Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ball Lightning -- A Personal True Eyewitness Account -- Happy July 4th

 A 19th century depiction of ball lightning.

When I was 11 and attending summer camp, I had the opportunity to see and feel the effects of ball lightning.

For anyone unfamiliar with ball lightning, Wikipedia includes an accurate summary, describing it as: 

“ an unexplained atmospheric electrical phenomenon. The term refers to reports of luminous, usually spherical objects which vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. It is usually associated with thunderstorms, but lasts considerably longer than the split-second flash of a lightning bolt. Many of the early reports say that the ball eventually explodes, sometimes with fatal consequences, leaving behind the odor of sulfur…..The presumption of its existence is based on reported public sightings, and has therefore produced somewhat inconsistent findings. Given inconsistencies and the lack of reliable data, the true nature of ball lightning is still unknown.”

This spring, Jane mentioned that her physics class discussed ball lightning.  When her teacher asked whether any students had heard of it or seen it, Jane recounted my Camp Androscoggin experience in Wayne, Maine many years ago.  While Dr. Goldader was apparently impressed, amazed and (he admitted) jealous, Jane’s classmates were interested, but somehow not surprised.  After Methuselah years seeing and believing myself Mr. Bland, I think I’m finally acquiring a “reputation.”

A ball lightning-type effect produced by discharging a high-voltage capacitor in a tank of water.

Camp Androscoggin is on a lake of the same name.   The senior camp for teenagers resided on a beautiful island originally called Sans Souci at lake's center.   I recently realized that the camp's alma mater (which, astonishingly, I can still sing even though most song lyrics escape my memory), with its "camp without a care" refrain, incorporates this historical reference.  Junior camp, attended by 7 through 11 year olds, occupied part of the lake’s shore.  In "ball lightning summer",  I was in the last year of my long slog through that place. It was by no measure a carefee journey for a quiet non-athlete, but the gorgeous lake and forest, good food and lovely fragrances offered some pleasures, notwithstanding the distinct underlying Lord Of The Flies vibe. 

Androscoggin also taught me healthy sunrise/sunset lessons about flag etiquette and protocol (presentation, rising and lowering, folding), which have stayed with me and unfortunately seem to mean less than nothing now in the U.S., judging by the oversized frayed national standards adorning every car dealership between Chester County, Pennsylvania and Orange County, New York.

Campers slept in pleasant wooden cabins arrayed down a longitudinal alley at the crest of a gentle hill descending to the waterfront.  At the beginning of every camp season, we were made to spend the first two or three days wading in sneakers in the camp’s swimming area removing the winter mussel population that had accumulated in the lake bed.  (As a kid unfamiliar with mussels, I found the experience sci-fi nightmarish, which in retrospect was silly.  I have no idea what became of the mussels, but I expect they were put to some good use by the cooks and counselors.)    Each cabin was divided down the middle into two numbered bunks with four or five campers housed in each.  My bunk was in the last cabin – Bunk 23 – at the end of the allée at the farthest distance from the dining hall, flag pole, tennis court and playing fields.  

Summer weather in our part of Maine tended toward the divine, but we always experienced a few intense summer storms whose effects were amplified by our relatively rustic shelter.  One afternoon after lunch, we were told to return to our cabins and not come out.  A BIG lightning storm was expected.

Contemporary woodcut showing The Great Thunderstorm at a church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, England, on October 21, 1638.

When the maelstrom arrived, it didn’t disappoint.  The natural “atmospherics” (you could feel pressure changes in your ears and throughout your body) put contemporary fancy movie SFX to shame.   Never before or since have I seen sky color palette changes like the ones I saw that day, a transitional pitch black eventually resolving into an expansive aerial bed-linen of purple, green and gray moiré.  First came light and then suddenly beating-on-sheet metal heavy rain, and when the lightning started (followed by hail -- something I had never heard of, let alone seen), it was plasma-clear, knife-sharp, terrifying and seemingly unending.  Icy pellets landed hard and constantly on the cabin's roof and steps, electricity cracked the sky and thunder boomed as it would have, I imagine, in Zeus's neighborhood.  Very sternly we were told to lie on our beds, hands at our sides, and not to touch the metal frames of our cots.  I can’t remember whether any campers in my bunk spoke at all (I didn’t have a lot to say to them under the best of circumstances), but I think I heard murmuring through the wall from Bunk 24.

Waterfront at Camp Androscoggin, Junior, with Androscoggin Island seen in background.

A darkness fell and a crescendo moment arrived when suddenly I felt pinned and pressed down to my bed.  Through a knothole in one of the floor boards in front of me an electric bowling ball (that’s the only way to describe it and the illustrations here, especially the one in first position, depict its appearance pretty accurately) levitated, hovered and spit sound, light and heat for an indeterminate time like a miniature sun.  As the sphere hung unsupported in space, I heard a loud smashing from the other side of the building and someone scream: "Keep down; Stay where you are." 

The ball vanished through the floor leaving an electric fire odor and a slight scorching mark.  The pressure lifted and vanished.  It was raining harder than ever and we heard sobbing noises from Bunk 24 and sounds on the front steps as people entered that section of the cabin. 

Lightning had struck the far side of Bunk 24, rending a jagged, gaping hole in the outer wall.  The bolt actually hit one of the campers in the foot, but his rubber sneaker grounded the strike and protected him, although he and his cabin-mates were all terribly shocked and upset.


End of camp season bonfire, Androscoggin Island.

The kids in Bunk 24 spent a week sleeping in the camp infirmary while their cabin wall was replaced.  I can still see in my mind the blue tarpaulin they used for temporary covering while they were making repairs.  The camp immediately installed lightning rods on all cabins. 

In the excitement, terror, sadness and (eventual) relief, I don’t recall anyone at the camp ever mentioning or wishing to discuss the ball lightning episode with me, even though it stands out, as the illogical and ungrammatical are wont to say, as the “most unique” aspect of this story.

I saw and felt ball lightning.  Happy July 4th


  1. What a ripping tale! Your description of Androscoggin brought me back to Camp Scatico, down to the knotholes in the bunk board. We certainly had our share of excitement, but nothing like what sounds like an event that should have been accompanied by Ride of the Valkyries. I had never heard of ball lightning and am amazed that you saw it. Happy 4th!

  2. Camp Scatico. I remember. You should read the Wikipedia ball lightning article. It's incredible, mysterious still and......real. I feel very lucky to have seen it. Happy 4th. Curtis

  3. Wonder if the Jerry Lee Lewis hit, Great Balls of Fire, was alluding to ball lightning?

  4. Wonderful story! Happy 4TH of July!!