– Violent thunderstorm, lightning strike, 1971, Belle, Mo. — No. 10 on my lifetime list of Top 10 weather events is really rather uneventful. It could have been placed among the honorable mentions. But this one is important if only for the irony of how today my heart races, my pulse pounds and energy surges inside me when a thunderstorm rages. Ironic because when I was 8 — it was 1971 — I developed a paralyzing fear of storms. Today, instead of hiding under the covers or calling out for one of my parents or getting sick to my stomach from fear, I look forward to the storm. I wake up at 2 a.m. to welcome the storm.
I love strong, loud, bright, window-rattling storms. I have an almost obsessive fascination with the weather, as this novel-length memoir of my life’s greatest weather events indicates.
But not when I was 8. We lived in the parsonage at First Baptist Church in Belle, Mo., where dad was the pastor. I was the youngest of four — the “baby” of the family — and pretty much a typical preacher’s kid. In other words, a holy terror. I was a show-off (yeah, hard to believe, I know) and was certain that the earth didn’t revolve around the sun. It revolved around me.
It was a dark and stormy night … really. I lay awake listening to the thunder crack, the wind roar and the house shake. Angry lightning bolts rocketed from the clouds, striking at will. There had been other storms, sure, but this one was different. Maybe it was because I was awake, letting my imagination run wild.
Maybe it was because after one white-hot bolt zapped through the clouds, there was the “pow!” that I’d never heard. Moments later, there was a siren and I mustered just enough courage to peek out my window that looked out over the street between our house and Mr. and Mrs. Slate’s house. I saw the reflection of flashing emergency lights as a fire truck speed down a street almost out of my field of vision.
Something bad had happened.
The next day at school, my friend, Tom, wasn’t there. Somebody said lightning struck his house. Naturally, I imagined the worst, thinking that if lightning zapped Tom’s house, and if Tom wasn’t at school, then Tom was probably … well, I didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. It turned out, Tom was fine, and his house was, too. At some point I went past Tom’s house and saw that one corner had a small, charred streak from where the lightning had zapped the roof. Not much of a fire.
No big deal.
A few nights later, there was another storm, another flame of lightning zapping something, and that unmistakable “pow!” that announced the “something” was very close.
Then I smelled smoke. Overcome by tears and the absolute certainty that lightning struck our house, I shouted for my dad.
But our house was fine. No smoke. No fire. False alarm. Still, I was terrified.
I’m not sure when that fear subsided and eventually turned into something the exact opposite, but for the longest time after that storm, I smelled smoke each time I saw lightning. It was as real as anything I knew. I smelled smoke.
One night, a lightning strike did cause a power surge through the house, and the zap turned on the television. Don’t know how it happened, can’t remember the details … and that’s part of the problem. For the longest time, my mom has said that I “remember big.” It’s not that I’m lying or fabricating anything, but maybe the little details take a prominent role, sometimes to the point of obscuring the actual perspective.
But that’s okay. I guarantee that no one else in my family smelled smoke when they saw lightning or heard a thunder-clap. However, that’s my perspective, and maybe the television coming on in the middle of the night — all by itself — during a thunderstorm had nothing to do with lightning. But I do remember that it wouldn’t turn off without being unplugged. Go figure.
When fears grips a little boy in the night and he must call out for his daddy, the context and perspective of reality isn’t something the little guy is going to grasp right then. He’s scared beyond comprehension. And he smells smoke. Maybe he needs to go from room to room for assurance that, no, nothing’s on fire. We’re all okay.
Maybe, now with 40 years of distance between me and that little boy, the self-centered little punk who spent every waking minute showing off and cutting up just needed to hear his daddy say, “It’s okay. We’re safe.”