Friday, October 13, 2006

Ball Lightning (or a Good Pinch-Hitter)

In honor of Friday the Thirteenth, I present a True Story recalled from my childhood.


I was twelve years old or so. For years I had been a fan of Bertrand R. Brinley’s Mad Scientist’s Club, and was really just now starting to be able to truly emulate their brainy schemes. This particular time, I was wiring an audio pick-up and radio transmitter. Specifically, I was trying to build a working replica of the rig the guy who stated every week “I Was a Communist for the FBI” carried through a nefarious meeting of saboteurs.

Dad noticed the bundle of wires, diodes, transistors, etc, and grimaced at the thought of another one of my projects. I braced for another lecture on not electrocuting myself, not to mention the possible barked order not to proceed at all. I managed to scurry by before he could reprimand me. You see, as the youngest member of the household, my family always considered me somewhat incompetent when it came to safety (not to mention other things), especially if I was embarking on some field none of them understood personally. Prior to my late teen years, nothing I ever wired was powered off anything but small store-bought batteries (even if I did find interesting ways to arrange them), so I felt pretty safe. Had I been sticking bare wires into the wall sockets maybe I would have seen reason in all the panic the sight of my person with wire cutters and solder instigated.

Well, my pint-sized transmitter went together without incident, and rather quickly since I was basically assembling ready-made parts from previously used (and worn out) items. All that was left was to secure all the pieces inside the little plastic case I had picked for them, close enough and securely enough that the loose connecting wires couldn’t be torn out. So, I plugged in my brand-new hot glue gun and picked it up to await the stick’s melting.

That’s when it happened.

They were tiny at first, probably at least half a dozen of them. Little light-blue bubbles, varying maybe from one to five millimeters in diameter. They sounded like a set of spark-gap transmitters, each floating in slow-motion upward and away to the left or in front of me. One by one they disappeared, not so much exploding as imploding, each implosion accompanied by one to three flashes. As these were detonating, more were materializing just above the glue gun’s heating coil and making like in Rome. Then came the two Over-Size Balls of Fire.

The Over-Size Balls of Fire. They were most definitely a pair. Each was somewhere between three and five centimeters in diameter, one a little smaller than its mate. Again, they were pale blue, vaguely translucent. Not so bright that they hurt the eyes (as a light bulb does), I stared directly at them, mesmerized, picking out slight variations across their dimensions. Then, one began orbiting the other or, more likely, they began mutually orbiting each other. A few white sparks flashed, buzzing, between them.

As the Two rose, all of the smaller spheres seemed to disappear beneath them—though probably I was merely so distracted by the giants I simply ignored the others. These larger balls refused to pop as quickly as their brethren, or to veer away from me as the others had. These two bounces randomly back and forth, a few centimeters this way and that, but averaging a path that was most definitely headed directly for my face. I pulled what has since becomes known as a “Matrix,” bending backwards to pull myself out of their path, my eyes still fixed to them. They imploded inches above my face, maybe a foot, foot-and-a-half. Five brilliant flashes played on the white walls around me as though someone were busy with an arc-welder.

Most eyewitness accounts of ball lightning and analogous events mention a loud bang at each globe’s disappearance. My recollection of the audio track accompanying the implosions (some of which generated highly localized bursts of sparks) is hazy. I seem to remember that the buzzes got much louder each time, shortly culminating in a hollow crack. But more lucid than this is the thought, as I saw my father dashing to either rescue me or survey my cadaver, that dad must have looked up to see the flashes emanating from the room after hearing some spectacular sounds produced therein.

Pop’s attempt at rescue was unneeded, as I had yanked the cord on the glue gun out of its socket simultaneous to jerking out of the Two’s path. It was all over by the time he got to the doorway. His assumption was that I had somehow managed to complete a rather large circuit with my body, and generally mess up everyone’s day. I explained that the culprit was the cheap glue gun, which, by the way, I could touch only very gingerly. Its end came a few minutes later when I threw it into the garbage, inside a cardboard box thoroughly bound by duct-tape.

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