Lightning doesn’t mess around

Published 8:51 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2017

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is “lightning season” in this part of the world and the following Short Rows, published on April 26, 2000, is reprinted as a reminder that lightning is nothing to play with.)

There are lots of things to say about lightning striking your septic system, blowing up the distribution box and blasting small craters of dirt in the yard above the drain field. Many of them are humorous and most of them have been said by friends during the past couple days, but this remains a family newspaper, so I won’t repeat them.

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It does provide an opportunity to talk about lightning, however. And the point is not to have you feel sorry for the Edwardses. No one was hurt, the house didn’t burn down and the insurance adjustor has been very cooperative. It’s just going to be a royal pain in the neck to get everything back to what passes for “normal” around our house.

No, the point is simply this. Lightning is unpredictable, unavoidable and doggone powerful. Don’t stand under tall trees or in open doorways, and stay off the telephone and out of the shower during an electric storm.

Actually, the bolt that hit us came proverbially “out of the blue.” There had been distant rumbles Monday of last week, but there was nothing evidently closer than several miles when, standing in my skivvies getting ready for bed I watched a fireball explode out the wall several feet away as an explosion rocked the old 19th century farmhouse.

I slipped on pants and shirt and rushed outside, thinking a tree in the back yard had been hit. About the time I got outside, the smoke alarm went off inside and I joined Anne in the family room to find it full of smoke. We called the fire department from a cell phone (the household phone wiring had been fried, we subsequently learned), and Smithfield fire fighters spent the next hour calming our fears by crawling under, over and through the house sniffing and looking for fire. Other than smoldering appliances — the source of the smoke — there was none.

(Incidentally, I’ve spent nearly 23 years in that fire department, and it’s a whole lot different when you’re on the receiving end of its services. Those people were great.)

We first thought the strike had come in through GTE’s pedestal several hundred feet away, parts of which were blown clear across the road.

Days later, we discovered the true path of the strike by tracing a dead streak of grass from a tall oak tree which will probably die this year. Basically, it appears this is what happened. Lightning struck the oak, blew out in three directions along major roots and tracked underground across the yard until it found water in the septic system’s distribution box. It blew open the box, traveled along the drain field and blew another crater. Part of the charge traveled toward the house, blew out of the sewage line into another drain line (this one carrying water away from the house’s downspouts) and traveling to a corner of the house, exploded upward. It sent mud into the air and plastered it on a second story cornice.

At that point, the strike crossed to the telephone wiring, traveled to GTE’s pedestal 300 feet away and blew it up. A portion of the strike roared into the house where it fried phone lines and two telephones, then crossed into the household wiring and took out a microwave, dishwasher, pump house wiring, two television sets, two VCRs and a hot water heater. That’s what we’ve found so far.

Another part of the charge chose aluminum guttering for its path. Traveling around the house, it blew elbows off the gutters, came down a downspout, found a nail it liked at the back of the house and entered the outside wall of the family room. With nowhere else to go, it blew a two-foot hole in the drywall interior and ripped the weatherboards loose on the outside.

Based on the speed with which lightning travels, all that took about a second to occur.

What’s the phrase that was popular a few years ago? Don’t mess with Mother Nature? You can believe it.