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  • Inflexible Dynamo


Some years back my wife, Maura, and I were hit by lightning.

Yes, at the same time. We do many things together.

I'm writing about this now because by random conversational chance, three different people somehow managed to trigger mention of it.

2010. Tadoussac, Quebec. At the junction of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay Rivers. It was a lovely day, with lots of sunshine and a bright blue sky.

[SFX: Portentous double note—da-dummmm]

We decided to go for a walk on the mile-long horseshoe-shaped beach. Imagine the horseshoe standing on its curved end, open end facing upwards. Entrance is at the top right end of the horseshoe. At the other end, that is top left, is a rock outcropping about sixty feet high that, should it be scaled, would leave us a quarter-mile from our friend’s cottage. Not that we were actually planning to scale it. I was 51 at the time and under the impression that I could still perform feats of youthful physical prowess and I had been a rock climber, so this relatively mild slope prompted no second thoughts.

Maura and I strolled along, letting our bio-energies meld with the bucolic rhythm of the gently lapping waves. We absorbed and reveled in the Joys of Nature.

I don't like Nature. Some of it is indeed wonderful to experience (like on a wide screen from inside a hotel bar), but by and large it is a coordinated force meant to shorten lifespans in the service of creating sustenance for other lifespans. The words “nasty, brutish, and short,” sum up those natural lifespans nicely. Thank you, Mutual of Omaha, Nature Channel, and David Attenborough.

But we had time to kill that day, so hey.

[SFX: Portentous double note—da-dummmm]

As we took our afternoon constitutional, perambulating betwixt the scores of bay-washed rocks that dotted the shore, we noticed off to the east (over the right hand of the horseshoe), very far off, ominous-looking clouds and distant blips of lightning. As the weird weather was clearly many miles away, we took no care and continued to promenade farther from the solitary entrance—and egress—of the beach.

We arrived at the “upper left” end of the beach, faced by the moderately-sloped promontory.

However . . .

[SFX: Portentous double note, with noticeably deeper tone—da-dummmm]

Looking up as we felt a chill, we saw that the once-far-off storm had now nearly caught up with us. How it had managed to cross miles of air in so narrow a window of time was a bit of a shock. I'm convinced it had a Stupid Humans radar and had locked onto us.

As there was lightning involved, we faced a choice: try to dash back to the steps leading up to the road, a dash of approximately a half-mile on sand, or scale the aforementioned doesn't-look-bad-to-me-and-will-get-us-out-of-harm's-way-much-sooner rocky slope right in front of us.

We began to scale the now-somewhat-more-vertical rocky slope.

The climb started off quite well. The rock was gritty and grippy, great for fingerpads to find frictioned purchase. We had ascended about twenty-five feet when the rain hit.

When I say “hit” I mean “slammed with extreme prejudice.” This rain was tropical, or should I say biblical in force. Biblical in the sense that all of Noah's animals would have drowned waiting to board the ark. Millions of gallons of water pummeled us.

Which made it hugely difficult to continue upwards. The rock was now like Teflon, slippery and frictionless. All holds had to be cracks or edges. Which would have been okay, had the edges and cracks been just rock, but nature abhors a vacuum, and if there's a place for weeds and micro-bushes to set up shop, they'll do it. Which made it twice as slippery.

Looking behind us, we realized that downclimbing would almost surely guarantee multiple injuries. It was safer to struggle onwards. Which we did.

It was excruciatingly slow going. And the lightning hadn't stopped. We saw it out of the corner of our eyes, working its inexorable way towards us.

Maura’s glasses were knocked off and bounced merrily down the rock slope to the beach below.

We were completely and utterly soaked and at the mercy of the deluge, which had in no way lessened. Did I forget to mention I was carrying my backpack, which had my brand-spanking-new Macbook in it? Sorry.

We’d made it to the two-thirds mark. We could see just up over the next curve the tops of the trees at the edge of the woods. If we could make it there, we would be safe.

Checking in with each other every six inches: Can you make this?

Yes. Let's go.

[SFX: "Week-week-week" sound from shower scene of Psycho]

We've all seen lovely bolts of lightning streak down from the skies, the intense flashes dramatically stitching through the night sky. Oohs and ahhs abound.

Seeing one erupt from the rock inches in front of you is an altogether different matter. It's a two-foot wide column of electrons, whiter than you could ever possibly imagine, as eyeball-searing as Dante's pinnacle of Paradise, tinged with what Terry Pratchett called the eighth color, octarine.

And the sound? Hearing it erupt like a small nuke from a quarter mile away as you sit in your porch-bound rocker is exciting. Picture being inside that thunderclap.

Because we were climbing on all fours, the electricity shot up through our bodies via our arms and legs. If you have never been electrocuted, take my word for it that it's a sensation you don't want to experience. Ride the roller coaster till you puke if you must seek extreme adventure, but avoid the "Electro-Cliff."

They say time slows in extreme situations. For me, time became glacial and I was stunned by the number of things that registered in my brain in that micro-second:

I was aware of the massive surge of electricity as it shot completely around me. I had newfound respect for Doc Brown and his 21 gigawatts of electricity.

I was aware that it forced me up off the rock.

I was aware that I was now airborne.

I was aware that I was flying backwards.

I was aware that movement along the X-axis made the inevitable distance down the Y-axis much greater.

I remember thinking “Great. I'm gonna die in Canada.”

I hoped that my $3500 Macbook Pro, which was resting inside my now-sodden backpack, might help cushion my landing.

I struck rock and amazingly, did not roll anywhere.

I was aware that I was aware that I had struck the rock, which meant that I was still in command of my senses. Which meant I still had brain function and a pulse.

I opened my eyes and, as my pupils began to open, the lightning flash having closed them tighter than a guppy's asshole during shark week, I saw Maura six feet away saw her stunned look turned up to eleven.

The next thirty seconds were graced by my bellowed repertoire of every known (and a few made up on the spot) synonym for “Holy fucking shit.”

What mattered first was we were both still alive. What mattered second was getting the hell outta there. I was not gonna wait for Zeus to find his spectacles.

Upwards didn't look so good anymore. Rushed discussion resulted in our deciding to take what seemed an easier downclimb. Took us another fifteen minutes—still through the never-weakening downpour of every atom of water in the world--to negotiate the route. Problem was the downclimb caused us end up in the bay. We thought “Water...Lightning...Hmm.” Still, it was the avenue of least serious rock-induced physical injury.

We lowered ourselves into the water, which reached up to my nipples, and waded. I carried my knapsack with what contained my undoubtedly ruined $3500 Macbook Pro over my head and we eventually made it to the beach. Now all that was left was the half-mile to the exit stairs.

Which was okay, we thought, because now the rain had nearly stopped. And the overhanging trees on this side of the beach sheltered us. At least they did up to the halfway point, and we faced wide open ground for the second quarter mile ahead. Then the stairs. And across the road. Then across the fifty-meter wide hotel front lawn.

And lo and behold the rain, realizing we were once again without any kind of protection, ate itself a can of spinach and started up again.

Ready? I asked.

Shut up and run, she replied over her shoulder as she sped away.

We sprinted as well as two completely out-of-shape people of a certain age could. I am forever grateful there was no video of that humiliating penguin-like hyper-waddle. Then suddenly we were at the stairs, feet squelching up the wooden treads.

And the rain, seeing us near the end of our journey through Hell's nine swimming pools, inhaled deeply and blew out a last-ditch frenzied barrage.

We tore ass (squelching like overweight ducks) across the 50-yard lawn of the hotel.

We shoved aside the under-the-porch storm gawkers and made it inside the lobby. I immediately collapsed to the floor, completely exhausted.

And therein lies another of life's strange juxtapositions. The lobby was half-full of relaxed folks having coffees, beers, lunches. Talking jovially, not a care in the world. All of them as dry as cardboard in the Sahara.

And the two of us were each doubled in weight due to our clothes being as full of water as a well simmered risotto. And realizing “Holy shit we just got hit by lightning and did not fucking die.”

We begged a ride home and after a shower (Really? Yes, really!) spent the rest of the day and evening heavily medicated. Heavily. I ate three brownies.

Addendum #1: the Macbook Pro actually made it trough the ordeal unscathed. I recommend with unchecked assurance that the $50 or however much Apple charges for a zippered neoprene slip-case is well worth it.

Addendum #2: Afterwards I became somewhat obsessed with the behavior, dynamics, and mechanics of lightning. It seemed a miracle (and make no mistake, it was) that we survived. Because that bolt of lightning was less than two feet from us and we both felt the electrons cover our bodies. 21 gigawatts (or whatever) of instant, no begging or argument tolerated, one hundred percent cosmic fricasee. The secret of surviving this, as far as I can discern? Being as wet as possible. Days of internet searches led me to a widely respected scientific website specifically dedicated to lightning research where I witnessed a rather professional-quality video wherein which pieces of wood, both wet and dry, were subjected to precisely calculated electrical bombardment. The wood that had been soaked for hours came out nearly unscathed. The electric shock (and this is why that scene in The Green Mile is so painful to watch) was conducted around the wood itself--and our bodies--by the water. A natural conductor of electrons, water served as a fast lane for electrical charges.

Dry wood? Sorry, Charlie. With nowhere else to go, the electrons passed through the wood itself and vaporized it into toothpicks and powder.

Take-away lesson? Avoid Canadian beaches.

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