Unlucky Strike

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

Normally the earth carries a negative charge, but as a thunderstorm passes, objects on the ground beneath it become positively charged. When the electric forces exceed the resistance of the insulating air, a massive current is released. The flash super-heats the surrounding air to five times the temperature of the sun. The air expands, vibrates and resonates as thunder.

Although most lightning travels from cloud to cloud, it also travels from cloud to ground and even from ground to cloud. The zigzag path it chooses is entirely random, dictated simply by the quickest way to the earth. That could be mountains, buildings, trees, light poles, people.

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.

On July 28, 1999, Garry Rudd woke at 4:30 a.m., slipped on his uniform -- blue jeans and wading boots -- and drove to the Ouray land. It was irrigation day, and he arrived with the first rays of pale lavender light. This was his favorite time of day, when he could be alone with his shovel, savoring the aroma of wet soil, listening to meadowlarks, watching deer pick through the grass.

"It's like I was the last man on earth," Garry recalls. "It was just so peaceful."

He released water into fields that were knee-high with hay. Then he stopped by a Wal-Mart diner to chat with a few irrigation buddies. After checking the pasture once more, he drove home for a coffee break with Linda. As they chatted outside on the patio, Garry noticed a thunderstorm raging to the northwest.

"That's unusual," he remarked. "Here it is, only ten in the morning, and already there's lightning up there. I've never seen that this early."

Garry drained his cup, cleared the table and detailed his afternoon itinerary for Linda: He'd return to a section of ditch just south of the Ouray property that had become clogged with dead branches, matted grass, fallen leaves and broken sticks. He'd work a few hours, then return home around 5 p.m.

Linda nodded. She knew the area well; she and Garry had shared a picnic lunch beside the pasture.

Garry kissed his wife goodbye and wheeled his F-250 to the warehouse in Salida, where he hacked off a block of ice for his cooler and gathered his tools. On the way out, he told his boss where he was headed.

Around 1:30 p.m., Garry bounced down the dirt road beside the hay fields and parked near the gate. He collected his gear, including a pitchfork, a hand-operated chain hoist and assorted odds and ends, then made for the ditch.

It was a beautiful afternoon, just 78 degrees. As he ambled through the open field, Garry scanned the horizon. To the west, the snowcapped Sawatch Mountains towered like icebergs. To the northeast, above Aspen Ridge, dark storm clouds rumbled. Garry didn't like the idea of being caught in the rain, but at that time of year, in that part of the country, thunderclouds traveled east. Unless something unusual happened, he'd be fine.

Not far from the bank of the ditch, near a clump of thirty-foot cottonwoods, Garry realized that he'd forgotten his water and two-way radio, so he dropped his backpack, stuck his pitchfork in the ground as a marker and lumbered back to the pickup, where he took a long pull from the water bottle and clipped the radio onto his belt. Back in the field, he retrieved his gear, slung one strap of the backpack over his left shoulder, slipped a tin of chewing tobacco from his pocket and pinched off a thick plug. With the sun on his shoulders and a blue sky above, Garry reached for his pitchfork.

In the U.S., the odds of being struck by lightning are one in 600,000.

Garry woke up face-down beside the ditch. He smelled burning hair. He felt like his clothes were on fire. He could not catch his breath. He tried to stand, but he couldn't, so he crawled into the ditch to douse the imaginary flames. He lay in the cool water several minutes, then pulled himself onto the muddy bank, slowly rotating his legs to drain the water from his rubber boots. He lay motionless a long while, trying to regain his bearings.

He knew he was hurt, but he didn't know how it had happened. He thought he had tumbled down one of the steep embankments alongside the ditch and struck his head. He mustered his strength and wriggled under a cottonwood to rest. He was cold, very cold. A surge of pain shot through his right hand. He held the hand to his face and saw what he thought was a sliver of bone protruding from the back. He yanked the bandanna from his back pocket and wrapped it around the wound, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. He shivered uncontrollably.

Recalling his survival training from the military, Garry burrowed into the bank and covered himself with dirt. He positioned his body toward the sun, estimating the time at 2:30 p.m., and scooped more sand onto his legs and torso. Suddenly, his body convulsed. His chest and stomach burned. His arms and legs ached. His ears rang, his head throbbed and his muscles tensed. He thought he was dying.

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