Summer. 2018. Sweden.
Lightning struck this tree, which subsequently toppled and almost fell on my wife’s head.
Sofie rode her bicycle by this old tree about 90 seconds before Thor (being Sweden and all) threw a fireball from heaven and said, “THIS IS YOUR TIME TREE!”
BOOM! Direct hit.
Close call, but not as close as the time I was grazed by lightning.1
Grazed by Lightning
More than a decade ago, I decided to go for a run before an impending storm rolled in. Texas storms can be quite impressive, but I figured the thunder was still sufficiently distant.
My neighbor, Tom, was in his garage watching sports and the weather, as he is prone to do.
“Where are you going?” he asked as I passed his house.
“During a storm?”
“Before the storm gets here.”
“Dude, it’s heading this way, with a lot of lightning.”
“Yeah, but what are the odds? I’m mean, really.”
Quoting a well-known rule-of-thumb, Tom added, “If you can hear the thunder, you can get hit by lightning.”
As if growing up in Oklahoma taught me nothing about storms and lightning.
Fortunately, the expression famous last words didn’t fully apply in this instance, but almost.
As I was returning home, soaking wet, a blinding flash of light and deafening explosion simultaneously engulfed me… BOOM!
I dove to the ground, accelerating toward Earth at 9.81 m/sec2, which is really all you can do vertically. So, I added a little horizontal motion for style, as if sliding headfirst into home plate.
Even mid-air, I knew this dive-to-ground action was a little ridiculous, as if I quite literally possessed lightning-fast reactions. I also knew the corollary to Tom’s rule:
If you heard the thunder, you’re probably OK.
On my glide down, I saw a two-meter blue arc span the parallel electrical lines overhead. Thor’s arc of fire travelled down the power lines, away from me.
Wow! That was close, I thought. It must have hit the transmission lines just above me.
When I stood up, my right arm and shoulder were numb and tingling, much like the feeling after touching an electric fence. If you don’t know this sensation, you should try it and let me know how it goes. I don’t recommend it, but you should do it anyway, for the experience. Guaranteed fun for the whole family, except for you. Regardless of the momentary regret, later in life, you will consider this a nostalgic rite-of-passage associated with growing up on a farm.
Aside #1 – Getting Shocked & Electric Fences
The perimeter of our pasture in rural Oklahoma was encased by traditional barbed wire fence. However, a single-strand electric wire provided the cross fencing, dividing the pasture into sections. For us, the cross fencing mostly divided the pasture into areas that could have been labeled “cows eat here” and “cows don’t eat here”. The “no cows” sections were for growing hay, hay storage, and the exit from the pasture to the driveway – all deemed off-limits for cows.
Electric fences are quick and inexpensive to erect compared to barbed wire, and serve to maintain boundaries for cattle with a significant electrical shock, if touched. And, except for perhaps a mild case of bovine-PTSD, electric fences are harmless to the cows.
On occasion, you could utter (not udder) the following awkward sentence and be correct, “Currently, the fence has no current.” This usually meant a short somewhere in the circuit. Maybe a wayward cow knocked down a fence post. Or, more likely, someone left the “gate” open with the wire laying on the ground. In this case, the fence was grounded, not because it had misbehaved, but sort of by definition, in that it was literally touching the ground. Sometimes tall, skinny weeds grew up and touched the wire, again shorting the circuit to the ground. These events rendered the fence less amped about its day job.
This brings me to an interesting point:
Cows are smarter than you might think.2
Cows, curious animals they are, put their wet noses imprudently close to the thin wire and sniff with a short series of air-intakes, as if they can somehow smell or sense the charge. It’s not entirely clear to me if cows smell something different when the fence is ON, or if their noses tingle with close proximity to the wire… or even if they have this ability. The point is, it appears they try to determine if the fence is ON or OFF by sniffing the wire.3
At this point, I may have strayed too far from the main thesis.4
Anyway, resuming the story within our Aside #1…
When the electric fence gets a short circuit, you need to determine where the problem is and fix it.
A short in the electric fence wasn’t so unusual, but one day, when I was perhaps 10 or 12 years old, a more memorable fence repair experience unfurled into a thing of beauty.
On this day, Dad, my brother Matt, and I set out to find the short. After we turned off the power to the fence at the barn, an important first step in electric fence repair, Matt went one direction while Dad and I went the other direction.
After some time, Dad and I thought we had found the culprit and performed a minor repair. Easy enough. We walked back to the barn and flipped the power back on. From the back 40, we heard a distinct yelp, “Ohm!”, delayed approximately by the time it takes the speed of sound to travel from Matt’s location to the barn.
So proud of our quick fix, it seems we had momentarily forgotten Matt was also looking for the problem. He had discovered a potential issue as well and was mending it. In an instant, Matt’s repair was also finished, with Matt completing the circuit himself.
“Oops. Matt must have been holding the wire,” Dad said and simultaneously turned the power back off.
Dad later said he felt bad about that. But for me, hearing Matt charge his bovine-PTSD debit card, turned a boring chore of fence repair into a fantastic day.
Aside #2 – Shocking Yourself
Speaking of getting shocked…
My friend Dave and I once saw a guy at a self-defense conference inspecting a handheld electric shock device, a stun-gun. It looked something like an older model of this:
This guy clearly believed in the “try before you buy” motto because he decided to give it a test on himself before purchasing the self-defense mechanism for his wife.
“How bad does it hurt?” he asked the vendor as he held the device in his hand.
“Do it on your leg,” his friends encouraged.
Dave and I were only in 7th grade at the time, so we watched with great interest. This guy, probably in his early 20’s, was about to become That Guy, as he zapped himself on his right thigh. He quickly transitioned into a new life-phase, characterized predominantly by profanity, and jumping around in a futile attempt to undo his pain.
His friends were laughing uncontrollably.
After a short bit, his friend said, “You big baby. Let me try.” (not his exact words)
The second guy’s dance was different, but the profanity was nearly identical. Clearly close friends.
Best product demonstration ever.
Contrasting these two Asides,
There’s a philosophical difference between getting a shock to your system due to the choices of another and willingly shocking yourself, pain manufactured by your own life choices.
Sometimes we conflate the latter with the former, a psychological head fake to avoid facing what would otherwise be self-incrimination and possibly, with reflection, self-improvement.
Back to My Lightning Story
Tom was still in his garage when I returned, wet and muddy. I stopped to tell him the good news – that I was still alive.
He looked at me, drew a slow breath, and opened his mouth slightly as if to say, “Dude, I tried to tell you…”
I interrupted his thought, “Did you hear that loud boom a few minutes ago?”
“Yeah. Where were you?”
“It was crazy close!”
I retold the story.
“I dove to the ground and saw a blue arc…”
Tom just long-blinked with raised eyebrows and shook his head slowly, as if to say, “Dude, I told you…”
Once he gathered his thoughts, he said,
“Dude, I told you…”
I’m pretty sure he also called me something less edifying, but it wasn’t entirely audible.
A few days later, I shared this story with my cousin Clayton, an electrical engineer.
He replied, “You know what it means if you felt numbness and tingling?”
“It means some of that lightning’s electricity went through you.”
I hadn’t considered this. But yeah, I guess that sounds right. How else could my arm feel as if it had been shocked?
So, while it might not have been a direct hit, I can now say I’ve been grazed by lightning.5
At least a tree didn’t land on my head while riding my bicycle. How embarrassing would that be… Sofie?
Addendum – no superpowers were gained by humans in this story. We’re not sure about the cows.
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- And I’m not talking about meeting Sofie for the first time.
- This might be the main takeaway for this blog post.
- I leave this as an exercise for the reader, to independently determine if this part of the story is even true. But I will say two points on the topic. 1) I have personally seen cows curiously sniffing the electric fence numerous times. I would guess most ranchers would attest to the same. 2) I thoroughly enjoyed reading research studies this week on the topic of cows and their collective learning-curve upon encountering an electric fence for the first time (research performed solely for this footnote).
[Footnote’s Footnote]: A properly funded study from Australia’s Journal of the Department of Agriculture contains this gem, “No animal received more than a total of three shocks and none returned for shocks after the third day. The majority of shocks were received on the first day, only three on the second day and one on the third day. The prevalence of shocks on the first two days indicates that animals do not respect the fence initially.”
Well put. Solid research.
From the same study, “Of the 14 shocks received by the group [of 19 cows], nine occurred when an animal investigated by sniffing the wire with its nose. Thus, it is not surprising that after the second day, no animal sniffed the fence.”[Footnote’s Footnote’s Aside]: the prepositional phrase “with its nose” is redundant with “sniffing” as this is, I believe, the only possible appendage that can sniff.
This diamond of a research conclusion is contrary to my claim about cows sniffing electricity. While I retain my initial claim, we should note the Australian study was a proper, funded research project on “19 fully-grown cows, heifers and steers of crosses involving Hereford, Shorthorn, Angus, Simmental and Brahman types”. By contrast, we only had Angus cows under observation on our farm. Draw your own conclusion.
- There isn’t a main thesis, but if there had been, I would have strayed from it.
- Being glanced by lightning, coupled with getting lost in Ukraine at night, mugged in D.C., experiencing a small earthquake in California, and resetting my own dislocated jaw gives me a huge advantage in the game of Two Truths and a Lie.