Thursday, June 07, 2007

When Lightning Strikes

By Lori Cullen

I can hear still hear sirens in the distance. I hear the quick-footed horns as well as the deep-voiced fire engines’ wails. Soon after, I see what I think is a news helicopter cutting circles into a deceptively blue sky. I watch until it disappears behind the tree tops. I wonder if someone has been hurt. Who? Where? How?

There was no warning, no tell tale rumbling that would signal a blast so strong I could feel it roar through my feet as I sat typing an email. My hands stopped mid-word when I heard the lightning crack. Then the power went out.

I heard the explosion directly overhead. I didn’t know what it was. If I hadn’t been in Schenectady, New York, I would have known for sure that it was a bomb. Nevertheless, I expected the very next moment to bring with it the shattering of my world, of glass, of shrapnel and of screams. As I made my way outside, I was sure the workers who earlier that day had been repaving a neighbor’s driveway would be splattered in pieces about the street. I was certain there would be blood.

Instead, there were only neighbors who had gathered together in an adjacent yard. Nobody had been immediately certain what the blast had been, but they had since figured it out. It was thunder.

One of four paving workers returned from where I don’t know and climbed into his truck. I crossed the road to asked him where he had gone when he heard the loud bang.

"Oh, I heard the thunder alright,” the man said. “We moved to get out of the rain.”

But there had been no rain. So I asked him again, where he had gone and if he had seen the lightning.

"We were in our trucks,” said another one, lighting a cigarette. “We didn’t run, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Did you see the lightning?” I asked.

“Yeah. I saw the lightning. When I heard the thunder, I looked up right overhead and saw it. I was looking for the shotgun.”

I hadn’t been looking for a shotgun. I had been looking for a mushroom cloud or a fireball in the sky. I had been listening to too close sirens and the stillness of my house and watching shocked appliances come slowly out of hiding.

My children were all in school. When I heard the blast, instinctively I raced to do something, but what? Go to the basement? Rush to my children’s schools, to the phone, to the TV?

In the end, I rushed outside where I discovered that the sound had only been thunder.

Gathered with the neighbors, we blanketed our fears in laughter, each of us perhaps remembering 911, the Northeast blackout in 2003 or perhaps the most recently reported terror threat posed at J.F.K. Airport.

We talked uneasily until the next clap of thunder came. Katie, an elderly neighbor closed her shutters. “We better go inside.”

Another neighbor went inside to comfort her frightened dog, she said.

I also went inside — to finish my email, but the thunder remained heavy on my mind.
Here, in Schenectady, NY, with the sky now a hazy gray and leaves swirling on the giant maples like tiny ballerinas, the sound of thunder almost brought me to my knees. But it was just thunder.

Somewhere else, there is a woman who today will hear the same, heart wrenching sound. The sound will cause her mind to flash black and her heart to bleed as she thinks about her children.

Only when she opens her door to go outside, the sky may still be blue and the sun may be brightly shining, but the sound will not be thunder and in an instant, her whole life may have changed.

Writer Lori Cullen, who directs the Writing Center for the Capital Region, has a regular column, called "Family Matters," on the Albany, New York Times Union blog page. This piece ran in "Family Matters" on June 5, 2007. Cullen reports that two women were injured by the monstrous bolt of lightning that struck her neighborhood.

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