A Thunderstorm Rain Curtain

When I mention the word “summertime,” what weather condition first comes to your mind?  I guess most people think about those sunny, carefree summer days when the warmth and beauty of the day irresistibly lures you outdoors.  For other people, it’s the lazy, hazy, hot and humid days that make you sweat just to sit on the porch and wish you were at the beach.  For me, though, it’s thunderstorms.  Oh, I do recognize and visualize the other weather conditions I mentioned, but I’ve always been enthralled by thunderstorms.  When we were children, my adoptive sisters always feared them, especially those that passed right over us with vivid, frequent lightning flashes followed immediately by loud, booming thunderclaps.  While the closest lightning strikes and thunderclaps might catch me by surprise, I was far too impressed with the power and the dark, ominous structure of the immense storm clouds to hide from them.

Approaching Rain Curtain

I used to watch them from the windows of my childhood house or from the north end of the hayloft above our milking barn, where I would always leave a small, secret chamber in the stacked hay bales along the peak of the roof that I could climb into during a good thunderstorm.  The louvered wall vent at the north end of the barn had long since fallen out or broken away, leaving a rectangular opening in the wall that looked directly at Mount Ascutney, some ten miles farther north.  The view of that towering 3,150-foot mountain when a line of intense thunderstorms approached was impressive, and I enjoyed watching the storms stalk across the landscape to the deafening accompaniment of driving rain pounding on the metal roof, comfortably reassured by the sweet aroma of freshly stacked hay bales that surrounded me.  It was a wonderful experience that returns to my mind every time I hear a good thunderstorm approach.

Granted, severe thunderstorms are dangerous.  My adoptive father claimed to have been struck by lightning seven times without injury.  I clearly remember two of the lightning-strike stories he told me.  His first experience was during his childhood school days.  He and his fellow grade school students were playing in the schoolyard during recess when a severe thunderstorm quietly bubbled up over them.  The first bolt of lightning struck a large elm tree in the middle of the schoolyard and knocked them all down, where they laid dazed on the ground for a few moments as the rain washed across their faces, gradually reviving them.

He also told a story from his first years on our North Charlestown farm when a thunderstorm arrived as he was beginning to milk the cows on a warm, mid-summer morning.  He had just connected one of our milking machines to the steel vacuum compressor line directly above a stanchion and was opening the valve to activate it when a bolt of lightning struck the electric fence on the hill behind the barn.  The bolt travelled into the barn along the fence line and burned out the charger that powered it.  It then instantaneously leapt from the charger to the adjacent milking compressor (shorting it out) and traveled along the steel vacuum pipelines that stretched the length of the barn directly above both opposing rows of stanchions.  It knocked my father unconscious as he opened the valve and then jumped to the top of each stanchion, subsequently shocking every cow in the barn unconscious.  When my father finally came to his senses, he could feel the cows on both sides of him struggling to stand up.  He was lucky that neither of them landed on him after they were struck, and that none of our cows had been injured.

My biological father (who I did not know when I was growing up) also told me a story about a close call he had with a bolt of lightning.  He was traveling to Okinawa on a troop transport in the Pacific Theater during World War II, when a bolt of lightning from a towering thunderstorm struck the ship’s main mast.  He was standing on the deck at the time and saw the mast glow blue from the strike and felt the force of the thunderclap.  Although it made him jump, he was unharmed.

Although I have never been struck by lightning, I have had many close calls.  Two of them remain most fresh in my mind.  I remember a severe summer storm when I was a teenager that began with a downpour just before I was ready to do my afternoon barn chores.  The barn entrance was a good distance from the house—perhaps 120 feet from the front door.  I decided to wear a raincoat because the rainfall was so heavy.  I pulled the hood of the raincoat as far over my head as I could to avoid getting my glasses wet on the mad dash I was planning to make for the barn.  At that point in the storm, I had heard no thunder.  It appeared to be just a heavy summertime gully-washer.  However, as I started to cross the driveway on my way to the barn, the first bolt of lightning struck somewhere in our barnyard.  I remember feeling a static-induced tingle and hearing a strange, distinct sizzling sound an instant before the streaming stormwater that drained along the driveway in my path lit up with a bright blue glow.  The thunderclap was instantaneous and deafening.  If I hadn’t frozen in my path when I first felt the tingling sensation, I would have stepped into the stream of water that carried the lightning charge down the driveway.  I had come within a footstep of being hit by the nearby bolt.  I never saw where the bolt of lightning struck the ground, because I was looking down and holding the hood as tightly to my head as I could.  I have never forgotten that incident, as it was the closest I ever came to being struck by lightning.

The second closest incident occurred many years later (around the year 2000) in the small town of Goodwater, Alabama.  I was working for the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission at the time.  The Town’s Clerk had asked me to apply for a special telecommunication grant to provide Internet services to a low-income neighborhood in the community.  The grant required a survey of the neighborhood to document that it met the low-income eligibility requirements for the grant.  I was being accompanied by one of the town’s police officers (Officer Whetstone) because the neighborhood was a known drug-trafficking hotspot in the community, and the Clerk did not want to be responsible for what might happen to me if I accidentally walked in on a drug transaction.

Officer Whetstone and I had canvassed about half of the neighborhood, when we heard the distant rumble of an approaching afternoon thunderstorm.  The officer was concerned about our exposure as we felt the first sprinkles of the approaching storm.  Being a safety officer, he suggested we take a break from the survey and wait out the storm on the large front porch of a multi-unit apartment building.  As the sky turned dark and foreboding, Officer Whetstone confided to me his childhood fears of thunderstorms because a member of his family had once been injured by a lightning strike. 

I told him how I had experienced many close calls in the past because of my upbringing on a dairy farm, where much of our daily work was conducted outdoors.  I tried to reassure him not to be too concerned about the approaching storm because there was such a long time (upwards of ten seconds or so) between the lightning flash and the accompanying thunderclap.  I said that if the lightning was dangerously close you would first hear a sizzling sound just before you’d see the glow from the lightning bolt.  I was drawing upon the previous childhood incident I just described in explaining that.  I had no sooner finished telling him that when we heard a sizzling sound that appeared to come from the other side of the building followed immediately by a blinding white light and an instantaneous explosion of thunder.  We both jumped when it happened.  The expression on his face conveyed his shock, as he turned to me and said, “I didn’t ask you to prove it to me.”  The coincidental irony of the situation was not lost on me.

Alabama was a great place to watch and study thunderstorms.  Many spring and summer thunderstorms that strike the state carry tornadoes with them.  Our closest encounter with a thunderstorm-induced tornado occurred when we were returning from a day-trip to Little River Canyon National Preserve near the tiny, four-corners community of Gaylesville, AL.  We were driving south on Alabama Route 9 into the town of Piedmont as a thunderstorm producing a tornado was approaching from the southwest along Alabama Route 21.  We could clearly see the towering thunderstorm clouds as we reached the intersection of Alabama Route 9 and U.S. Route 278 on the north side of town.  I quickly drove south through the intersection to get beyond the advancing storm’s path and up the side of a low hill on the south end of town to get a better view.  However, the tornado’s funnel was hidden within a dense, black wall cloud of heavy rain, dust and debris stirred up by the cyclone that made it impossible to see it from our elevated vantage point.  Roughly one or two years later, I attended an annual regional planning conference in Orange Beach, AL and spent about thirty minutes one evening on the porch of the beach-front hotel watching a thunderstorm-induced waterspout harmlessly twist and dance about a mile out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout the course of my childhood and adult life, I have experienced many weather phenomena associated with thunderstorms.  For instance, as a young teenager, I was riding my bicycle home from Ferland’s Store and Barber Shop, where I had just received a haircut, when I noticed that an afternoon summertime thunderstorm was approaching.  The sweltering air was oppressive, causing me to sweat profusely as I peddled hard to get home before the storm struck.  Suddenly, I heard a distinct crackling sound behind me that sent a shiver down my spine and caused me to stop in my tracks.  As I looked back over my shoulder at the powerline that paralleled the road, I noticed a brilliant, blue-white softball-sized arc of light gliding slowly along the line.  I was mesmerized with fear by the glowing ball as it traced the line to the next pole where it spluttered out in a shower of white sparks at the first insulator it struck.  When I got home and told my adoptive father about the eerie incident, he informed me that I had seen St. Elmo’s Fire.  I have seen it only one other time in my life since then.

I also remember a day when I was in third grade at Farwell School when a strong spring thunderstorm erupted.  The students in our class were acting unruly at the time because of the excitement the noisy storm had caused.  Several kids left their seats and rushed to the large, double-hung window behind me to see the lightning display.  Frustrated by her inability to regain control of our behavior, Mrs. Champney (our teacher), turned off the lights and sternly commanded us to return to our seats and put our heads down on our desks, as the storm raged.  Although it was early in the afternoon, the room became very dark from the shadow cast by the storm.  The frequent bright lightning flashes that the storm generated caused a periodic strobe-light effect in the room, and I could hear the windows behind me rattle from the booming percussions of the thunderclaps.  Suddenly, the classroom lit up with a bright glow, followed almost immediately by a loud explosion beyond the wall behind me.  I heard a shower of very small particles pelt the window and turned to see scattered, smoldering flames in a tall tree at least 100 feet beyond that had been struck and shattered by lightning.  Of course, that put an abrupt end to our punishment.  The next day we learned that the explosion was caused by ball lightning that had struck and shattered the tree.

I did not experience my first “thundersnow” event until December 18, 2004, when Barb and I had just finished unloading the excess furniture we had kept in a storage unit until we were ready to move into our new house in Waldorf, MD.  The determined squall dropped a light, slushy dusting of fat, wet snowflakes and produced a number of diffuse lightning flashes and thunderclaps.  We did not see another thundersnow storm until after we had moved to New Creek, WV.  These are just a few of the most memorable thunderstorms I can remember.

We have not experienced many severe thunderstorms since retiring to Peeper Pond Farm in 2017.  However, over the past two days (June 13 and 14), we have been struck by two lines of severe thunderstorms driven by successive cold fronts.  Both storms produced heavy, drenching rains that beat down on the roof of our farmhouse so hard and so suddenly that it almost sounded as though we were being swept away by raging, biblical floodwaters.  The storms dumped totals of 0.80 and 0.93 inches of rain on our farm, respectively in total timespans of about thirty minutes.  The storm that struck last night (around 9:15 PM EDT) was preceded by strong, swirling winds and driving rain that sent our cat, Calli—who had come indoors for the night only an hour earlier—scrambling to hide under our bed.  Both storm events were accompanied by frequent, vivid flashes of lightning and loud, booming thunder.

The only other memorable thunderstorm event we can recall watching from our farm occurred on a summer evening in 2020, when a line of thunderstorms formed over the Shenandoah Valley to our east and put on an impressive display of roiling clouds and frequent lightning flashes beyond the nearby ridgelines and mountains that frame our eastern view.  It was mesmerizing to watch the lightning bolts fork through and across the continuous line of clouds.  We couldn’t hear any thunder because the storms were roughly fifty miles away.

There are two aspects of thunderstorms that I routinely enjoy here, but have not experienced so often in any of the other places I have lived.  The first is that the thunder we hear from storms near our farm tends to echo for miles up and down our long, narrow valley.  Some thunderclaps seem to rumble and rattle for minutes through the valley, fading away gently as they travel beyond our hearing range.  Whenever the lightning is frequent, the thunder seems to grumble continuously, as each new thunderclap begins before the previous one has faded away.

The second and more spectacular visual effect occurs as the storms pass over the ridgelines.  I have noticed that the mountains seem to create brief breaks in the storms, perhaps because we live in the rain shadow of several high ridgelines that drain the energy out of the storms as they pass over them.  When large storms break up in this manner, we enjoy brief interludes of daytime sunlight between each successive storm producing very intense and colorful rainbows far more often than I have ever seen them before.  Most of those rainbows become vivid double-rainbows, where the typically diffuse and less brilliant twin displays an inverse color pattern from the more intense rainbow.  I haven’t researched the cause for this effect, but I suspect that the less brilliant twin is either some form of reflection of the brighter one, or it is generated by rays of sunlight that has refracted twice through the falling raindrops.  Whatever the actual cause is, it’s a truly spectacular phenomenon—one that I have not witnessed so frequently and so vividly anywhere else I have lived.

Hopefully, all of these stories and memories I can recall make it easier for you to understand why my mind is so captivated by the incredible power and grandeur of thunderstorms and their many and varied spine-tingling effects.  You can certainly rest assured that I will continue to watch the skies from our front porch to appreciate the beauty of a random thunderstorm and its misty, rippling curtain of rain as it sweeps down our valley to deliver its bounty of life-restoring rain and cool, refreshing air.  Perhaps I may have missed another potential calling as a storm chaser.