Struck by lightning

When I was at school a kid named Roland was struck by lightning. He was standing under a tree after rugby, waiting for his mom to pick him up, when a Durban summer storm came through. Roland was fine afterwards and became something of a school celebrity, but failed to pick up a nickname as the name “Roland” doesn’t lend itself to wordplay involving electrostatic discharge. “Damn,” said Rod Murray. “It should have been me.”

After that, every time there was lightning around we all made a point of standing next to Roland, on the principle that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. This was both literally and metaphorically untrue.

Consider Roy Sullivan, current world record holder for being struck by lightning. Roy was a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The first time he was struck, in 1942, he was hiding from a thunderstorm in a fire lookout tower. The second time was 27 years later, when lightning struck a pine tree and somehow deflected in through the open window of his truck. The next year he was struck again, and then again the year after.

Roy began to take the lightning strokes personally. He thought god was after him, and started carrying a container of water wherever he went in order to douse himself. In 1973 he was struck again and his hair caught fire, but he saved himself with the contents of his jerrycan of water. There were more strikes, but my favourite is the seventh and final occasion, when lightning found him out while fishing, and while still stunned he was attacked by a bear.

I imagine Roy spent most of his life pondering the question central to many lives: am I very lucky or very unlucky? It’s unlucky to be struck seven times by lightning, but surely it’s lucky to survive each time. Roy’s wife was struck by lightning once while hanging washing in the backyard. The interesting part isn’t that she was hanging washing with a storm approaching, but that Roy was helping her and escaped untouched.

I’d probably consider myself lucky, and start thinking of myself as marked for greatness and beyond the reach of the gods, but that’s the mystery of temperament. Roy finally answered the question for himself in 1983, when he committed suicide over unrequited love.

I thought about Roland and Roy when the news came this week that one of the Paris victims of the attack on the Bataclan, an American named Matthew who was shot in the leg but dragged to safety, claimed to have also been at the foot of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, on his way to a meeting on an upper floor, when the first plane hit.

I say “claimed’ because Matthew has withheld his surname, so his story can’t be checked. Depending on the slant of their mind, some people are keen to believe such claims, and others tend to be suspicious. I tend to fall into the later camp, but not wholeheartedly. It’s certainly not unprecedented for lucky or unlucky individuals to be at the site of multiple tragedies.

Consider Violet Jessup. When she applied for a job as ship’s stewardess in 1910 she was rejected for being too attractive, so she frumped herself up, reapplied and won a position on Olympic. In 1911 the ship collided with a battleship, took on water, and barely limped back to port before sinking. Violet Jessup was shaken by the incident, so it must have been a relief when she learnt that her new posting would be on Olympic’s unsinkable sister ship: Titanic.

Happily she survived Titanic when she was ordered into one of the first lifeboats to prove to wary female passengers that it was safe. Later she lamented that in all the fuss she left her toothbrush behind.

Violet Jessup decided that it was time to forgo the sea-going life, but during the First World War she volunteered as a nurse and because of her previous work experience was posted to a troop ship, Britannic. Titanic had two sister ships: Olympic was the first, Brittanic was the other. They weren’t long in the Aegean Sea before they struck a German mine and sank. This time there was no time for lifeboats, and Violet Jessup jumped over the side. But there’s no teacher like experience: “That time,” she recalled years later, “I made sure to bring my toothbrush.”

There are lots of people in the world and lots of things happen to us, and sometimes pure chance makes patterns. An old friend dropped me a line the other day and told me that he’d heard Roland is in Australia now, and was recently struck by lightning. Nothing against Roland, but the romantic in me really hopes that’s true.

Times, 25 November 2015