I used to live on the side of a mountain. It was the best place to watch thunderstorms, my father told me. I never appreciated the show, though. I shut my eyes and ears to every flash and crash.
Dad told me there was nothing to be afraid of, that a little lightning and thunder never hurt anyone. He tried to teach me how to judge a storm's distance by counting the interval between the lightning and thunder. "One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three, one-thousand...." If I counted to five before hearing thunder, he told me, the storm was at least five miles away.
I still cower during thunderstorms. But I didn't want to pass my fear onto my son, Nathan. Once when a loud thunderclap caught him by surprise, he screamed and leaped into my arms. As we clung together like magnets, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried not to flinch. In a voice I hoped sounded more like Whoopi Goldberg than Julia Child, I told him that he was going to be just fine. I repeated these words at every storm, and eventually Nathan believed them.
One day he asked me how lightning is made. I opened one of his science books and starting reading: "Every second of every day more than a hundred lightning bolts strike the earth. That's 10 million lightning bolts in a single day." I shut the book and opened another one. "As you read this, about 2,000 thunderstorms are exploding all over the world." I tried a third book. "Lightning kills about 100 people in the United States each year."
I summoned my husband. "I'll explain the sperm and egg thing if you handle this," I pleaded.
Father and son read about Ben Franklin's discovery that lightning is really electricity. They visited museums, read more books, and conducted their own static-electricity experiments. Each question sparked another experiment. Lightning and thunder fascinated Nathan.
We were at the playground one afternoon when a storm came up. As Nathan and I dodged raindrops and ran to the car, he yelled, "Did you know that lightning comes up from the ground?"
"What?" I gasped.
"Lightning travels up and down."
"You're kidding, right?"
At home, Nathan read to me about leaders that shoot down from the clouds and streamers that shoot up from the ground.
He explained that the lightning we see is really a return stroke of electricity flashing up from the ground. Oblivious to the flashing and crashing all around us, he showed me pictures of heat lightning, sheet lightning, ribbon lightning, and ball lightning. Then he stopped.
"What you are doing?" he asked.
"The time between the lightning and thunder," I said.
"Right. Count the seconds between the lightning and thunder and divide by five. That's how many miles away the storm is."
"What? I'm supposed to divide by five?"
I can stop worrying about scaring my son. Now he scares me.
Nathan often sits by the window to watch thunderstorms. I doubt the view is as spectacular as the one I had when I was a child, but I don't really know. I go to the garage, sit in the car, and wait for the storm to end.
Jean Francis lives in Lansdale, Pa., with her husband and storm-loving son.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society