The Nearly Electrocuted BlondeHolly McKelvey, Sunday November 19th, 2006
It was a cloudy and potentially stormy morning, but what did we care? It was a Saturday in the middle of summer, and one of my best friends was home for the weekend from the summer semester at Stanford. And what else is there to do on a Saturday in the summer in Southern California? We headed to the beach, of course.
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Now, I don’t like to promote the stereotype that all California girls live 15 minutes from the beach, or spend every waking minute surfing. They do not all have tans, and they are not all blonde; and very few of us actually look great in a bikini. I, for one, live about a two-hour drive from the beach, and usually make the trip two or three times a year; I cannot surf for my life; I am not tan, but rather pale and freckly and occasionally sunburnt; and I debatably look okay in a bikini. I admit it, though, I am blonde. But that’s not the point of this article. The point is that, on one of the few times of the year that we succumbed to the California beach-girl stereotype and hit the beach, three of my friends and I narrowly escaped death.
Well, that’s putting it a little dramatically. But it was a relatively dramatic scene. We ended up at Huntington Beach, one of the longer of the Orange County beaches. It was overcast, and to the north we could see flashes of lightning. I’d say the best word to describe the cloudy sky was “broiling” – the clouds were dark and yellow and moving fairly quickly as they billowed and metamorphosed from shape to shape. The shapes weren’t your run-of-the-line friendly bunny rabbits, either; they were big, angry thunderheads that really just look like badly grown and somewhat evil Chia monsters. But the lightning was far away, and on the occasion that we could hear distant thunder, it was always at least six or seven seconds after the lightning. Safe distance, right? We thought so. Not to mention that since this was a summer storm, the air was muggy and warm: it felt wonderful going into the water, and we weren’t ready to abandon the beach just because of a silly little storm.
As the storm got closer, we began to wonder how dangerous it was to be in the water if lightning struck it. Salt water conducts electricity pretty well – maybe we wouldn’t want to be in the water if lightning struck a hundred meters up the beach, or so. We asked a lifeguard, who shrugged and seemed surprised that anyone would actually come to her with a safety question. “I’ve never really been on duty during a storm before,” she said, squinting unconcernedly at the approaching lightning flashes. “But I’m sure the coast guard will tell us if it isn’t safe.”
We would have stayed in the water a little longer, but just then the rain started. We grabbed our stuff to take it back to the car, fully intending to come back and go swimming in the rain, which was heavy and drenched us instantly. As we ran across the sand, the rain turned into hail: but somehow it was all still warm and muggy. We made it to the car, dropped our stuff into the trunk, and rain back toward the beach, yelling and jumping in the warm, awesome rain. Wouldn’t you? Well, all I can say is, I’m glad the rain started, and I’m glad we needed to leave the beach to put our stuff in the car. Because the instant we started to cross the sand to get back in the water, I mean the instant my feet touched the beach, a lightning bolt hit the sand 20 feet ahead, directly between us and the water. It was white and blindingly bright, but clearly defined for a split second against the billowing clouds and the ocean; at the second that it hit, there was a deafening crack, and I could feel the pressure wave hit me, as though the air were a body of water and a ripple had just run across it. I screamed and turned to run, but a little old woman was in my way, and I instantly felt embarrassed: she didn’t seem to be much perturbed at all. Looking back, I’m sure she must have been deaf or oblivious or maybe just really, really jaded, but at the time I thought that if she wasn’t freaking out, I shouldn’t be either. So I turned back around, composed my face into an expression of calm as I scanned the horizon for more lightning bolts, and as soon as the woman was out of the way, I grabbed my friends and we all ran like mad for the shelter of a building.
When the rain had passed, and people began to creep cautiously back onto the beach, we searched for the spot where the lightning had struck. No burn mark, no glass, nothing to prove that lightning had hit the beach right before our eyes. I did find a clear plastic spoon, and tried to convince the gullible one of my friends that that was lightning glass. She gave me a look that seemed to say, “How old are you, again?” But hey, at least we came home with a pretty awesome story. And we all survived, totally un-electrocuted.