A good jolt of mortal fear


PEOPLE TELL me there's enough to worry about in this world without worrying about lightning, but if you have to worry about something, it's a pretty good subject.

Just think about this for a minute: During a thunderstorm, you could be walking along, singing a song when all of a sudden this jagged bolt of lightning could come shooting out of the sky and -- ZAP! -- bore a hole the size of a silver dollar through your forehead and reduce you to a lump of charred flesh or (in the most extreme cases) a pile of ashes.

Now, tell me. How can you not worry about something like that? Of course, whenever I mention this in mixed company, such as at parties, people tend to roll their eyes and edge away from me.

Or they dismiss me with a wave of their hand and say: 'Oh, c'mon, how many people are actually killed by lightning?'

Which can be sort of embarrassing. Here you are trying to make a point and some troublemaker balancing a tiny plate of Swedish meatballs and chicken wings on one leg and a Heineken on the other insists on hearing statistics.

And all you can do is spear another carrot stick through the onion dip and mumble: "Well, I . . . I don't really know."

So I looked it up in a recent report on accidental deaths, which you don't want to pick up for a little light reading, although that's another story.

And it turns out that only 80 or so people were killed by lightning last year. A whole lot more people were hit by lightning -- there were some really exotic injuries, too: toes fused together, ear lobes severed, that sort of thing -- but only about 80 actually died from lightning.

Now maybe you say (or the people at the party would say): "There, see? Only 80 people killed by lightning. Now shut up and pass the crab balls."

Fine. But if you're one of those 80 people, you're not exactly jumping for joy and ringing church bells at this news. Because you're planted in some weed-choked cemetery with a slab of cold marble over your head bearing an insciption such as:

"Here lies Robert P. "Stinky" MacPherson. Struck by lightning. He wouldn't listen."

Call me Mr. Gloom and Doom, but that's why I think lightning is something worth worrying about.

Of course, a lot of people would rather worry about something else. I have a friend and you know what he used to worry about? Steam grates on the sidewalk. Swear to God.

The man lived in mortal fear that he'd step on a grate and it would give way and he'd plummet 50 feet into an alligator-infested sewer system, where the filthy reptiles, half-mad from starvation and noxious odors, would feast on his mangled carcass until, weeks later, remnants of his blood-stained shirt would be fished out of a corregated pipe by city municipal workers on a routine maintenance call.

Where do people get these crazy ideas?

Anyway, one day I sat this guy down and said: "Listen, pal, you're wasting your time worrying about steam grates. I looked it up and only two people per year die falling through steam grates.

"What you ought to worry about is lightning," I added, dropping my voice to a whisper. "It's everywhere during a storm. It can get you in your car, your house, the golf course, top of a mountain, anywhere. Heck, you could be walking on the beach one minute and the next minute -- POOF! -- there's nothing for the cops to ID but some badly singed bathing trunks and a burnt pair of Docksiders."

This didn't ease his fear of steam grates and alligators, but now he's even more worried about lightning. Positively neurotic, in fact. So I felt our little talk did some good.

While we're on the subject, here's another comforting thought: Flashes of lightning can range from a few miles to 95 miles in length. So (at least theoretically) you could be standing in, oh, Miami draining a pina colada and suddenly be fried to a crisp by a bolt of lightning originating in Fort Lauderdale.

Listen, what you worry about is your business. Some people worry about bridges collapsing, toasters exploding, surly waitresses, snakes. But at least you can run away from those things. You can't run away from lightning, Jack (even relatively faint lightning moves toward ground at 75 miles per second -- I looked that up, too.)

You want statistics on the subject, I'll give you statistics.

Just don't blame me if they keep you up at night.

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