Sunday, June 25, 2017

Do you love or hate thunderstorms?

Growing up in Florida meant experiencing that 3 PM thunderstorm every day of the summer. So I got over the sudden flash of lightning and the roar of thunder almost before I could walk. By the time I was 7 or 8, I was fascinated by them. I learned at an early age that sound travels roughly a mile in 5 seconds, so a favorite pastime was to estimate the distance at which the lightning struck by counting the seconds and dividing by 5. So if it took 15 seconds after the flash before you heard the thunder, it was 3 miles away. That was enough warning to brace for that clap of thunder.

That worked for me until lightning struck a tree across the street less than 100 yards away. I was sitting in the screen porch that would eventually become the Florida room that would be my brother’s and my bedroom. I was sprawled across the chair all relaxed and chillin’ out. All of a sudden there was a buzz, flash and Kaboom all at once. I think I must have jumped high enough out of that chair to touch the tongue and groove slats of green painted pine boards in the ceiling. I decided for a few years that thunderstorms were more interesting when viewed from the relative safety of the living room. That was the first time that I ever experienced the effects of corona; hairs standing on end and that coppery – sulfur smell that comes from a near lightning strike.

To say that I was startled was an understatement. There is a difference between being scared and startled. Scared or frightened is when you become aware of a danger and you react to it. Startled is when you are surprised by something unexpected. So there are two types of “fright movies” being produced by Hollywood. What I call true fright movies include “Silence of the Lambs”, “The Eyes of Laura Mars” or even “Jaws”, the object to be feared is identified and then slowly the protagonists are drawn closer and closer until they must confront it. Startling is different, things are going along smoothly until the heroes and heroines unexpectedly come face to face with the menace, usually in a clap of thunder of a crash of cymbals in the soundtrack. The old “Twilight Zone” TV shows were a great example of the “fright gag” as Hollywood calls it. Being scared or startled evoke the same visceral “fight or flight” reaction in the audience.

I eventually got over being startled by nearby lightning strikes and began to enjoy thunderstorms again. One of my favorite memories of being on the air on an AM radio station was the crackling of static in my headphones and the air monitor from nearby storms. To me it was part of the ambience of AM radio; it reminded me of the connection to the listener miles away, a sort of feedback if you will in the same media that I was using to communicate with them. It was more constant than the calls on the request line, which was plenty busy. I particularly liked the static from distant storms which did not threaten me with having to reset the transmitter when lightning struck the tower.

It was when my broadcasting duties expanded to the technical or engineering side, and repairing transmitters and studio gear that were damaged by lightning induced power surges that I began my period of fearing thunderstorms. For some perverse reason, thunderstorms rarely broke stuff when I was in the studio. It waited until I was snuggled in my bed in the middle of the night before eating up the component that was critical to staying on the air. That middle of the night phone call ensued, followed by a trip to the studio or transmitter building in the middle of the storm with windshield wipers flailing away, knowing that the station was losing money until I could fix the problem. My most important tool on those stormy nights was a battery jumper cable that would be used to short the tower structure to ground on the lightning side of the circuit I had to repair. I’m glad to say, that I never once forgot to remove the shorting jumper before powering up the transmitter, ever!!!

Left: This is what a radio station phasor looks like. So, I pretty much hated thunderstorms during that part of my career for the damage they did to my equipment, be it a transmitter, a computer system or anything between. Well, maybe respected is a better word. I remember well, sitting in the open door of the phasor room at WIS radio after getting that old RCA transmitter humming along at 560 kilohertz again. The storm was still raging but I sat there staring up into the structure of capacitors and coils that filled the room in a steel frame. I was mesmerized by the flashes of the electrical arcs that danced throughout the room in synchronization with the lightning outside and it seemed to me also with the backbeat of the music that we had on the air at the time. We were all connected, station and nature in a big dance that gyrated around those three 440 foot tall towers where it all came together.

These days, now when I am no longer the person on-call, on the front line repairing lightning damage to transmitters and studios, I have come to appreciate thunderstorms more. Knock on wood; I am on-call until late tomorrow afternoon. I still respect them and what they can do, but I also see the almost mystical dance that lightning does across the face of the cumulus clouds in the sky. Besides, my grass can use the rain. Oh MY!

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