Posted by: justawriter | August 26, 2009

Far Afield – A reminder of nature’s power

It seems that no matter how advanced we like to think we have become, we are all still subject to the whims and vagaries of Mother Nature. This past week was a good example as a hurricane took an extreme right turn and rather than lashing Florida or Latin America, buffeted the shores of Maine and Nova Scotia instead.
A young boy was killed when a violent wave washed over a group of 20 people on an observation platform at a park in Maine. It goes to show how fragile we are in the face of such awesome forces. It also tells me that when someone says an area is hazardous, I should listen to them.
We had another example of nature dwarfing our best efforts to control her this week. I had the opportunity to talk with Jim Erdman about the lightning strike that severely damaged his home last week. It reminded me of my own brush with the world’s largest dynamo many years ago.
The house I grew up in sat on a small rise just a quarter mile south of town. The difference in height didn’t even rate being called a hill, but on the flatlands of eastern North Dakota, that difference was significant.
That house seemed to be a magnet for lightning. It seemed like every six or seven years there was a direct hit. It wasn’t so bad for me, because it meant that we would be getting a new television so we always had one of the newest sets around. In fact, we were one of the very first in our area to get a color television because of convenient lighting strike. I think the fact that NBC started showing Bonanza in color that same year may have convinced Dad to pay the extra cost. He couldn’t get enough of Ben, Hoss and Little Joe on Sunday nights.
I tell you all this to explain that we were no strangers to the power of lightning at our house. But that didn’t prepare us for the big bolt that came when I was a teenager. I remember that I had the luxury of sleeping in that day. Dad, my brother and our hired man were at the kitchen table planning out the day’s work. Well, I certainly got a wakeup call I didn’t expect. The thunder, I swear, bounced me 6 inches off of the bed. I grabbed my pants and ran to the kitchen to see what happened.
Eventually we were able to trace the path of the bolt from the trail of destruction it left.
This took place at the height of the citizens band radio craze. Since Dad had fields that were 10 miles away to both the east and the west, he invested in a powerful base station and a nice tall antenna so we could communicate across the countryside. It was a wonderful timesaver in those days when the first cell phones were still decades away.
We figured the bolt hit both the radio and television antennas at the same time.
The CB radio base station sat on a small built-in desk in the kitchen/dining room. The lightning bolt burst out of the radio and went across the kitchen and through the wall next to the coffee maker. Less than a minute before, Dad had been pouring himself a cup of coffee.
The TV antenna was one that you could rotate with an electric rotor to pull in distant stations. The rotor box sat on top of the television set and when we found it had exploded.
The house had electric heat with the wires embedded in the ceiling. The lightning bolt traveled down the guy wires of the CB antenna and arced to the electric heat wires. The overloaded wires exploded, leaving two holes in the living room ceiling and another in the dining room.
Because of the places history, Dad had not one, but two lightning rods on the house, one at each end. They did their job because after the strike, we could see where the electricity had arced to each nail on the way down.
The bolt that came out of the CB burst through the corner of the house, breaking the siding on its way. It still had the energy to reach our yard light. It blew the electric eye off the top of the light. I found it about 150 feet away. The metal prongs that connected it to the yard light had been vaporized. The power continued to look for places to ground itself, traveling along the electrical wires to the garage where it blew all the fuses.
Dad figured that lightning bolt had been grounded in seven different places and still did all that damage in the blink of an eye.
It’s a much safer place than it used to be. The local cable company built an antenna on Dad’s land between the house and town. That antenna acted like a 100-foot lightning rod and we had no more lightning problems after that.
Another family owns that house now. I wonder how they know when it is time to buy a new television.

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