While still in high school, I became an avid camper. It wasn’t a natural fit for me. I don’t hunt, fish, or chop wood. And Mr. Adams ensured that I’d never use a saw. But not only did I take up camping, I often camped alone. One time I got a back-country permit and stopped, as usual, wherever I found myself at dusk. I strung a little tube tent between two trees and fired up my cooking stove. Later that night, one of the Shenandoah Park’s legendary thunderstorms came through.
Until that night, I hadn’t known what lightening sounds like when it is really close. When lightening comes down so close that you can actually feel its heat, the sound isn’t its typical ‘boom’. It’s more like the deep base buzz of an electric arc. And that night I heard that sound quite a bit. The next morning, I wrung out all my gear and decided to pack it in. I left the woods by the most direct path, heading straight out for the road.
I hadn’t been walking long when a park ranger pulled up beside me. “You camp out last night?” he asked. When I told him that I had, he offered me a lift. We talked about lightening as we headed for the place I’d left my car. I told him about the arching sound of lightening I had heard. He nodded solemnly and said, “Yep, that sure is how it sounds alright…I know all about that.” When I asked him how he knew, this is the story that he told – in the very words I had recorded long ago:
“I was told the following day by a park ranger, who offered me a lift part way back, that the park is the most lightning struck place on the planet and he himself was the Guinness world record holder for the most lightning struck person in the world – three times. He proudly displayed the scar across his throat, as wide as a butcher knife of melted skin. “Sitting right here in this truck. Bolt hit the truck and the lightening arched between the metal of the window vent on the passenger side and this window vent right here,” he said. [He was tapping the little glass triangle older cars used to have].
Here’s the next note I have from that original document:
[Note on the above: It is a sunny Sunday morning in February some years after writing this, and yesterday the Washington Post had a book review for a new book called ‘The Improbability Principle’. It says this:
“Roy Sullivan, a park ranger in Virginia, no doubt spent a great deal of time outside in all kinds of weather. He was struck in 1942, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1976 and 1977…”
The reference made me wonder if this was the same guy who had picked me up the morning after the storm. I looked up Roy Sullivan on wikipedia. This is what I found:
Roy Cleveland Sullivan (February 7, 1912 – September 28, 1983) was a U.S. park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Between 1942 and 1977, Sullivan was hit by lightning on seven different occasions and survived all of them… Sullivan is recognized by Guinness World Records as the person struck by lightning more recorded times than any other human being…
The first documented lightning strike of Sullivan occurred in April 1942. He was hiding from a thunderstorm in a fire lookout tower. The tower was newly built and had no lightning rod at the time; it was hit seven or eight times. Inside the tower, “fire was jumping all over the place”…
He was hit again in July 1969. Unusually, he was hit while in his truck, driving on a mountain road—the metal body of a vehicle normally protects people in cases such as this by acting as a Faraday cage. The lightning first hit nearby trees and was deflected into the open window of the truck. The strike knocked Sullivan unconscious and burned off his eyebrows, eyelashes, and most of his hair…
The text goes on to describe five more after that.