I used to love thunderstorms. My mother told me thunder was the sound of angels
bowling. I loved the image, but I doubted she was right. My father taught me to calculate how far away a storm was by counting the seconds between a lightning flash and the sound of thunder. Take the number of seconds and divide by five. Five seconds meant the storm was one mile away.
I remember striding down Lancaster Avenue when I was eight, twirling my little umbrella
and belting “Singing in the Rain,” thrilled by the lightning flashes and thunderclaps. I never onceconsidered I was in any danger. I continued to love of thunderstorms until 1974, when I was 24.
That year I landed a summer job at a dude ranch in southern Colorado. I was receptionist
and reservation agent, the face of the ranch from 7 am to 9 pm. I got to know the names of the guests and where they were from. I flirted with the forest rangers who checked in to let us know how the fish were doing in the Conejos River. I kept track of the horse-ride reservations for Luciano, the handsome head wrangler, who’d stop in every morning to pick up the list. I
remember him leaning against the check-in counter, smiling at me, chatting about his family and asking me about my life back in Milwaukee. He always wore a western style shirt dotted with embroidery and a few sequins.
Often from noon to 1:30, when there were no guests signed up rides, I was allowed to go
out riding with the wrangler, Peter, who probably had a crush on me. Peter taught me how to read a horse’s moods and personality, what they loved and what they hated. Once he was sure of my ability to stay in a saddle, he started taking me on long canters through the meadow below the lodge. I loved cantering more than anything I’d ever done before. It was like flying; it was like dancing full-out, or singing at the top of my lungs, a joy so big I didn’t know where to store it.
One day in July, I signed up to go with a small group of guests on an afternoon ride. But
when the time came, I was tired. I’d been up late the night before, sitting by a campfire with my staff buddies. Instead of going along on the ride, I went back to my room and took a nap. A crack of thunder woke me from a nightmare.
I walked back up to the lodge, feeling uneasy. When I opened the big heavy wooden door
to the spacious lobby, I saw a few people sitting and a few standing, talking anxiously. I
recognized them as the group who’d signed up for the ride. A forty-something dark-haired man named Frank looked pale and sick. I grabbed his14-year-old son’s arm. “What happened?”
“There was lightning,” the boy said, in a shaky voice. It wasn’t raining. It hit Luciano’s
horse and he fell and they’re both dead.” He began to sob.
The woman who owned the ranch beckoned to me. She was tearful too. “We’re waiting
for ambulances,” she said. “One is to take Frank to a hospital for a checkup. The other,” she
could barely talk, “is for Luciano’s body.”
She instructed me to bring coffee, tea, and cookies for the survivors. As I served them, I
listened to the stories. There’d been no rain, no thunder. Only a few stray clouds. Lightning hit the metal saddle horn on Luciano’s saddle. The electricity traveled down to the horse’s heart and up to Luciano’s beautiful shirt. Luciano and his horse were killed instantly. Frank’s horse was hit and killed, and Frank landed, alive, under the horse. The others were stunned but uninjured. Together they carried Luciano’s body back up to the lodge.
I went outside, reeling from the pictures in my head, struggling to grasp that Luciano was gone. I paced around the cars parked in the lot beside the lodge. I peered through the window of Luciano’s blue Jeep. There he was, leaning in the back seat, seemingly asleep. His sequined shirt was melted in the center of his chest.
It wouldn’t hit me until the next day how lucky it was that I’d been too tired to go riding
Seven years later I wrote a poem about Luciano and the lightning; it was published in a small literary journal. I thought though that it’s true home was in that meadow where Luciano had died. So I drove two days,back to Rainbow Trout Lodge, and walked down into the meadow. where a small wooden cross marked the spot where Luciano and his horse were buried together. I stood there looking up at the clear uniquely azure mountain sky and pictured the deadly lightning bolt that had come from nowhere. “Luciano,” I whispered. “I wrote this for you.” I pulled out a copy of my poem and read it out loud for him. And then I buried it at the foot of the cross.
Eight years after Luciano’s death I had another experience with lightning. By then I’d
been married and divorced and had moved into a small rental flat with my toddler daughter.
One afternoon when I was at the counseling clinic where I worked, a storm swept in.
Continuous bolts of lightning lit up the sky. Cracks of thunder shook the old building. The
electricity failed so we canceled the rest of the day. I picked up my daughter, Jessie, early from daycare, and we went home to a dark apartment.
Before I could I set my briefcase down, there was a sudden clanging noise from the
basement. I’d never heard that noise before, and I was afraid something was blowing up, so I
called the fire department. They sent a man immediately. I followed him downstairs where he located the source of the clanging and turned it off. He told me a lightning bolt probably hit the lightning rod in the chimney, traveled down to the circuit box, blew all the circuits and set off the furnace alarm. We were lucky, he told me, that the house was grounded that way. Otherwise the house would have burned. I went upstairs while he checked a few more things before he flipping the circuits back on.
Jessie was sitting on the floor of her bedroom looking at a book. I was standing in the
doorway when suddenly music poured out of a kitchen radio, a hallway ceiling light blinked on, and a fan in the hallway began to spin. Before I could register all this as good news, there was a crackling sound from the lamp on the dresser beside Jessie’s crib. It smoked for a few seconds and then it burst into flames. I snatched Jessie up and set her in the hallway. The little statue on the lamp’s base, Bo Peep and her sheep, was engulfed and beginning to melt. I pulled a blanket off the crib and smothered the flames.
“Mommy?” I heard Jessie’s little voice behind me. “We okay?” The smell of burned
plastic was sickening. More sickening was my realization that Jessie could easily have been in
that crib when the lamp burst into flames. I picked her up, hugged her, and said, “We are okay, honey, we are so okay.”
That evening after cleaning up the soot and tossing the ill-fated Bo Peep lamp in the
trash, I thought about Luciano again, how I’d seen his body there in the back of that car, his
sequined blue shirt melted over his heart.
I started to cry, for the close call Jessie and I had just had, for our good fortune, and for
Luciano, who had not been so lucky. I wept for his horse, for his wife, and for his daughters.
I don’t sing in the rain anymore. I have deep respect for electricity and the
unpredictability of random disasters. And I don’t take my good luck for granted.
A somewhat shorter version of this blog appeared on my Psychology Today blog site, named Judith Ford, Close Calls and Narrow Escapes.