Of Lightning, Thunder, and Life

No doubt you noticed those late night – and very early morning – thunderstorms rolling across Paradise last week. So rare here, but so full of life! Watching and hearing and feeling that crashing at 4:45 a.m. seemed to trigger sparks in every cell of my body. For a while there, it was, “What pandemic?” It was a much appreciated early Father’s Day gift.

I’d almost forgotten how much I missed my old friend lightning until that magic light and sound show last week. I’ve loved lightning since I was a kid in East Wenatchee, Washington.

By mid-spring, the waiting would be almost unbearable. I don’t think I knew exactly what was coming, but I recall that, as those warm Chinooks swept down off the Cascades and out to the Columbia Basin, my anxiety rose. As the air got warmer and drier, it became harder to concentrate on all three “R”s. Then one morning, there would be a sweet discomfort to the air, even inside. On the walk to school, I couldn’t get enough of that air.

By noon, the clouds would be building. And by the time I walked up the drive, after that mile walk home from school, it would be everywhere. Lightning seemed to fill the sky, as the earth trembled with its thunder. The dry, nervous air of spring changed with the rain. I remember feeling fully alive, watching, transfixed, until the excitement passed.

I have often thought that I became a meteorologist because of that lightning – that “Alka-Seltzer” of the air. Dancing between negative and positive charges on the ground or in a cloud, it neutralizes those atmospheric ions that can make us irritable or uncomfortable.

Last week’s flashing lightning, and that slight acrid ozone smell lingering behind it, carried me back to Lawrence, and the University of Kansas, and the spring of 1972.

As a grad student, the first class I taught at the University of Kansas was full of young people who saw no sense in studying weather. Since they drove air-conditioned cars and lived and studied in climate-controlled rooms, they reasoned, there was no need. They felt totally insulated from Nature.

But Kansas is lightning country! I loved those thunderstorms on the prairie. Commonly, they were (and still are) nighttime storms – something we only rarely see here in the Northwest or in the Rockies where I did my TV weatherman gig for some years. In Kansas, I could lie in bed and watch the magic out my window as it swept in from the west. Lightning would dash and sizzle and hang from cloud top to cloud top for a couple hours or more, sometimes. Finally it would flash and crash over and around us. I loved it.

Here in our mostly-dry part of the world, we notice it less than in more humid parts of the country, but the discomfort people feel with either “very dry” or “very moist” air often has to do with its electrical ions. With very dry air, especially in a warm wind – as in the occasional Chinook of Wenatchee or south of Yakima, or the Santa Ana of the Los Angeles Basin – an excess of negative ions may build up. With such a negative ion excess, lots of folks get irritable and short-tempered. Water vapor molecules, on the other hand, carry an excess of positive ions. With high levels of water vapor in the air (that “high humidity”), we tend to be fussy and uncomfortable, with a “leave me alone” attitude.

Anyhow, that spring in Lawrence we had a week of very warm, windy, and very dry weather. Grad students squabbled over anything from cubicle to cubicle in our study room (“Do you HAVE to turn those *!&#! pages so loud?”). It was great. Then, the night before an early-morning class with my “insulated” students, a line of thunderstorms moved through – one of the best shows ever. Two and a half hours of fireworks. As it approached, drawing warm moist air in ahead of it, positive ions built up in our house. My wife couldn’t sleep, and our kids, one by one, drowsily came into our room. “What’s wrong?” I’d ask. “I don’t feel good,” they’d say. “Well, what’s wrong, honey?” “NOTHINGGG! I just don’t feel good. I can’t sleep.” As they huddled around our bed, separated, groaning, I turned back to the show.

As the storm, at last, passed over us, at least a dozen lightning bolts crashed and exploded within a hundred yards of us. As it moved on, having sorted out our ionic imbalance, my tribe had crashed. Michelle was asleep on the carpet near her mom, Nicole on the floor by her bed and Tim was sprawled onto his, with one foot on the floor.

My young students were all yawning the next morning. “Just couldn’t sleep ’til after the storm,” someone said. “Not insulated enough,” I guessed. Our grad student study room was suddenly peaceful and friendly again. Go figure…

Being struck by lightning can mess up your whole day, so it’s not to be played with, of course. But you gotta love lightning when you have the chance.

Happy summer!

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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