Sunday, August 19, 2012


After a pretty dry summer, the past couple of weeks, we have seen some rain here. I was sure glad to see it and so was the grass in my yard. Like much of the country, we have seen a pretty bad drought this year. I saw some drought maps on NBC yesterday. They showed that my part of South Carolina, which was in an incipient drought earlier this year, has experienced more rain than normal for the year now. Here’s hoping that we stay that way the rest of the year. But not too rainy, that’s not good either.

All my life, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with thunderstorms. When I was really young, I used to love it when a storm blew up. It was exciting to see the clouds build, the sky darken, the lightning flash and all the wind and the rain. It was all very exciting and it cooled off the hot summer afternoons. One summer afternoon, when I was about eight, I was sitting on the back porch enjoying a particularly big storm when lightning struck a palm tree in the neighbor’s yard. All of a sudden thunderstorms were not exciting, they were threatening, something to be feared. Of course, as I grew older, I grew out of my childhood fear of storms and began to enjoy their grandeur and majesty. I learned to respect storms and lightning. Sure, a close strike still startled me, but I understood the difference between being startled and being afraid. I remember my grandmother telling us kids alternately that “the devil was beating his wife behind the kitchen door” or that “God was rolling rocks around in heaven.” What great folksy expressions they had back in the day. One does not hear them so much today. I miss them, but I am careful not to utter them around younger folks today. They just look at me as if I had two heads when I forget and let one slip.

When I entered the world of broadcasting things changed. Thunderstorms became a nuisance. Radio station DJs who also operated the station’s equipment and transmitter were required to constantly monitor the signal on the air by the FCC. That meant that the static created by nearby lightning was constantly crackling on our speakers and in our headphones. Sometimes that static was so loud as to be painful. Also lightning strikes near the transmitter were constantly knocking us off the air. When that happened, we would have to stop what we were doing to dial up the “plate circuit” on the remote control and turn the transmitter back on. It was hard to maintain a train of thought for a show with all these interruptions.

By the time my broadcasting duties grew to include the engineering aspects of broadcasting I became responsible for diagnosing and repairing damage to equipment done by thunderstorms. This was back in the day when we were transitioning from vacuum tube to transistor technology. The problem with transistors was that they were much more susceptible to being damaged by lightning. It seemed to me that every storm broke something and most times it was something that put us off the air and needed to be repaired immediately. This was the time that I hated thunderstorms the most.

This period of my broadcast career coincided with the peak of my aviation career. After work, most days, I would drive out to the airport to give flying lessons. Thunderstorms interfered with that too. You could not give flying lessons on days that were filled with thunderstorms. Light aircraft just could not take the stresses from the wind shears and turbulence of a storm, and lightning could do damage to airplanes too. I saw a plane land one afternoon after being caught in a storm with a silver dollar sized hole in the wing tip. Even commercial airliners avoid thunderstorms in flight using their radar. Many times my commercial flights were delayed because airports were closed by a thunderstorm overhead.

Today, transistor based equipment is far more lightning resistant and I don’t fly as much as I used to, so my dislike of thunderstorms has diminished. I can again enjoy looking up into the sky at a towering cumulus cloud brimming with lightning and rain. I can marvel at the rolling edges and the telltale cauliflower shape of a rapidly growing cloud. I can anticipate the cooling breeze of the outflow and the relief of those first rain drops that spatter on the windows. I can join the fellowship of the blades of grass in my yard in saying, bring on the rain. Just keep the lightning and damaging winds away. Oh MY!

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