Below is an excerpt from You’ll Get Over It, Jane Ellen. For further stories visit my website at janebutler.org or click on my photo below to link directly to personal site.
You Could Get Electrocuted Doing That
“Jesus Christ Almighty. Your mother will be havin’ a hemorrhage. Yes she will. She will indeed, if we don’t get ourselves outta here mighty soon.” My father always invoked the fear of one of my mother’s hemorrhages at a time like this. A time when we might get killed.
We were no longer on vacation at Ocean City, but standing around gaping at another storm, this time from a little island in the middle of Cranberry Lake, back in Arden. The rain was pouring down so hard that Judy, Jack and I didn’t even try to keep dry. Lightning bolts dropped from the sky just above the tree line giving a startling display. Thunder pounded so loudly that we all stopped talking. Judy and I counted the seconds between the claps and the booms to estimate the storm’s distance away.
“One one-thousand, two one-thousand…..BOOOOOMMM. Wow, that’s pretty close, Dad.”
“Yeah, I expect it is. Looks like we’re in for a good one.” Dad loved a ‘good one.’ He loved outdoor adventures and wasn’t shy about stumbling on to them accidentally. Just like camping during a hurricane, when we went out with Dad we often found ourselves in situations other people were dreaming up for Outward Bound programs. Dad reveled in the earthy opportunities of the estate.
Earlier at home, Mom had said sarcastically, “Oh, great. You’re going to the lake!? You’re crazy! Don’t stay up there so long you get caught in an electrical storm like you usually do. You scare me half to death.” We always went to the lake late in the day, after the Harrimans were likely to be done enjoying it themselves. And when the thunderstorms came.
“Now don’t get the heebee geebees there, Ma. What’s a little rain gonna do to hurt anybody anyway? With any luck it’ll hold off ‘til we’re all done.”
That day he was anxious to launch the heavy red Adirondack canoe he’d worked weeks restoring down in the filthy basement of our house. He soaked wood slats to bend to the boat’s contours, and soaked reeds to cane new seats for the front and the back. With a thick white glue on a wide paintbrush he pasted on layers of fiberglass strips, to make it water tight. The fiberglass was shiny and appealing but Dad said to keep away. I knew annoying itches on the hands migrated up the arms and down the legs the more you scratched, when you touched that stuff. And finally he painted it red and painted it red again, then rubbed it with wax for hours.
And as we arrived at water’s edge Dad said, “Shall we drop this thing in the drink there Judy Lynn, or are you Jane Ellen? I never can keep you kids straight.” He looked directly at my sister and decided, “No you’re Judy Lynn.” As usual Dad was so distracted we were lucky he knew we were along at all. Judy giggled and blushed uncomfortably behind her cat-eyed glasses, relieved no doubt, when attention shifted from her back to getting the canoe into the water.
We helped Dad lower the canoe off the dock, which was hidden in a lovely glen framed by mountain laurel and birch trees on the edge of the woods. We had reached our hideaway by plowing the car through the forest, down a seldom used grass road. Dad’s muscular arms bulged and sweat popped out on his forehead as we all strained to manage the behemoth, doing our best to steady the canoe as we slid it into the water.
We kids leaned down and kept the canoe from floating away while Dad removed the chains from a rowboat that tethered it to the dock. He wiped off his hands on his work uniform, khaki pants, and the kids got in the boat. We had on bathing suits, but even on the lake, even on that hot and humid summer afternoon Dad wore his long khaki pants. It was as if he never left work. I heard him mutter to himself just then, “Findin’ good folks to milk cows seven days a week at four in the morning idn’t easy.”
We all knew that Arden, or something, was always on his mind.
He pulled a slightly tattered red bandana handkerchief from his pants pocket and mopped his brow, surveying the shoreline around the lake before setting off. “See how the wind is blowin’ the leaves so you can see the backs of them. They’re a different shade of green. See that? That’s how ya tell a storm is comin’.”
Judy and I handled the rowboat, she on one oar, me on the other, while Jack dragged his hands in the water and grabbed and held lily pads, temporarily anchoring us as we struggled forward. Unlike Forest Lake, there was no boathouse to explore on Cranberry Lake, so we headed for the little island two football fields away. Arden House, high above, looked down on us from the top of the mountain. Dad paddled his canoe quietly ahead, tackle box, rod and reel tucked beside him.
As we approached the swimming rock Dad pulled up close and called out the usual instructions, “Come up on it nice and slow now. Watch what you’re doin’ there Judy Lynn. Nope, nope, you’re gonna hit it…, your gonna hit it too…, your gonna hit it…. too……ugh, hard.” He winced and shrugged, and in exasperation dismissed our lame attempts to land quietly. He adeptly maneuvered his canoe close to us, leaned out and picked off freshly chipped gray paint from the front end of our vessel. He examined the dent rubbing it lovingly and announced with obvious disappointment, “You didn’t hurt it too bad… I guess.”
It was always difficult to dock a boat without bashing into the rocky sides of the island and we inevitably inspired Dad to enter into a litany of some kind whenever we tried. On this occasion he must have realized he was shouting because he said, “Let’s not wake up the entire countryside with all your monkeyin’ around. Next thing ya know we’ll have everybody ‘n his brother up here wonderin’ what in Christ’s name we’re doin’. I’d just like to get a little fishin’ in here and not alert the entire world that we’re doin’ it.”
Jack, who was sitting up front, grabbed at the blueberry bushes and climbed ashore. He wrapped the rope around the branches of a bush, letting the rowboat glide about in the water while Judy and I climbed out. We set our towels in neat rows to heat up in the sun, against the face of the flat rock that felt bumpy underfoot with green moss and lichen.
“Now listen here, a storm might be brewin’ so I don’t want you goin’ off too far, or anywhere besides right here at the rock. And keep your voices down. See, the sound travels right across the water, and whatever other heathen are around can hear every word you’re sayin’,” Dad’s parting words as he paddled off to quieter spots on the far side of the lake.
We watched silently while Dad disappeared behind large land outcroppings, then charged in ourselves. We balanced on the underwater rock yards from the island, sometimes knocking each other off with a splash.
Our huge black inner tubes kept us afloat while we lolled about in the silky water, except for the ones with holes that fizzled little bubbles under water as air escaped. It was hard to keep track of which tubes held air and which ones didn’t since we were constantly trying to cement on red rubber patches between trips to the lake, with only varying success. On the way to the lake we always stopped at Dad’s office down by the creek where he blew up the tires with the air hose out by the gas pump. They usually lasted at least the length of a swim but on occasion, far out in the deep water, half way between the island and the shore, one of us had to swim back to the rock hastily, dragging a flaccid inner tube that had lost its air while we played.
Tired from swimming we stepped onto the island and began the routine of pulling fat leeches from our bodies while the sky above got very dark. After a short break where we picked through blueberries and counted deer on the far bank, back in the water we went.
Shortly we noticed Dad paddling towards us rather quickly. “Get out of the water. Sky’s gonna open up here in a minute. Come on, get out of the water.”
There was an urgency in his voice that was thrilling. And although I dreaded the storm on the lake I felt we were all going to work together against the common foe, the earth, the storm, right then, all of us together. I felt close to my brother and sister, and my father, as I imagined this shared combat against the elements. I waited for instructions.
“Get this goddamn thing up onto the rock. This here’s a big storm. Ah Christ. What the hell. I guess time got away from us.”
We grabbed hold of the canoe and helped him haul it up onto the island. Dad’s hollering was designed to suggest that getting caught in the storm was purely accidental but we had done this plenty of times before. It’s not that he wanted to get caught on the lake in a storm, what he wanted was to keep fishing until the very last possible second, which meant, when the thunder and lightning forced him to stop.
Dad held up a rope with fish strung on it that he dunked in the water. He tied the other end to a bush. “Only got three little sunnies. I ‘spect these here will be goin’ in the freezer.” He paused a moment before adding, “Your mother’ll be pleased she dudn’t have to make a fish dinner tonight.”
My mother rarely enjoyed receiving the fresh kills my father offered her from time to time, which ranged from fish to fowl, to sea creatures when we were at the ocean. A look of chagrin came across his face as he considered Mom’s probable lack of enthusiasm for his catch, and he concluded, “Be that as it may.”
As we stepped back to assess the situation pitch black clouds roiled above us rumbling and growling and churning. Sharp bursts of lightning popped out alarmingly as we were splattered with fat rain drops that felt warmer than lake water.
“Get inside this thing here, I want you three to get in for a few minutes. Your mother’ll be havin’ a hemorrhage with us up here and her not knowin’ if we’re okay or not. Go on, get under it.”
The three of us got under the canoe that Dad had propped up against the bushes like a tent. Combat against the elements came in the form of crouching and waiting. The feeling of closeness with my family was replaced by goose bumps.
“Why can’t we just go home?” Jack wanted to know.
Dad explained, “Well, it’s not that we can’t go home. It’s just that it’s not a particularly good idea right about now. Being on the water during a lightning storm is not what I would call a good idea. You could get electrocuted.”
“We might get electrocuted if we try to go home?” There was a little catch in my nine-year old brother’s voice.
“Yeah. You really shouldn’t be on the lake in a storm. Judy and I looked at Jack’s face that had turned white. I felt the usual alarm at the thought of being electrocuted but knew I was not allowed to join my brother’s side.
Dad continued, “What’s your problem? It’s just a storm. Be over in half an hour or so.”
Jack was discovering what Judy and I already knew, that we were expected to happily go along with the idea of watching an electrical storm up close. Dad was always enthusiastic about us trying things other people were afraid of, and so we went along because we were afraid not to. Like picking up snakes you found in the woods or eating cereal even though ants crawled out when you poured the milk in, Dad had shown us that you don’t always get killed doing such things. We knew what he’d say so we dared not complain.
“What the hell ya afraid of, won’t kill ya. See, I’m not dead,” he’d say as he downed a fuzzy green doughnut at the kitchen table by way of example.
We crouched under the canoe, eyes glued to the sky, in front row seats. A hundred different electrical designs arcing out of the sky in succession were on display, clear and bright above the lake. This was set to a deafening drum roll, as if God himself was on a march that would end in our laps, as we dared to cower at the foot of his throne, apparently positioned near a deluged canoe, on a little island, high up in the woods of Arden. He was speaking directly to us with this storm. God’s message was that he is powerful and scary.
Dad, who would have none of it, waited on the edge of the tiny island, completely unprotected, bent on one knee, watching satisfied, as the storm raged on. Any fears I had about storms, or God, disappeared with the help of times like this where we matter-of-factly witnessed trees bending low in the gusting winds, the shuddering of the lake as it was pelted with angry water grenades, and lightning bolts successfully missing our heads over and over.
Forty-five minutes later, the clouds were rolling away and the storm was clearing. Rain continued but the electricity was gone. I was greatly relieved that we had made it through again.
As we got in our boats and rowed towards shore, I was anxious to get home and show Mom that I had not been killed, that is, if she hadn’t had a hemorrhage.