Viewing thunderstorms a fine summertime diversion [Commentary]

As a young child, my daughter, Alex, who reached the age of majority this summer, was deathly afraid of thunderstorms.

We both remember a particular birthday party when she turned 3 or 4 when an especially lively thunderstorm passed over our house. She was delighted to be celebrating her birthday and opening presents, but each time there was a flash of lightning or a thunderclap, she would look to my wife, Anne, or I for reassurance that she was safe inside. She'd get that reassurance and it was back to opening presents.

In more recent years, Alex and I have talked about this particular birthday party, generally prompted by a summer thunderstorm. "Do you remember when you were a little kid and a thunderstorm hit on your birthday?" I'll ask. She indulges me and answers as though we've never talked about it before.

The conversation then wanders off to other subjects, but in the background there's usually the sound of falling rain, occasionally interrupted by flashes of lightning and booms of thunder.

We'll comment on especially impressive lightning bolts or loud claps of thunder, often as not from the safety of our sheltered front porch.

Some time in the years after that birthday party in Abingdon, Alex not only outgrew her fear of thunder and lightning, she gained an appreciation of them as summer entertainment. It's something she shares with me and some other people I know, or have known over the years.

"God's fireworks," is what a friend of mine called a recent post fishing trip evening storm that never managed to result in any rain, at least not in the Forest Hill-Bel Air North area.

It's worth a word of caution here: Like puny human fireworks, thunderstorms are a potentially dangerous form of entertainment. Storms are best observed from the safety of shelter, even if that shelter is a porch offering some exposure to wind and unmuffled sound. Much as I enjoy a good thunderstorm, I'm not fond of being caught outside in one.

Also, from time to time, I'm taken aback when people responsible for summertime youth activities express a cavalier attitude about stopping the game or activity and waiting 20 or 30 minutes after hearing thunder or seeing lightning.

Staying outside during an electrical storm is a natural disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately, too many people are willing to risk allowing themselves and others to remain exposed when a storm is nearby, presumably on the grounds that the odds of being struck by lightning are pretty long. The problem is, the odds of being hit are a lot better (or is it worse in this instance?) if you're standing out in a field during a storm holding an aluminum bat or fishing rod or perched near a goal marker.

For some of us, it's still hard to beat a good thunderstorm for entertainment quality. It's not for everyone, though. My wife is no fan, and my son, Nick, who was born a year or two after my daughter's disrupted birthday party, seems to be on the fence.

Now here's the part where I would try to describe what makes watching a storm attractive. The other night, while watching some lightning bolts shatter the sky while others completely illuminated a massive thunderhead from the inside, I figured I'd snap a few photos.

My friend, Mike, who made the "God's fireworks" comment, pointed out that even the best pictures of lightning don't really do justice to the spectacle of the storm. They're kind of like pictures of fireworks: They're OK, but they don't tell the story. A few words scribbled on paper are even weaker.

It's one of those experiences you just have to be there for. No doubt, there will be plenty of opportunities for watching thunderstorms. It's an activity that's highly recommended, at least by some of us, as a summertime diversion.

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