WHILE LISTENING TO most lightning stories, I used to just nod my head and feign amazement, hoping the teller would not notice me slipping on my hip boots against the manure as he was spinning his yarn. The typical tale always seemed a little too far-fetched to believe.
There was the one about the rancher and his son who were struck in their pickup. The lightning totally burned out all the wiring and destroyed the radio. The rancher was supposedly too shook up to get out of the truck, although he did manage to make his son walk home for another vehicle.
Even better was the one about the rancher’s wife who was artificially inseminating a cow when a bolt of lightning hit the back of the pens, sending a big ball of electricity toward her. As the story goes, she managed to deposit the semen and open the head catch just as the electric ball blew the cow out of the chute. What is really amazing is that the cow actually got pregnant from that breeding!
Well, now I have my own story. I was working a ranch which was located next to a national monument and had been joking around with the park ranger about lightning. It seemed that every time you turned on the radio, you heard advice to golfers about what to do on the course if a thunderstorm came up. “DO NOT STAND IN THE LAKE WITH YOUR FIVE-IRON POINTING AT
THE PRETTY BLACK CLOUD!”
I was griping to the ranger about the fact that they were always giving free advice to these golfers, who could take sanctuary in the safety of the clubhouse, but none of it was useful to a cowboy on his horse miles from the nearest semblance of a building or other protection. The old ranger good-naturedly heard out my complaint and gave me a piece of advice: “Stay away from any tall trees, squat down, and stay on the balls of your feet so that you make the smallest target and you have the least amount of grounding possible.”
A couple of weeks later, I was able to put his words of wisdom to use. I was out fixing fence about three miles from the house when a thunderstorm suddenly came over the mountains. I got away from the fence, hobbled my horse, walked away from him, and squatted on the balls of my feet. Of course, resting on the balls of your feet is not the most relaxing posture, and my
spurs kept sinking into the rapidly developing mud. I almost took them off to reduce my grounding but decided to be daring and leave them on, keeping them out of the muck for as long as I could. After about twenty minutes, the storm passed over, and I let it get a good distance away before I returned to the fence. I was feeling safe, since lightning always leads the storm
rather than striking after the storm has passed. Well, almost always.
As I finished splicing a piece of wire, I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye and discovered that when
you see the lightning but don’t hear it, you are way too close. The next thing I knew, I was ten feet away from
the fence and kinda had the shakes. OK, I was more like a fish out of water, and I couldn’t feel my legs from the knees down. On one of my flops, I noticed my horse was also convulsing strangely and couldn’t seem to get up. When I would flop over to where I could see him, I noticed we were moving closer to each other. Then I glimpsed my boots flying up, and even though I couldn’t feel them, I could see they were still attached to my feet. Finally, my horse jumped up and fell down. I don’t really know if he jumped over me or if I rolled under him, but the result was that we swapped sides so that he was closer to the fence than I was. The next time he got up, he gave a jump that left him with his right feet on the east side of the fence and his left feet on the west. That kind of got him going, and he headed for the house at Mach 9, leaving the fence in worse shape than it had been before I fixed it. I figured that he would stop at the closed wire gate a mile down the road and I’d be able to ride him home from there, if I could ever get up.
All in all, I was in a precarious predicament. Since I lived alone, no one would know if I didn’t make it back. My only contact with the outside world was a radio phone which was often non-functional for a week at a time, so that if I didn’t call anyone or answer the phone, no one would have thought much about it. My horse was long gone before I managed to get up and start my
trek home. With three miles to walk, I hoped someone would drive by and pick me up. Then I started laughing.
Unless they knew me, they would have sped past, spraying me with mud. I was foaming at the mouth as if I had rabies and shaking as if I were a short-circuited robot, while I dragged one leg and hunched over worse than Quasimodo. Who in their right mind was going to pick up a mess like that?
When I got within sight of the house, I looked to the sky and muttered, “That whuth a puthy baad shot.”
The radio phone worked when I called my boss to let him know I’d been hit by lighting. His first response was “You’re not going to the doctor are you?”