Monday, August 10, 2009

The mystery about lightning

Whether for lack of common sense or for sheer excitement, I decided to venture off on my Sunday walk through the hiking trails of Memorial Park as a thunderstorm started to loom over me with thick, roiling black clouds. As I entered the trail head, a loud peal of thunder cracked above me. Two more bangs quickly followed, and then the sky opened up. As the rain began to move through the trees, the din became louder and louder. I opened my umbrella and stood underneath a clump of cross vines straddled between two pines.

This summer in Houston has been HOT. Second hottest summer since 1932 according to Channel 11 news. I don’t know about that, but it certainly has been the hottest since I moved here from Maine in 2006. And as I found out by eating breakfast at the House of Pies on Friday a few weeks back, Texans are as good at telling jokes about the heat as New Englanders are at telling jokes about the cold: “Been so hot here lately that the farmers are having to feed their chickens chipped ice to keep them from laying hard boiled eggs.”

Not that I haven’t experienced hot weather before. Spent a couple of summers in Wichita, KS where 100 plus degree temperatures were not uncommon for August. But it was a dry heat. Houston, though, the humidity makes taking the heat a real challenge. A 100 degree day with 70% humidity can make it feel like 112. As Leon Hale put it in his column in today’s Houston Chronicle, you have to be a “heat lover” to enjoy being out in that kind of weather.

As I stood there with the rain misting around me, a couple more loud crackles of thunder went off. Then the rain really started to come down. A bright flash sizzled through the trees followed by a loud boom. That was close, I said to myself. Really close. I started having second thoughts about venturing out on my walk today. It’s one thing to enjoy a storm sitting next to a window inside the comfort and safety of your home, and an entirely different thing to be outside in it. The mystery about lightning is that you never know when or where it’s going to strike.

Such was the time I was at a Boy Scout summer camp in W. Lee, Mass. when we were enveloped in total blackness from clouds roiling in from the west. The rain fell so hard that you couldn’t see more than three feet from outside your tent. We were in one of those big miner tents that had four bunks in it—two to each side. I was sitting on the far bunk down from the camp counselor who was sitting on the edge of the bed facing toward me. He was a Bee Gees fanatic and was nuts about their new release: “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You.” With his GE am transistor radio tuned into WBEC, he was trying to sing along with the Gibb brothers, but was having a hard time trying to get good reception with all the static that was crackling through the speaker. He picked up the radio to see if could find a stronger signal with the antenna.

No sooner than he did, zap, a sizzling, white hot lightning bolt struck the tent pole, exited into the antenna, blew through the radio and struck the counselor, knocking him a clear five feet outside the tent. The tent pole and radio were smoldering. One of the scouts from the tent next to ours ran out to check on the counselor. I was stuck on the bed, still blinded from the flash. The scout that went to help the counselor yelled for me to come help him. I stood up and noticed I was shaking all over and it seemed to take me forever to finally get my feet moving. I wasn’t hurt, but for a second after the flash and the enormous bang that followed, I thought I had died.

We both rolled the counselor over. His color didn’t look very good, and his breathing was shallow. I ran off to the administration building to find one of the scout leaders. The counselor was eventually carried off on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, and was taken to the hospital. We later learned he had suffered second to third degree burns on both his hands, and that he also suffered burns on his stomach and back. As bad as it seemed at first, though, we were told he was going to be OK.

The rain started to let up. I closed the umbrella and as I did, I noticed a squirrel on the pine tree to my right peering down at me. Except for a few small twitches of its tail, it almost looked frozen. Maybe it was the umbrella that had drawn its curiosity. I could imagine if I were a squirrel, I would be puzzled if I had come across something like that. Although I couldn’t imagine what the squirrel could have possibly thought what an umbrella might be. A giant black mushroom, perhaps, the biggest black mushroom it had ever seen. It twitched its tail a couple more times and then turned and scurried back up the tree.

As I made my way toward the back part of the trail that wraps along the edge of the Buffalo Bayou, I found out I’d have to take a different route. The back part has quite a few knolls that are fun to run down and up on. Not so fun, though, after it’s rained. Soil here in Houston is mostly clay, and after it rains, it feels like you’re walking on Crisco.

When I came to the first knoll and stepped off, I slid down like I was on a nice ride at a water slide park. With my right hand, I stuck out my umbrella to break the slide, and with my left hand faced palm down, I broke my fall. I almost went down again when I tried to stand up, but with the support of my umbrella, and a tree branch hanging close by, I finally pulled myself back up. My walking shoes were globed in a thick coating of mud that became heavy with pine needles and leaves as I started to walk along an alternate trail.

The rumble of thunder could be heard again in the distance. Only it was not from the storm that had just passed. I walked to a clearing and looked to the north, the sky a purplish black. I decided I had enough adventure for one day, and headed back to the car.