Every region of the country has strong thunderstorms. The Piedmont of South Carolina where I grew up is no exception. The summers are hot, so the afternoon storms roll in frequently.
One summer storm turned out to have a profound effect on my family and particularly on my father. Let me explain.
I must have been about eight and my brother twelve. It was raining hard and thunder was rumbling around. My father was sitting in his favorite chair, which backed up to a window. I was on the sofa across the living room. BAM! A flash of light, then a blue ball of sparks and flame came in the window behind my father’s chair, jumping over his head and across the room. I can still see it today.
I don’t remember what happened immediately after the lightning strike, or of being overly scared, mainly because I probably did not fully grasp the seriousness of what had just happened—a dramatic split second that set off events lasting for the next couple of summers. The blue ball of fire did something to my father. From that day on, he was absolutely petrified of lightning. The hot summers in South Carolina are not a good place to be if you are frightened of lightning.
We learned after investigating that lightning had hit a dormer window on the second floor above my father’s chair. There were burned shingles and window framing. Luckily, the rain doused the fire.
My dad found a solution to his fear. He was convinced the safest place during a storm was in an automobile–something about the rubber tires. The next storm and for many to follow found us in the family car. No matter what time a thunderstorm arrived or even got close, our family was in the car and rolling down country roads. My father’s safe place.
We did not get weather reports as we do today, so he did not know where a storm was headed. When we drove away, we never knew if we were heading into a storm or away. It made no difference; we were in the car and safe. Family time on wheels.
Our car was a 1952 Pontiac station wagon. The front seat was a full bench, the second seat was a two-passenger bench seat. This left room for a small step-up to the third or back seat. Mom and dad up front. The second seat was my brother’s domain. I ruled the back seat. My imagination would kick in and I would keep myself occupied flying a plane or shooting at Indians who were trying to stop the stagecoach.
Since the storms often came about dinner (supper) time, my mother would put the meal on hold. There was no arguing with my father. We would either get back home in time to eat later or get something to eat in the car. My favorite stop was “The Clock” restaurant that had great chili dogs. Drive-ins were just coming along, and “The Clock” was not one, so my dad would go in and return with a bag of hot dogs and cokes. As a special treat he would sometimes stop to buy a bag or two of pistachios. In those days, pistachio shells were dyed white or red. White ones were saltier, red ones stained your fingers and lips. I guess they were colored to promote sales.
By then the storm would have moved on, and back home we would go to a dark hot home because we had closed all the windows.
I’m not sure how long this went on, but there must have been a family revolution at some point, or my father’s fear subsided. The car rides stopped.
There is a great line in Lonesome Dove, after Gus has died and Woodrow is telling the old doctor that he would return in the spring to take Gus’s body back to Texas for burial. The doctor questions the wisdom of that trip. Woodrow says he had promised Gus, to which the doctor replies “people, they do have their whimsies.”
Thinking he could hide from lightning was one of my father’s “whimsies.”