, brushing off her dress, and wondering why she was all wet. Confused and in shock, she walked into the post office. On her way in, she turned and saw a man in his car staring at her. "On his face was a look of horror." They never spoke and he drove away quickly. But to this day, Cooper wonders what he saw.

She went up to the counter to mail her package and told the clerk that she had just been hit by lightni...

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