Some Surprising Truths About Lightning Safety

My column in the July 2012 Golf Digest, which is on sale now, is about lightning detection. Thinking about lightning made me think about an all-day woodworking class that two friends and I took several years before I discovered golf. The instructor devoted the first half-hour to an emotional lecture on safety. We must never even think about using our power tools, he told us, without first putting on eye and ear protection, which we had been required to bring to class. He showed us a type of earplug that he said we ought to buy, and he said that woodworkers are as prone to hearing problems as rock stars. He told us stories about people who had been blinded by flying wood chips, or who had fed their fingers into spinning blades. He said that whenever he entered his shop he kept safety foremost in his mind.

Then he turned on his router—essentially, a hand-held lawnmower engine with a drill bit attached to—and the whole class crowded around to watch him work. Despite the lecture we had just listened to, we left our safety goggles and ear plugs lying on our desks. And so did the instructor. To get a better view of what he was doing, he put his face a few inches from the whirring bit, which was spewing out a blizzard of tiny chip. To keep the chips from streaming into his eyes, he sort of squinted, turning his eyelashes into a protective screen.

Most of the golfers I know, including me, have a similar attitude toward lightning. We respect it in theory, but we do little to actually protect ourselves. Lightning safety is an idea to which we pay homage rather than a series of procedures that we actually carry out. When my friends and I hear the pro’s warning horn, we dutifully head back to the clubhouse. But then, as often as not, we hang around chatting in front of the golf shop—on the highest point of the property, directly beneath the two tallest trees. We’ve sacrificed golf, so we feel virtuous and responsible, but we’re almost certainly in greater peril than we were on the course.

One of lightning’s most frightening characteristics is its failure to consistently follow the safety rules that we have established for it. Several trees on my course have been hit, yet none of them are ones you would have picked in the lightning pool at work. The most recent was the shortest tree in a row of white pines at the bottom of a valley—exactly the sort of tree that, in an emergency, you might decide you’d be safe to hide under.

The only one member of my club who invariably does the right thing in a thunderstorm is Nancy, a past club champion. (Nancy owns a restaurant, called The Upper Crust, and she caters many events at my club, including the men’s member-guest. She will become the club’s president in the fall.) When Nancy hears thunder, that’s it, she’s done: she heads for her car and drives home, and she doesn’t come back until long after the storm has passed. The reason for her caution is first-hand experience. When she was a little girl, two children she knew were killed by lightning. One was sharing a sleeping bag with her in a cabin at summer camp. (A ground current from a lightning strike apparently traveled through the cabin’s plumbing, up a metal leg of the cot in which the girls were lying, and through their sleeping bag’s metal zipper, against which the other little girl, who was wearing a wet bathing suit, was pressed.) The other dead child was playing in Nancy’s front yard while Nancy watched from the window—in bright sunshine, thirty minutes after the rain had stopped.

Nancy and her head chef, Bill, grilling steaks at the 2011 men's member-guest.

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