By Bob Heafner © 1991
Issue: August, 1991
Every once in a while, a con man gets a notion that he can pull a fast one on mountain folk and pick up some easy money. The fact that it seldom works is what this story is all about. Now everybody knows you don't "recharge" lightning rods and everybody knows you can't buy the Brooklyn Bridge, but "knowing" never has stopped a crook from trying a scam. Let's settle back in our easy chairs and drop in on our old friends Caleb and Henry, and see what happens when a con man has a real "enlightning" experience...
"He's coming Caleb," said Henry.
"Yep," replied Caleb.
The two old friends sat contentedly in their favorite rocking chairs on Caleb's front porch and watched as the van forded the creek on its way up the driveway to their house.
"This ought to be entertaining for us Caleb," Henry commented.
"Yep," said Caleb, "real 'enlightening' you might say."
The van rocked to a stop just inches from the porch and only after squashing several of Henry's favorite petunias. A tall slim man with a pencil thin mustache emerged from the van. He had the look of a city slicker trying to look country and his speech was in rapid fire bursts that are commonly only found north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The van hadn't quite stopped rocking before he lit into his spiel.
"Howdy fellas, my name's J. T. Dillsworthy, and I'm with the Gruber Lightning Rod Company," he spouted.
Without waiting for Henry or Caleb to get out a hello, he started right in on his sales pitch. "Noticed that fine lightning rod system you fellas got, guess its been installed quite a while ain't it," he asked?
"Nigh onto sixty years, best I recollect," said Caleb.
"Closer to seventy, I'd say," Henry corrected. "Me and you was just youngun's underfoot when they were putting it up for your Pa."
"Yea, I guess you're right Hen...."
Dillsworthy cut Caleb off in mid sentence and said, "Now that's why I'm here gentlemen. You see these lightning rod peddlers made a sweep through here back then and sold lightning rods to nearly every house, but they neglected to tell anybody that they'd lose their charge after a while and then they're like a magnet just sitting up there ready to draw the power of a lightning bolt right into your bedrooms with you. Why I tell you it's a wonder that every house in this county ain't already burned down. Once them old rods lose their charge a man's better off to tear 'em down then leave 'em up. Course you'd want to wait till a perfectly clear day when they ain't a cloud in the sky. No use taking anymore risk than you already are."
"Is that a fact," said Henry. "Why after all these years I'd shore hate to see them old rods gone. The old place just wouldn't seem the same."
"Now, now don't you fret neighbor," chimed in Dillsworthy. "That's why I'm here. Like I said, I'm with the Gruber Lightning Rod Company and we specialize in recharging these old rods so they're just as good as new. When we get through you could sleep peacefully through a direct hit and never have cause to worry."
"Just how exactly do you 'recharge' a lightning rod," asked Caleb?
"Well it's a complicated procedure," said Dillsworthy, "but in laymen's terms the atmosphere just soaks up the ionization in a lightning rod over time till instead of channeling the hundred thousand or so volts of electricity in a bolt of lightning into the ground cable it dissipates it directly into your roof. That old connector cable between the rods just loses its ability to channel the bolt. Course the rods still attract the lightning but the charge of ionization in the cables is gone. I reckon you can see the danger in that."
Dillsworthy being a salesman continued, "Them old rods is like a story I heard about a bunch of fellas going bear hunting. They hired 'em a guide but after about four days they hadn't seen hide nor hair of a bear. They started getting discouraged and complaining about the sorry job the guide was doing. Really gave the guide a hard time they did. But on the morning of their last day, just at the break of day they woke up to the awfullest hollering you ever heard. All of 'em ran to the window and looked out and there came the guide running for his life toward the cabin with a big old grisly in hot pursuit. 'Open the door, open the door', he was shouting. Well they opened the door but just as he was getting to it with the bear right on his heels, he sidestepped and the bear ran right in the cabin. He reached over and pulled the door shut and hollered to hunters inside, 'There's your bear.' Gentlemen them old rods that's lost their charge is just like that guide. One of these nights when you're sleeping peaceful, thinking you're safe, they're gonna throw the roof open and holler 'There's your lightning.' They'll let a bolt of hell come charging through your home. Be a miracle if you live through it."
Caleb looked at Henry and Henry looked at Caleb and Caleb said in a low voice to Henry, "He's good ain't he?"
"Shore is," mumbled Henry.
Dillsworthy was so busy selling that he missed the exchange between the two old friends and just kept right on with his sales pitch. "Now, we got three plans we offer, the five year, the ten year and the twenty-five year charges. The five year is the cheapest at $50.00, the ten year is $75.00 and the twenty- five year, which is by far the best buy and the one I recommend, is only $99.95. Beautiful old farm house on a hill like this, I'd say $99.95 is a real bargain to know it, and you, would be safe for twenty-five years."
"Well I don't know," spoke up Caleb, "that's a right smart amount of money for country folks."
"Tell you what I'll do," said Dillsworthy, "I'll let you have the twenty-five year charge for only $85.00, and of course you'll still get our unconditional guarantee. After our recharge we'll replace anything and everything that's plugged in or part of the house if it's damaged by lightning for the full twenty-five years."
Henry looked at Caleb and said, "How we gonna know if we get the full twenty-five year charge?"
Before Caleb could speak Dillsworthy had the answer, "Why gentlemen everybody knows it takes a full hour and a half for a twenty-five year charge and I won't be offended at all if you sit right here and time me."
"Sounds fair enough to me," said Caleb. "Can you get started right now? Been a storm every evening here of late and we don't want to go unprotected another day."
"Why sure," said Dillsworthy, "I'll get started right now."
Caleb and Henry stood silently watching as Dillsworthy proceeded to back his van up near as he could get to the chimney where the ground cable from the lightning rods ran down to the grounding rod. Then he pulled a heavy duty power cord from the back of the van and attached it to the lightning rod ground cable with a large alligator clamp. Next he jumped into the back of the van and gave a half dozen jerks on a starter cord attached to a gasoline motor. The motor fired up with a belch of smoke and an ungodly racket and Dillsworthy walked over to where Caleb and Henry stood observing.
"It'll take it an hour and half gentlemen so I think I'll sit down in the van and catch up on my paper work," Dillsworthy shouted over the noise.
Caleb and Henry only nodded and turned back toward their rocking chairs on the front porch. From their position they could see Dillsworthy settling in for his wait by putting on a set of headphones from a portable radio like their grand kids use and spreading out a newspaper.
"So much for his paper work," grunted Caleb.
"Yea, I ain't seen that much wind since hurricane Hugo blew through," said Henry.
"What did Edna over at the sheriff's office say," asked Caleb?
"She said Walt was over toward Cal Hubbard's checking on a report that somebody's been dumping out garbage, but that he'd be by here as quick as possible and for us to just keep this here fellow busy till he gets here. Seems a few folks really fell for this line and actually paid this here yahoo to recharge their lightning rods; but weren't none of them born around here."
"Well you got to admit Henry, he sure sounds convincing," said Caleb.
The two old friends continued to rock in silence for the better part of an hour. All the while Dillsworthy, caught up in his radio and newspaper, failed to notice that a storm was blowing up.
"Reckon we ought to tell him," asked Henry nodding toward the clouds?
"Naw Henry, that man surely knows more about lightning than us old codgers. And what he don't know, I've got a feeling he's fixing to learn," chuckled Caleb.
"I'm going to go inside and freshen up my tea Caleb. Can I bring you some?" asked Henry.
"I'd appreciate it Henry and while you're at it bring that bowl of pop corn on the table. We might as well sit back and enjoy this show," said Caleb.
Dillsworthy, oblivious to his impending peril had turned his radio up loud enough to drown out the gasoline motor and failed to hear the ominous rumblings of thunder approaching from the other side of the house.
Caleb and Henry rocked, drink iced tea and munched on pop corn.
Walt Goins, the county sheriff, drove up just as the storm was blowing over. Nodding toward the van he asked, "Is he still in there?"
"Well he ain't come out none of the doors that we could see, but what with the smoke and all it's hard to tell," said Henry.
Caleb nodded toward the van and said, "The first strike stopped the gasoline motor he had in the back, his 'recharger' he called it. That was quite a little explosion in itself. But the second one was the one that scorched the paint on the van that way. It was white when he drove up. We tried to count the strikes but after those first two they was so close together that we lost count."
"Don't reckon he's hurt, do you?" asked Walt.
"I don't rightly know," said Henry, "but till that storm's clean gone I don't reckon I want to go poking around that van. My Pa used to laugh at Caleb's Pa for building this house here. 'Lightning Nob' he always called it."
"Pa liked lightning," spoke up Caleb. "Said it cleaned the air. I have to admit though that during a bad storm it sure does rattle the windows, not to mention the nerves, around here. One thing certain, I'd a sure hate to a been in that van with it connected to that ground rod."
"I believe it's blown over, let's see if he's still in there," said Henry.
As they approached the van it appeared Dillsworthy hadn't moved. He wasn't dead, but he was covered in soot and ashes from head to toe. His arms were held out like he was still holding the newspaper, but only the frayed part that was in his grip hadn't burned. The ear pieces of the headphones were twisted around till one was on the back of his head and one was capped over his left eye. His clothes were still smoldering and an acrid smelling smoke was curling up from his mustache.
Sheriff Goins stepped up to the window next to Dillsworthy, being careful not to touch any hot metal, and said, "Shame about your van. I tried to get here as fast as I could. Figured these old timers might 'enlightning' you a little, he said while trying not to grin. Good thing it wasn't a bad storm. I've seen lightning dance across this roof for hours. Way lightning is drawn to this old place is something of a curiosity hereabouts. Folks been known to line up down at the road just to watch. But, I guess a man just passing through couldn't be expected to know that."
The storm had blown over, the two old friends had resumed their rocking, and Sheriff Goins was headed toward town with a man who had just learned the hard way that messing with mountain folk was a lot like getting plugged into a lightning bolt.
"Good rain weren't it Caleb?" said Henry as he rocked.
"Yep, it shore was, Henry. A good 'enlightning' rain storm."