By Dan R. Arman
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Phil Thesean relived the very first moment he'd gotten close to lightning every time he went out into the field with a camera. He was eight years old returning from school, and his parents hadn't yet arrived from their jobs. As usual, that morning he had forgotten to take the house key from under the hollowed out fake stone in the patio.He was stuck standing morosely out on the front lawn, under pitch black clouds and pounding rain with not even enough sense to take cover under the eaves of the house. The sky was flashing like a strobe-lit discotheque, and Phil just stood there with his backpack dripping off his shoulder. Then, it struck, like a whip cracking against a pane of glass. A thin, crooked finger of lightning pointed down from the sky to the small chimney, its lightest touch causing the brick and mortar to burst apart, scattering bits all the way across the yard and into the neighbor's. A chunk the size of a baseball struck Phil sharply across the mouth, knocking him to the ground. To this day, he still bore the mark from it, a white jag of scar tissue like a little lightning bolt inside his lip.
When his parents found him motionless on the lawn, he had blood all down his shirt and was shaking like a leaf. But after the mind-numbing fear and pain wore off, the thrill and wonder of what he'd seen, that powerful, unpredictable, yet awesomely beautiful stroke from the heavens, sugared his brain with excitement. After that, he would pray for storms, waiting on the front lawn or in a farmer's field with the cheap Kodak camera he got for his birthday, and feel his heart pound in time with its shudder as a thunderhead roiled overhead.
People could do this for money, selling photos to magazines and exhibiting at galleries, but most often the best thing Phil got was a real solid adrenaline rush. He had picked a good spot today, he thought, the best in Kansas. It was going to be a good shoot.
Mr. Farnsworth, the farmer who had given Phil permission to set up his equipment, was riding down the long country lane that led to his house and barn in his big Kubota tractor and stopped to ponder Phil's strange arrangement of cameras and video equipment.
"That's quite a collection you've got there, Mr. Thesean," Farnsworth said in a drawl that sounded a far sight more pleasant to Phil that the clipped Midwestern syllables he had grown up with. The photographer couldn't help but smile at the older man. With his dusty overalls and his closely shaved scalp frosted over with grey stubble, the farmer would appear anachronistic to most people. He reminded Phil of his Grandpa Aegeus, who always chided him to calm down and be patient. Like Grandpa, Farnsworth seemed one part Andy Griffith, one part Zen master, taking in life at a slower pace than the rest of the world. Phil pointed to his equipment. "I have a habit of bringing everything with me. I'll probably only need the camera on the tripod with the wide-angle lens- and maybe the panoramic." "You don't seem to have a place to duck for cover when that storm hits. The national weather service's already warned of tornado touchdowns just west of here in Tinderberry moving east towards us," he said. "And these storms move faster in Kansas than... where'd you say you were from?" "Orrville, Ohio."
"Oh, yeah, the Smucker's jelly town," Farnsworth said with a chuckle. "I bet it smells like fresh apple butter all the time over there, doesn't it?"
"Uh, well, I hadn't taken the time to notice, really, Mr. Farmsworth," Phil shrugged. "Maybe it does. Most of the time I just remember it smelling like a town, I guess. With all the rushing about I did when I was younger, I'm only left with vague memories- some baseball games, high school, hiking in the woods. Funny, how much you forget over the span of time."
Farnsworth seemed disappointed with his response. He squinted enigmatically at the clouds. The sun was still out but was now at their backs and quickly diminishing in strength as the billowing clouds shrouded its rays in churning darkness.
"Well, I'm taking the wife and kids down to the fruit cellar. I'll leave the trapdoor unlocked in case things get too intense for you. Just jiggle the latch a bit, and she'll open up for you." "Thanks very much, Mr. Farnsworth, but I don't think that'll be necessary," Phil smiled. "The idea is to be out in the the middle of this weather, to see it with its sheer naked fury bared to the naked eye. It's a real thrill and the pictures I get are more than worth it." Farnsworth paused, then said: "Well, good luck to you then, and be careful." Phil nodded polite acknowledgment as Farnsworth got back on his tractor and the big green monster trundled towards the plain, white farmhouse, that was still no short hike away from where Phil had set up camp.
The photographer was in awe of the flatness of the landscape. Phil and his equipment were probably on the only "hill"- if you could call it that- for miles around, a lump the size of a pitchers' mound. But the view of the Farnsworths' massive barn the few feet of elevation afforded him was priceless. The stately old structure which had probably weathered many drought and Depression and still bore the antique lightning arresters with ornamental colored glass globes was far enough away to be picturesque against the scenery but close enough to impress with its sheer size. And it was massive. Phil wouldn't have been surprised if the building had had buttresses at one time; it seemed as much mid-1800s prairie cathedral as a home for cows and horses. He had thought the swayback bunkhouse just a few miles away in the ghost town of Defray was beautiful in its desolation, but this was even better. The person who had built this must have had dreams of big things happening in the area as more and more settlers passed through on their way west- and the means to see them through. But the dream was never fulfilled and the barn endured alone with its painted white exterior support beams like the pillars of the Parthenon standing aloof upon Acropolis.
Phil positioned the the tripod camera so that the peak of the barn was directly in the middle of the shot facing slighting away from the camera. With one ear listening to the drone of his weather radio, he kept his other ear tilted towards the storm, listening for the rumblings of the oncoming torrent. He could see faint flickers silhouetting some of the more distant, larger clouds. He counted out each flash out loud.
"One one-thousand... two one-thousand... three one-thousand... four one-thousand... five one-thousand... six..." Phil almost got to 45 before only the faintest resonance of a drum-roll-like rumble caught his attention. That meant the most violent part of the storm was still miles west.
Phil was reaching over to pick his video recorder off the ground when felt a trembling of a very different kind coming from inside his pants pocket. His pager had gone off.
The pager's LCD display wasn't working, but he knew it had to be his wife. He trudged over to his truck and pulled the cell phone out from under the seat, but for some reason he couldn't remember the phone number at the bed and breakfast they were staying at.
Finally, he remembered, kicking himself, because not more than two days before he had remarked to the owner that her number unintentionally spelled out 1-800-CHEAP EAT, which couldn't be farther from the truth. The owner, probably the treasurer at one of those from the nosy, grumpy old lady societies that always run bed and breakfasts, had not been amused by Phil's observation.
After a few rings, Phil heard Ariadne's voice, muffled, through the earpiece.
"Hi, honey," he said. "How are things? How's the book coming?"
"Oh, fine, I finished the chapter on Peruvian tapestry weaving," she said. "and breakfast was good; we had Belgian waffles. Mrs. Cutilllo is a nice lady... and why didn't you kiss me goodbye this morning?"
He could detect clenched teeth in her voice. "Well, I saw you were sleeping so soundly, and I didn't want disturb you," he said. "You looked like you were having a good dream."
"Phil..." Ariadne said, losing some of her composure.
Phil paused. She was more serious than he thought. "Okay, I just forgot. I always kiss you but this time I just forgot. I'm sorry. It won't jinx things too much I hope. Is it bad karma to break good habits?"
"It's bad karma only if you get hurt or killed. But it's alright, I understand," she replied, but he knew that couldn't be any further from the truth. "But I'll be expecting one when you get back."
"Phil, I love you," she said. "Be careful."
"You know, Mr. Farnsworth just told me that very same thing just a few minutes ago, about being careful. Do you think he's in love with me too?"
"Did you kiss him this morning?" Ariadne said, her voice returning to a more playful tone. "No," he said with a chuckle.
"Then I don't care. Just don't get too carried away and come back to me in one piece. You have a daring spirit, darling, and that's what I love about you. But somehow, I can't help feeling it's going to cause me a lot of grief someday."
Phil caught a flash out of the corner of his eye, followed shortly by a sharp, resounding clap. Farnsworth was right; storms do move fast over the Plains.
"Listen, Arie, I've got to go," he said. "It sounds like the show is about to begin."
"Don't be too long."
"I won't. I'll see you in a few hours."
The dark clouds now hung directly overhead. Phil scanned the sky, watching as surface strikes became more frequent. Just a mile or two more and they would be right where he wanted them, framing the barn in their netherworld glow. Phil could feel that the shot he was looking for was just moments away.
Phil started the video camera rolling and took a few shots with his panoramic. The lightning was arching beautifully across the sky now, like a tangled skein of a giant web.
"That's beautiful," he told himself and the sky. "Just keep that up for a few more minutes and I'll have the shot I'm looking for."
But the clouds responded in defiance. As suddenly as the lightning had begun to lance across the sky, it had died down. The only sound that could be heard was the wind rippling across the waves of alfalfa.
Phil thought it was unusual since he could see no break in the clouds, no hint that continuous wall of coal black should relent in its attack. But it would pick up again soon enough, he thought. Then, he noticed a cloud to the northwest, hanging lower than the rest- vaguely funnel-shaped. Phil thought it might be the tornado from Tinderberry.
Small- for a tornado- but still quite deadly, the swirling cloud hovered high in the air, but a tubule was slowly stretching towards the ground. It was about to make a touchdown, and the Farnsworth's farm was directly in its path. Worst of all, he seemed to be in its path. Phil thought briefly of Farnsworth's offer of shelter in the fruit cellar but thought better of it. Besides, he could never hope to cover the distance before the tornado reached him. It was magnificent as it finally made contact with the land and began furiously tilling a twisted path through fallow earth. A slight shift and suddenly Phil realized the twister was swinging on a trail that led directly between the Farnsworth house and the barn. He could hear the tornado clearly now over the rush of wind, a rolling bay, a cross between the smash of metal and glass of a thousand car wrecks and the Minotaur's bloody roar. Phil hoped the Farnsworths' cellar was sturdy. Then, it struck. The twister sped suddenly westward when it reached the farm and slammed into the grand old barn. Phil dived for his camera, snapping off as many frames as he could. The tornado tore into the barn, tearing shingles from the roof, snapping massive beams at their base and blasting the sandstone foundation into powder as it trekked unabated on its otherwise obstacle-less course. The tornado then swept upward and disappeared once more into the clouds. When he heard a dull thud behind him, he turned to find the barn's lightning arrester buried like a spear in the earth not three yards away from where he was standing.
But he didn't have time to ponder his luck. The twister had only taken a breather after making a meal of the barn and now the tendril was reaching groundward again for dessert- him. Phil could hardly breathe through the rush of wind pounding at his lungs, and whipped his face like sandpaper. The best his primate-driven instincts could do was knot up every muscle in his body, bracing for the blow that would surely rip him to shreds. Nobody who got this close to a tornado, could expect to live through it. But then, the sky opened up with enormous barrage of flashing strobes and peels of thunder which knocked him to the ground. He thought for sure he'd been struck by lightning.
For a moment, Phil thought his heart had frozen, but he quickly realized that it was everything around him that was frozen. The wind ceased to blow; the long grass at his feet was still and upright.
And all about him hundreds, maybe even thousands, of lightning bolts stretched from earth to sky- and they were absolutely motionless. The nearest ones came right up to the base of Phil's little pitcher's mound. They were so close that he could feel their crackling energy and heat coursing over his skin, yet he wasn't burned. It was like a waking dream.
What astonished Phil the most was the lightning's color, not white or yellow-white as often he'd seen it but a deep electric blue, perhaps the most calming hue he'd ever seen. Part of Phil wanted to reach out and grab hold of one the bolts and climb its winding thread all the way to the heavens and watch the storm from above.
But the other part of him rattled off facts and figures, the dangers. A discharge of up to 10 million volts, 30,000 amperes; a temperature of 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit literally incinerating the air surrounding the bolt. The streaks of brilliant electricity had him entrapped in an impenetrable maze of sure and instant death. Maybe he was dead already or about to die, he thought. That would explain a lot, except that, in all the times Phil had put himself in the path of danger, he had assumed death would catch him suddenly and unawares, not wait for him to come to it.
He moved for his panoramic camera, not sure if the beads of sweat were from panic or the intense heat he imagined he felt from the lightning. The camera controls seemed suddenly alien in his quaking hands. The click of the shutter seemed like thunderclaps themselves inside this silent frozen world. Phil began to wonder how long this phenomenon would last.
He then decided that no matter what the risk he was going to find out whether what he was seeing was real or fantasy. He set down his camera and made his way carefully towards the base of the mound where a particularly large lightning bolt meandered skyward like a squiggled question mark. As he approached, a low buzzing noise began to rise in pitch and volume. The blue light was almost blinding now and no amount of shading his eyes could help. The light drilled through his hand, even his eyelids when he closed closed them. Phil bit down nervously on the lump of scar tissue inside his lip.
He reached arms length of the bolt, when he noticed it wasn't completely motionless. The lightning bolt flickered, as if every electron was shivering nervously- at least that's what he told himself. As he reached out his hand, he felt the prickling of his hair as each one stood at attention. The humming was deafening now. He was so close to the bolt that his limbs were disappearing into the electric blaze,washed out by the flood of light. He couldn't tell if he was touching the bolt yet or not. He held his breath.
And then it all disappeared. Like a flick of a switch the lightning bolts shut off, leaving Phil with only the clouds, his cameras and an empty outstretched hand. The sky turned from ominous black to a subdued gray, the wind died down and a slow drizzle began to water the lightning scarred fields. Phil stood on the pitcher's mound as the rain pelted his hair and ran down his cheeks. Eventually, Mr. Farnsworth came by again on his tractor, wearing a dark green slicker. Phil looked down at his own rain-resistant coat and found that the one sleeve had been partially melted and curled back to almost his elbow. "Are you alright out here?" Farnsworth asked.
"Yeah, I guess," Phil said vacantly. "Sorry about your barn."
Farnsworth looked at the rubble, then shrugged. "I lost a barn before to fire on my dad's farm in Iowa. You learn to rebuild and move on. Still, it's sad to see something that old a beautiful come to an end."
"Did you see any strange lightning?"
"Strange? No, but I spent most of my time in the fruit cellar, so I might have missed some." "No, this you wouldn't have missed, not by a long shot."
"Well, what did you see?"
Phil paused and looked down at his cameras. "I see I need to remember to kiss my wife more often," he replied and then looked up and smiled. "Thank you for you hospitality, Mr. Farnsworth. You've been a real help. If you can bear to look, I've got some wonderful shots of the tornado hitting the barn." "If it's all the same I'd just as soon remember it as it was when it was still standing," Farnsworth said. "But come back any time you want to see inclement weather. Lord knows, we've got plenty here." Phil nodded and waved. He gathered up his equipment, packed it into the car and plopped down onto the front seat. He closed his eyes and drew a deep sigh. On the back of his lids, he could still see the blue.