By Don Pelton
I felt some melancholy when I read the recent article in the Tahoe Daily about the death of an air tanker pilot fighting a wildland fire northeast of Fallon, Nevada. Of course, I felt sorrow for the pilot, but my melancholy had to do with the fact that Fallon — and also the town of Lovelock, mentioned in the article — were stomping grounds for me as a child and as a young man.
My uncle Phil Pelton had a dairy farm, including 100 acres of alfalfa, near Fallon, during most of my young life. My parents left me there all summer for many years. My most vivid memories are of the summer lightning storms, falling asleep each night outside under the stars, watching for “falling stars,” as we called meteorites then, helping with the haying when I got older, and ice skating on the canal during the one or two winters when we were there at Christmastime.
I was walking out of the barn one summer afternoon with my cousin, Gayle — we were about ten years old at the time — when a bolt of lightning struck one of the two large cottonwoods next to the farm house — about a hunded feet from us — and seared and split the tree from about thirty feet up all the way to the ground. I have no doubt that scar is still there, if the tree is.
What I know for certain, though, is that I’m still here, and so is the memory of that bolt, which knocked both Gayle and me on our butts. Our legs just buckled instantly. It was quicker than fright. It was physical. The bolt slammed us to the ground, and as we got up I noticed that all the hair follicles on my body were tingling from the static charge.
Most remarkable, when the bolt struck, my cousin Garth and one of his friends were swinging on the two swings constructed between that cottonwood and its neighbor. They immediately stopped “pedaling,” and so their motion gradually wound down like a pendulum. The only visible sign of their experience was the loose tooth Garth’s friend suffered when the lightning bolt clamped his jaw shut.
That’s as close as I’ve ever come, or want to come, to lightning.
The first time I ever went ice skating , it was on the frozen canal by the bridge. I watched my cousins strap on their skates and take off like a bunch of crazy happy otters. I couldn’t wait. I was so excited. I finally got my skates tightened, stood up, then realized immediately that I had no idea how to get in motion. So I did what felt natural at the time: I leaned forward, hoping that gesture would set me in motion.
Unfortunately, it sent my legs in motion out behind me and my head straight down onto the ice. The impact knocked me “out cold” — as they used to say in the old noir movies — for a few seconds. When I came to, I had the worst headache of my life. Here’s how the story ended: I went back to the farmhouse and rested for about an hour, then I came back to the ice and tried it again, this time much more gingerly and carefully.
If only I could recapture that casual and uncalculating determination we all took for granted as children. It didn’t feel like courage, even though it looks like courage in retrospect. It just felt like … the decision to finish what I’d so joyously started.
After sleeping outdoors all summer, I’d return to my home in San Leandro (in the San Francisco Bay Area) in the fall, and discover that I had to sleep outside for another week or so before I could tolerate sleeping in the house at night.
What a mystery! … that memories so full of lightning bolts and possible concusions can feel so sweet, even after more than fifty years.
Perhaps they’re sweeter especially after fifty years.
By the way, why didn’t the adults take me to the doctor to check for a concusion? Maybe nobody did that in those days, as we did years later when our son went flying over the handlebars of his tricycle onto his head. Or maybe, as my dear wife just suggested to me, they were keeping their eye on me for the rest of the day and I wasn’t aware of it.
We rarely notice — as children or as adults — the angels watching over us.