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When getting hit by lightning don't hardly matter

The braided cable, black with age, snaked down the side of our flat-roofed Victorian house, past the green shutters and corniced windows, and disappeared into the earth. I kept my tricycle well away from it. My father, who took me out on the roof to show me the lightning rods spiring upward from the looming brick chimneys, explained that the cable would send any lightning strike harmlessly into the ground. There was no danger in touching it, he said, when there were no storms around. I wasn't so sure.

But he was patient in his explanations. He said the house had been built in what was, a century earlier, an open field. Like its neighbors, it had needed protection from the summer thunderstorms that charged across western Massachusetts. Since then, however, the spruces had towered above the house on every side, and the metal-tipped steeple of the Methodist church had risen impressively next door. I was comforted in knowing that they, rather than our copper spikes, would probably draw off any nearby thunderbolts. Still, those rods seemed daring things to have on your roof - actually inviting the lightning to strike at you. I kept my distance.

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But summers came and went, and I took a passing interest in radios and electricity and learned that the earth itself was part of an electrical system so vast that it could absorb without a murmur all the volts you could pour into it. So I was disposed to listen when, on a July day years later in New Hampshire , a car climbed the grass-spined gravel road of the old farmhouse we were restoring and a man from the lightning-rod company climbed out. He said he'd heard we were working on the house and barn. We sat for a time in the shade of the massive ash tree on the lawn, chatting about the weather and the porcupines and where to get a granite front step and whether Chester Atwood was ever going to sell his filling station down in the Flat. Finally he got around to talking about lightning rods.

It might have been his quickest sale, except that I made him explain how the whole system worked. He told me that the rods themselves needed to stand straight up from chimneys and gables and that the sharper they were the better they would attract the lightning. He explained the need for the long metal ground stake, driven deep beside the foundation to disperse the lightning into the earth. And he sang the virtues of the heavy copper cable his company used. It needed to be thick and strong, he said; it had to bear up over the years without breaking or corroding through. Nothing worse, after all, than attracting all that energy and giving it no place to go.

I agreed. So a few weeks later he was clambering along the shingles and fixing us up with a set of rods. He even put a couple on our much-prized ash tree - showing us the scarred bark where, in years past, lightning had raced down it. ''Maybe it'll get hit again, maybe not,'' he said. ''This way, it don't hardly matter whether't does or doesn't.''

Summers being what they are, it wasn't long before we had a chance to test his workmanship. One hot, still afternoon the breeze sprang up more suddenly than it should have, flipping up the undersides of the poplar leaves beyond the stone wall. The sky behind the barn went devil-black. We heard the distant thunder and gathered in the garden tools before the first fat plops of rain danced in the marigolds along the walk and filled the house with the smell of damp earth as we went about shutting windows.

And then came the deluge, and the crack and dazzle of the storm tearing into the tree and the chimney stacks above us. It seemed almost to know of our new-laid copper taunt, hovering above us for hours. The rain turned to hail. The lightning blasted away at everything upright. More than once the flash and roar came right together. More than once the telephone, sitting beside the wooden box with the black crank for calling the operator, jangled furiously and seemed to leap across the table. We heard, later, of phone poles knocked sideways down in the Flat, of trees cracked open and branches lying in the roads. But up on our hillside, house and barn and ash tree stood unruffled, as though nothing had happened. Maybe they got hit repeatedly. Maybe they went untouched. We could never tell; it hardly seemed to matter.

In the summers of a life that has since taken us far beyond New Hampshire, I've thought more than once about that farm. And again and again, when the pressure builds on the hot and muggy afternoons of the soul and life seems hopelessly exposed, I recall my talk with that salesman. He didn't say a word about running away from the storms. He just talked about driving the groundstake deep into the earth. He talked about putting up good strong cable and keeping it well connected to that foundation. And he talked about using sharp rods, set upright on the highest pinnacle you can reach. Maybe they'll get hit, and maybe not. Either way, as he said, it don't hardly matter.

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