When I was about nine or ten, I was sitting in the Florida room at my parent’s house enjoying a passing thunderstorm in the distance. I was thinking about my grandmother’s old saying that thunder “was God rolling boulders around heaven” when all of a sudden out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning struck the pine tree in our front yard. That tree was only 20 yards away so the flash was blinding and the crash was deafening. But the worst part of it was that there was no warning so it was startling. Normally, the flash a couple of miles away warn you that the thunder is coming so you are prepared for it when it arrives.
Needless to say, that strike frightened me and I bolted for the relative safety of the living room. Florida is the lightning capitol of the world and I was used to nearby strikes and thunderstorms became wonderful light and sound shows for me.
When I moved from Florida to South Carolina, I noticed that while still pretty spectacular, the thunderstorms up here are not quite as severe and dangerous as back home so I got a little cocky about them. However, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, my view of thunderstorms shifted again when I experienced thunderstorms at sea. The waves were bad enough but then I remembered that the best protection from being struck by lightning was to get to a low spot away from tall objects. But what do you do if you are on the tallest object in miles and that object is made of steel, a great conductor. There was no way of escaping contact with the steel bulkheads and in most cases, the only thing between you and the steel deck was a thin linoleum tile. As it turns out, the sheer size of a Naval warship was pretty good protection, I never felt a jingle, even if I saw my share of St. Elmo’s Fire while at sea.
The impact of lightning on my work would come along a couple of years later. While at the University of South Carolina, my first radio station was WUSC-AM, a carrier current station. Carrier Current stations do not have towers but instead inject their signals into the local power grid. This limited the range of the station to the immediate area around the campus. But lightning regularly induced spikes into the grid. These surges would sometimes knock us off the air, but never did any damage to the transmitter. So recovery was as simple as turning the transmitter back on. Rare occurrences, but it happened every now and then.
When I went to work at WCOS AM/FM in ’65 it was the first time that my work depended on a steel antenna sticking 400’ into the air, and that is when sparks began to fly. Transmitter outages were common when lightning struck the tower during almost every thunderstorm. The transmitter was 2 miles away from the studio so we did not see and hear the strikes but many a storm was weathered with the remote control dialed up to “plate current” so we could restart the transmitter as quickly as possible after a strike. I remember one stormy night having to reset the transmitter 20 times in a half hour. One good thing about those old tube driven transmitters, they were tough and could take that kind of rough treatment.
While working in the ‘70s at the studios of WIS TV, the master control room was on the second floor of the building and was at the base of the 400 foot self supporting tower that still holds the tallest Christmas tree in town. Thunderstorms were spent resetting all the switchers, tape machines and network receiving equipment after power surges. During particularly bad storms, we often sat in the middle of the control room watching arcs of electricity zap between the edges of the consoles and the monitor racks. It was all like a bad “B” horror movie. And more than once we would call out “It’s Alive, it’s Alive” in comedic relief. During a really bad storm one year, the storm had taken out some decoupling transistors in one of our video tape players, and I had placed the circuit board on the work bench and begun soldering in replacements. This work bench stretched twenty feet between one of the tower legs just outside the wall on one end and the master power breaker box for the control room on the other end. Suddenly there was a terrible crash as lightning struck the tower and the lights blinked. I set the soldering iron down and prepared to do a sweep of the control room to see if any circuit breakers had blown. I heard crackling and buzzing at the tower end of the work bench and when I looked, I saw a 2 foot lightning ball slowly drifting towards me. I quickly kicked the work stool away from the edge of the bench. The ball slowly made its way towards the power box, stopping only to pounce on the circuit board that I was working on and blow every transistor on it. It then grounded itself out on the power box with a bang that sounded like an explosion of TNT. Needless to say we limped along for hours that night while I replaced every one of the 50 plus transistors on that board.
Lightning can be beautiful while it is messing with broadcast equipment; while I was the Chief Engineer at WIS Radio I used to enjoy watching lightning play across the three towers of our directional antenna array. But what was even more spectacular was to turn off the lights in the phaser room and sit on the floor in the doorway and be surrounded by the arcs of electricity leaping from capacitor to coil, all the while hoping that one of those big caps did not blow. It was the best light show in town.
These days, I don’t have first line responsibility for repairing a transmitter after a storm so I can go back to enjoying thunderstorms the way I did as a kid. That was a particularly big boulder that God just rolled around up there. Oh MY!