The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Struck By Lightning

By Mary A. Summerline © 1990

Issue: June, 1990

It was a hot July night in rural Greenbrier County, West Virginia. I was ten years old at the time.

The house in which my family had lived for four years stood on an acre of ground about a mile from Lewisburg. It had seemed like a mansion to us compared to the two-room house we had lived in previously, and my father frequently referred to it as "McCoy Manor." It was in fact a wood frame house, consisting of a living room and three bedrooms which were covered by white painted weatherboarding, and a kitchen and dining room covered by unpainted vertical boards.

Electricity would not be available for several years, and the change-over from winter to summer had been made by removing the cast iron heater and metal stovepipe from the living room and rearranging the furniture. The flue hole which lead to the exterior brick chimney had been covered by a pie pan, and the piano occupied the space normally taken by the stove. A goldfish bowl sat on the top of the piano.

My family retired for the night, although the stifling heat made it difficult to sleep. There were ten of us in the house that night. Mom and Dad and my baby brother, Jack were in the downstairs bedroom. My mother's uncle, Neville Franklin, who was visiting, took the couch in the living room. My brothers Jesse and Johnny were in their upstairs bedroom, and my sisters Bertie and Hilda and I were in the room next to theirs.

My five-year-old brother, Jimmy, normally slept in the boys' room, but that night he and I had fixed a pallet on the floor in the girls' room near the window to try to be as cool as possible.

The girls' room was directly above the living room. It had sloping ceilings, so it was difficult to stand erect except in the center of the room. Its walls and ceilings were decorated with pictures of movie stars that my sisters had clipped from magazines, and costume jewelry which they pinned to several layers of wallpaper.

In spite of the heat we all managed to fall asleep. Early the next morning about five o'clock, my sister Hilda had gone downstairs to prepare to go to work. Her job was at the ribbon factory in White Sulphur Springs, about ten miles away, so she often left before most of us got up.

A thunderstorm had built up during the night, and I was awakened by a brilliant flash of lightning and a loud thunderclap. I rushed downstairs and into the living room. The first thing I saw was Uncle Neville, clad in trousers and an undershirt, covered with soot from the chimney. His grey hair was now black, as were his face, arms, hands, and chest. The areas around his eyes and mouth were white, so that he resembled someone made up for a minstrel show.

Mom and Dad and my four brothers had also rushed to the living room. Only Bertie was unaccounted for. Mom yelled upstairs to make sure she wasn't hurt. She was okay, and decided to stay in bed. She always seemed able to stay calm in stressful situations.

After making sure that everyone was safe, and that there was no fire, we waited until daylight and until the storm was over to assess the damage. In the living room, the fish bowl was broken, the goldfish were dead, and water from the bowl mixed with soot form the chimney had leaked into the piano. The pie pan was off the wall, and soot covered much of the room.

In the girls' bedroom, many of the broaches and scatter pins were blown off the wall. Some were found in the boys' room.

Outside, several bricks were shattered in the top of the chimney, indicating that the lightning had struck there. It apparently ran down the chimney, skipped to a nearby concrete cistern where our water was stored, and glanced off to Mom's flower bed, where some plants were damaged.

We considered ourselves very fortunate that no one was hurt, and that the house didn't catch on fire.

A few weeks later we had three lightning rods installed on our roof. They gave us some sense of security, although I'm not sure that they provided any protection. I lived in that house eight more years until it was torn down after a new one was built next to it.

We all felt uneasy for several years when we had thunderstorms, and even now I still get a little bit nervous when I see one approaching.