Unlucky Strike

Gary Rudd got zapped one day, and life has never been the same.

Garry Rudd never saw the flash. He never felt the heat of three suns upon his body or the million volts of electricity humming through his veins, but he remembers the blackness, the chill and the dreams. He is lying beside an irrigation ditch, and his family is looking for him, but he cannot move and he cannot speak, so they leave. He is lying beside the ditch, and his colleagues finally discover him, but they think he is dead, so they bury him under piles of debris. He is lying beside the ditch, and he is gazing down at a meadow of bright, dazzling white. He is lying beside the ditch, darkness is falling around him, and he is waiting to die.

Each second, more than a hundred lightning bolts strike the earth. Each travels 90,000 miles per second, each burns more than 50,000 degrees, each is just about as thick as a pencil. Lightning is the most powerful natural electric force on the planet, responsible for billions of dollars in damages each year, the second leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States.

John Johnston
Electric company: After being hit by lightning, Garry Rudd found it difficult to work.
John Johnston
Electric company: After being hit by lightning, Garry Rudd found it difficult to work.

Ancient Greeks thought lightning came from the god Zeus, who hurled thunderbolts at sinful mortals from Mount Olympus. The Vikings thought the flashes shot from the hammer of Thor. Native Americans in the Southwest thought lightning rumbled from the great Thunderbird. Philosophers had their own ideas: Aristotle concluded that lightning was the ignition of fumes within thunderheads, while Lucretus said it was a collision between clouds. Finally, after a series of dangerous experiments in 1752, Benjamin Franklin determined that lightning was indeed a weather-related electrical phenomenon.

Today a sensor network in Arizona can pinpoint every ground strike in the United States. Yet authorities still do not know exactly when or where lightning will strike. On average, 1,000 people in the United States will be hit by a thunderbolt this year; of those, a hundred will die. Florida is the nation's lightning capital, averaging forty people struck by lightning each year, of which about ten will die. On June 2, Boulder news reporter Christopher Anderson, age thirty, was fatally struck while walking along a Fort Lauderdale beach with his girlfriend. Colorado ranks second for lightning strikes, according to the National Weather Service, but rated only tenth in the country for lightning casualties between 1959 to 1994, with 61 deaths since 1980 alone. On May 19 of this year, nineteen-year-old Rickie DeLeon was struck while walking along U.S Highway 36. It was the first lightning death of the year, but it was only the beginning.

June ushers in lightning's mean season, which lasts through August. To help prevent fatalities, the National Weather Service launched its first-ever lightning-awareness campaign last week. But even with all of the safety tips, this year some 25 Coloradans will be hit by lightning in the mountains, along lonely highways, on suburban golf courses, such as the one struck Monday in Broomfield. Those who survive will endure a painful ordeal that scientists are only now beginning to understand. Many will never be the same.

If Garry Rudd didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at all. He fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car into a bridge. He got caught alone in a blizzard for two days. He was shot in the knee during a bow-hunting accident. He fell through a frozen lake while measuring the thickness of the ice. If something bad was going to happen, it would happen to Garry. For a time, he even thought God was against him.

"Yeah," he grumbles. "People say I have lousy luck."

Garry was born in Louisiana on July 15, 1944, the third of four children. His dad was a prison guard from upstate New York, his mother a farm girl from the Bayou. He spent his childhood bouncing between the two states like an errant electron. "Trouble at home," he says.

"I guess I was incorrigible," he explains. "I had a mind of my own. I wanted to do things my way. After a while, they decided they weren't going to take it anymore."

His parents sent him to a Catholic school to learn discipline, respect and manners. He didn't. So he headed to a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana, where his poor but resourceful relatives taught him ironworking, blacksmithing, farming, tree cutting, engine repairing, hunting and fishing.

"You name it, we did it," Garry recalls. "Whenever something needed to be done, those people not only took you with them, they showed you how to do it. Sewing on a button. Peeling a sunburn. Shoeing a horse. We were always saving things and hauling stuff home. We'd drag nails up from the dirt with magnets and straighten them out. Until I was eighteen, I didn't know you could buy a new starter for a tractor. I thought you had to keep on fixing it."

Down south, Garry picked up a Cajun-French accent as thick as jambalaya. When he returned to New York to visit, no one understood him. "People treated me like a freak," he says. But the taunting only strengthened his resolve. Although he'd never made it past the eighth grade, Garry vowed to better himself.

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