The Electrical Franklin

My favorite historical figure is Benjamin Franklin. His enthusiasm for science, his great sense of humor, his writing skills, and his desire to benefit mankind in so many ways with his inventions, often not profiting in any way himself, makes me wish I could travel through time and meet him. I am sure I’d be fascinated by just about anything he had to say.

Yes, he was a womanizer who treated his family horribly. He was a product of his time, and a product of his fame. Not that that’s any excuse. None of us are perfect, but I do wish he could have been a little less imperfect. Still, I’m captivated by all things Franklin.

I learned a great deal about Franklin by reading this article on the Franklin Institute web page. (It’s in Philadelphia, and I long to go there.)

This was a man who took scientific inquiry to the point of obsession. He was so enamored of lightning that he could often be seen on horseback, chasing storms. (Poor horse.)

He started doing electrical experiments in 1746, making his home ground zero for his antics. He once shocked himself so badly that he shook from head to toe and his arms and the back of his neck were numb for a time. That didn’t seem to slow him down, though.

He conducted so many experiments that, by 1749, he had come up with the concept of an electrical battery, but never took the step of figuring out what one could be used for.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that people didn’t know that lightning was composed of a form of electricity, but Franklin took several years to prove it. While pursuing that goal, he began to think about ways to protect people from lightning, and thus came up with the lightning rod.

I love how I keep learning something new about Franklin, even after all these years. For example, he advocated sharp, pointy lightning rods, whereas in England they preferred blunt ones, theorizing that they would scrape the electrical charge out of the sky without actually getting struck. King George III favored this theory and soon set up his palace accordingly. But in the colonies, Franklin’s design prevailed, and sort of became a political statement. One more way to reject the king.

Two years after coming up with the lightning rod, he did his famous kite and key experiment. Another fun fact is that he never wrote about it himself, and the only witness was his 21 year old son William. Another thing I never knew is that he resorted to a kite simply because he had planned to conduct the experiment by using the steeple on Christ Church, but they were taking too long to finish building it. Franklin became impatient, so he went and flew a kite. When he saw that the key got an electrical charge, he knew that lightning was a form of electricity and, unbeknownst to him, his reputation amongst elementary school students was forever secured.

One tragic footnote to Franklin’s electrical fame that one rarely hears about is the story of Georg Wilhelm Richmann. His life started as tragically as it ended, as his father died of the plague before he was born. Still, Richmann became an Estonian scientist who was also studying electricity.

One stormy day in 1753 he was conducting an experiment using insulated rods, to quantify their response to said storm. He was following Franklin’s published instructions. He was struck in the head by ball lightning, receiving a red spot on his forehead, and was instantly killed, as his clothing singed and his shoes blew apart. An explosion immediately followed, and his assistant was blown across the room, as the door frame split apart and the door was torn off its hinges.

Fortunately, the assistant survived to tell the tale. Richmann was apparently the first person to die while conducting electrical experiments. He was 42 years old.

I wonder if Franklin knew of this tragedy, and if he knew that Richmann had been following his instructions. If so, I wonder what he thought. I wonder if he felt any remorse. That information seems to have been lost to history.

benjamin-franklin-kite-experiment-bernard-hoffman

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Lightning Stories

I find lightning fascinating. From a distance. And from inside a safely grounded shelter. You don’t see much of it here in the Seattle area, though, and I miss it.

But I also have a healthy respect for lightning. At the age of 10, I moved from Connecticut to Florida, and quickly discovered that Connecticut’s lightning is child’s play by comparison. Florida has epic downpours with thunder that rattles the fillings in your teeth and lightning that can render you speechless. In fact, Florida is the most lightning-prone state in the U.S.

That kind of weather gets magnified tenfold if experiencing it for the first time while living in a tent as I did. Back then, I was terrified by Florida storms, and used those unsettling events as an opportunity to wail and howl out my rage and fear about having been rendered all but homeless at a time in life when I had absolutely no control.

With age and an improved living situation, I learned to take shelter and enjoy nature’s free light shows whenever possible.

Once, a friend of mine was visiting from Holland, so I took her to the beach. She wandered along the shoreline as I sat and enjoyed the Atlantic waves. But storm clouds rushed in from the East, and me and the rest of the savvy Floridians took off for the safety of our cars. I was desperately hopping up and down and motioning to the black, looming clouds and waving at her to come the eff on, and you’d think that that, and the fact that she suddenly had the beach to herself, would have been some sort of a clue. But no. She continued to slowly amble down the shoreline. When she finally came back, I explained to her how much danger she had been in, but she simply got angry with me for rushing her. She rarely took me seriously. For a variety of reasons, we’ve lost touch.

Later in life, when I worked for the State of Florida Department of Transportation, I was friends with the district lighting inspector. One of his tasks was to drive around at night and make sure street lights were functioning, and report them for repair if they were not. One night he drove up to a light pole just after it had been struck by lightning. The pole was in sand, and the sand was still glowing. He came back after it cooled and dug up several chunks of multicolored glass from the ground. He gave me one. I still have it. Somewhere.

Another time he showed me a dead turtle, frozen in place, its legs extended, its neck outstretched. He said that it had been struck by lightning before his very eyes. You never knew what you’d see when you worked in the field.

When I first became a bridgetender in Florida, I quickly got used to lightning striking my bridges. All of our structures came with lightning rods which were attached to copper cables that stretched down to the water, but the fishermen often harvested said copper, so you never knew what was going to happen from one strike to the next. But when the lightning was at a distance, I enjoyed the light show, along with the blue glow of transformers being struck on the horizon, with the accompanying patches of dark city skyline.

Nature, man. It’s awesome.

Recently I learned about something to add to my bucket list. The Maracaibo Beacon, also known as the Catatumbo lightning is a phenomenon that happens in Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo. Lightning can strike up to 280 times per hour, 160 days a year, for 9 hours at a stretch. It happens so much that it draws tourists, but it also kills residents, and drastically impacts economic pursuits, so scientists are attempting to predict these storms as much as three months in advance. I wish them luck.

There are several theories about these storms. The most reasonable one is that the warm, moist Caribbean air is forced upward into the cold surrounding mountains, causing electrical storms. Another has to do with the methane in area swamps, while a third mentions the uranium in the ground.

It’s hard to say, but it sounds like it would be a fascinating place to indulge in my lightning fetish! I only wish the politics of that country were a little more stable. Maybe someday. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with watching this amazing video.

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Catatumbo lightning

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Lightning Bolt Eyes

I don’t lose my cool very often, but when I do, I’m a little scary. I get that from my mother. She was a quiet woman who hated confrontation as much as I do, but there was this line that one dared not cross. If you did, lightning bolts would come out of her eyes, and you could easily be charred to a crisp.

Just like with me, it takes a lot to create that particular weather system. It usually has something to do with putting someone in danger, or picking on someone (human or animal) who cannot defend his or herself, or acting aggressively toward someone we love. That is not to be borne.

I’m not strong or menacing, but I’ve been known to make very large men turn pale and step away, hands raised. I don’t do anything physically. It’s just the eyes and the tone of voice. I mean business. Zap!

I doubt I could even create my lightning mode artificially. I don’t know from whence I conjure that particular power. It tends to disappear as quickly as it comes. In fact, I’m usually exhausted after the fact. But it’s highly effective. It always hits its target.

So behave yourself. You never know who has a super power.

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Bad Bridge! Bad!

I’d say that working on a drawbridge is a very zen-like experience 95% of the time. Unfortunately, you never know when that 5% of pure chaos is going to rear up and bite you on the patootie. I had one of those days recently.

I went to bed at 3am. No, I’m not a party animal. It’s just that I didn’t have to be to work until 3pm on this particular day, so I tend to sleep in. Way, way in. It’s one of the few joys of being single, and I take full advantage of it.

So imagine my confusion when the phone rang at 7am, right in the middle of a REM cycle. My dream popped like a bubble. I hate when that happens. For a minute I have no idea where I am, or even who I am. It’s like my brain has to reboot.

I was being called to come in to work early. How early? 11am. They needed me to work a 12 hour shift. Okay. Crap. I set my alarm for 9:30 and went back to sleep. At least I’d be getting 4 hours of double overtime. (Thanks, union!)

So in to work I went, to find that I had company for the first 4 hours. A Trainee. Actually, I like training people. It’s kind of fun. And this was a pleasant person to talk to, whom I could see would work out nicely. As I’ve written before, I can pretty much tell if someone is fit for this job within the first 5 minutes.

But while he was here, the sidewalk camera shorted out. That’s a problem because it means we can’t see all the pedestrians before we open the bridge, and Seattle pedestrians are horrifyingly non-compliant about staying off of moving bridges, despite flashing lights, loud gongs, and us desperately screaming at them. It’s a wonder no one has been killed. So fixing this camera is a top priority. Which means the electricians had to come out. Now we had 4 people crammed into a tiny little room, and that can be a bit emotionally draining. But they fixed the camera and were gone within an hour.

And then it was time for the trainee to leave. Finally, my usual routine. Peace. Quiet. My own domain.

Then the storm hit. Rain was coming down in sheets. And the next thing I knew, BOOM! Lightning struck just south of the bridge. Now, when I was a bridgetender in Florida, I was used to this. It was a rare day when lightning didn’t strike somewhere in my vicinity. But here in Seattle, I’ve only seen lightning three times in the nearly three years I’ve been here, so I nearly jumped out of my skin this time.

And then alarms started going off. Oh, shit. That’s never good. It turns out that 3 of the 4 drives that operate bridge had shorted out. It was after hours, so I called the supervisor of the electricians, and he told me to walk down to both ends of the bridge and push a specific button to reset the drives. All well and good, but the storm was still raging. I had to walk down with lightning crashing all around me. That was fun.

Then I walked back up to the tower, only to discover that one of the drives had reset, but the other two had not. I made a call again, and was told, again, to go down and push the button. Naturally, the two drives in question were on the far side of the bridge, which meant yet another long walk through the electrified tempest.

I came back to the tower. The two drives were still malfunctioning. Phone call number three. This time he said he’d be right out. So I sat there in the tower, drenched in sweat, waiting, as sailboats stacked up like cordwood on the canal, and I was contacted every five minutes by various boaters and had to explain why I wasn’t opening the drawbridge for them.

Could things possibly get worse? Of course! A traffic accident south of bridge backed up traffic for miles, delaying the arrival of the electrician.

And then the phone went dead. I’m getting calls on the marine radio from a variety of employees, asking if I’m sure that the phone is properly hung up. Do I look like an idiot? Of course the phone is properly hung up. Then the phone fixes itself with no intervention on my part, so of course everyone thinks the phone was not properly hung up. Sigh.

Oh, and the sidewalk camera went out again. Fortunately, it, too, fixed itself. Go figure.

The electrician finally makes it through the traffic snarl, and is able to fix things within 45 minutes, bless him. By now I’m so exhausted from the adrenaline rush that I’m nauseous and practically delirious. I have never been so happy to see 11pm in my life. The next challenge is driving home without falling asleep at the wheel.

When I finally get home, my dog is extremely happy to see me. (I just love dogs, don’t you?) So I feed him, take a shower to get all the sweat off, and dive into bed. I suspect I’ll be asleep within 5 minutes, which is a good thing, because I have to be back to work at 7am the next morning. I’ll be lucky to cram 5 hours of sleep in.

Except, did I mention that my dog is extremely happy to see me? I may be ready for bed, but he is not. He wants to play! He wants to tell me about his day. He wants to know where the hell I’ve been for 12 hours. He wants to warn me about the lightning monsters that come from the sky.

I hug him. I give him kisses. I tell him he’s a good dog. I beg him, I plead with him, to settle down. Finally, he curls up by my hip and…the next thing I know, the alarm goes off, and it’s time to do it all over again.

If I were a cartoon character, I’d have one of those squiggly lines above my head right now. I need a hug.

Facepalm

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Lightning Strikes and Other Unforeseen Events

The other day I was lying in bed, in the desperate pursuit of ever-elusive sleep (which is the life story of every graveyard shift worker on the face of the earth), when BOOM!!!! Lightning struck the house, and I instantly had two very terrified dogs on top of me.

I went without internet for three days and without a land line for four. It’s funny. For more than half my life internet didn’t even exist and yet I got along just fine. But those few days of total communication blackout nearly drove me insane.

I do not like the feeling that things are out of my control.

I had that very same thought yesterday when an extremely large tug and barge grossly miscalculated and wound up drifting toward my bridge sideways. It was slowly, inexorably coming toward me, capable of doing millions of dollars worth of damage, not the least of which was knocking the tenderhouse into the river, me along with it, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it other than look on in horror. At the last possible second the captain was able to right himself and missed us by mere inches. I was shaking afterward and felt quite sick.

I also hate having to rely on others.

And I had that very same thought upon the inexplicable disappearance of the flagman who is supposed to prevent cars from driving into the drink while we’re under construction and can only open half the bridge. This rendered me incapable of opening the drawbridge for a sailboat for 45 minutes. I was livid, because contrary to the stereotype of the sleeping bridgetender who is only there to draw a paycheck, the vast majority of us actually do take our work seriously and want to do a competent and efficient job. I had a hard time unwinding after that particular shift.

And nothing rattles me more than erratic drivers who put my life in danger, like the guy who nearly ran me off the road the other night. Sometimes I wonder if I’m invisible.

All of these events are unforeseen, and leave me feeling as though all my nerves are on the surface of my skin. It’s not that I don’t deal with them well. I have no choice but to do so. I just tend to be shaken up in their aftermath, and that feeling is unpleasant at best.

I long to be one of those people who takes everything in stride, who rolls with the punches, who is quick on the uptake, but the fact is, that’s just not who I am. I’m a plodder. I muddle through. I make it, but it isn’t always pretty, and there’s usually a distressing recovery period afterward. Oh well.

So I was driving home and I had this whole blog entry plotted out in my mind. The whole thing was going to be about how I hate the unexpected. And then something unexpected happened.

I came around a curve to discover that every car was at a standstill on a 4 lane highway. What the heck? Instant spike of anxiety. But then I saw what was going on. Everyone had stopped for a procession of eleven very slow moving Canada Geese. I was delighted, and impressed with the teamwork and the overall humanity of it all. It made my day.

So I can’t say I always hate the unexpected. Life does have a way of presenting you with delightful surprises every now and then. But even those would be preferable with some advanced notice.

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(Image credit: nj.com)

The Black Sheep in the Family

Every family has one. A relative who refuses to play by the rules. Someone who causes unbelievable heartache, unspeakable scandal, and enormous amounts of frustration. Someone who generates really, really interesting family stories. In my family that was Uncle Dave, my mother’s little brother.

When my mom was young, she was bedridden with whooping cough, and she looked out the window to see her little brother picking up her kittens by the tail, one by one, and dipping them in a can of green paint. When she got better she got back at him by shaving the tail hair off his favorite pony.

A story Uncle Dave always liked to tell about himself was the time he had a pet skunk with no scent glands, and it got loose. A few days later he was walking in the woods behind his house and there’s the skunk. It came running toward him, and he was really happy. Then it occurred to him that it might not be his skunk. So he ran away, and never saw the skunk again. That always struck me as kind of selfish. He left a skunk with no defenses and no knowledge of how to fend for itself alone in the wilderness. But selfishness was a recurring theme in Uncle Dave’s life.

I tell you those two stories to illustrate that he was a hell raiser even before he discovered alcohol. Alcohol only made him that much worse. I never knew him to be sober a day of my life. To me, he was the man who delighted in humiliating me throughout my childhood. During my awkward adolescence, he delighted in pointing out my agonizingly slow growing chest in front of large groups of people. He thought my embarrassment was very funny.

Throughout the years he got into several traffic accidents, and as is the case with alcoholics, he’d walk away unscathed. One time he got pissed off at a drinking buddy and shot out all 4 tires in his car. How he managed to stay out of jail was beyond me.

Uncle Dave actually seemed to have amazing luck. Somehow he managed to navigate through his alcoholic haze and be a success in business. And one time he was sitting in his recliner watching TV when a bolt of lightning came down the hall behind him, bounced off the mirror, crossed in front of him, took out the TV, and exploded all the bottles in his wet bar, but missed him entirely. You’d think that would be enough to get him to reevaluate his life, but no. Me, I’d have taken that as a sign.

For my oldest sister’s wedding, it’s a good thing that we confirmed the church the day before, because he had called to cancel the reservation several days prior. We’d have shown up to a locked church with no preacher. Ha, ha, ha, right? At my other sister’s wedding reception, he called my 3 year old niece over to him, and then took his cigarette and popped all her balloons. Of course she howled. I had to leave the room to keep from lunging at his throat.

The final straw for me, though, was when I was home from college and I had a fellow student with me. She was from Holland. The phone rings and it’s a man with a funny accent, and he’s asks to speak to his daughter. I assumed it was my friend’s father so I called her to the phone. She instantly went into a panic because it was the middle of the night in the Netherlands, and the only reason they would call at that hour was if it was an emergency. She gets on the phone, and gets this strange look on her face. She didn’t know this person. It was my uncle, using a fake accent. My friend was really shaken by this. Later he came by to try to meet her, three sheets to the wind as per usual, and I kicked him out of the house.  Believe me when I say he did not go quietly.

I only saw him one more time, and that was at my mother’s funeral, 7 years later. He tried to comfort me, but as far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late.

Fast forward 20 years, and imagine my mixed emotions when I heard he had blown his brains out in his garage. He was upset because at age 80 they had finally declared him to be unfit to drive. The only thing he left for his long-suffering wife was a garage that looked like an abattoir, and a note that included his name, the cost of a cremation, and the company who could do it.

I didn’t feel sad. He never allowed himself to be a part of my life in any positive way. I sure could have used a positive male role model but he was definitely not one of those. What I felt, instead, was anger. Anger at all the pain and humiliation he caused everyone within his reach. Anger at the waste of a life. Anger that he chose to go out in a way that was as selfish and over the top as every single thing he had chosen to do his entire life.

uncle bob

Nature is what’s happening while you’re not looking.

As a bridgetender, I spend days, weeks, years looking at the same view. I’ve learned that sunrises are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. I’ve seen that many animals have a phenomenal inner clock, going about their routines on a daily basis at EXACTLY the same time. And even here in Florida where we don’t really have dramatic seasons to speak of, I see them clearly with the migration patterns.

Here in Jacksonville, we get manatees coming through in the summer, and baby gators hatch in August, “barking” all night long. Canada Geese swim by, with their babies in an organized line at the same time every day, throughout the spring. I count them, and when they loose one to a gator, I mourn with them.

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One year we got a solitary swan. He (or she) stayed for several days, drawing crowds. It’s not something you normally see in this neck of the woods, and I kept wondering “Where is its mate?” Just as abruptly as it arrived, one day it was gone.

We also see nutrias and otters, cormorants and a bald eagle that fishes in the area. One day an armadillo crossed the bridge and walked right into the tenderhouse. When he discovered that there was no way out, he did an abrupt u-turn and went on about his way, ignoring me completely.

We also get a blue heron who likes to stand in the middle of the street at 3 a.m, munching on eels. And blue herons let out a blood curdling scream that I’ll never get used to as long as I live.

There is a black coated night heron who sits below our window all night, every night, rain or shine. I’ve named him Fred because he looks like he’s wearing a tuxedo a la Fred Astaire. But he rarely moves a muscle. Makes me wonder what he’s thinking. He recognizes my voice. We’ve been together for years, except for a two month period two years ago when he disappeared. I felt his loss. But he’s back now. I assume it’s the same bird; he keeps his own counsel.

When dolphins swim at night, you can’t see them, but you hear them breathing.  If I’m very lucky and happen to be looking skyward, I will see the snow goose migration, and when I do it’s a treat. One day I made the mistake of sassing a crow, and he lay in wait for me, dive bombing me on my way to the car. That will teach me.

I also note the movement of the stars and the sun and the moon, and once saw a ball of lightning that stayed in one place, striking itself in the sky, for two solid hours. The neighborhood over which it hovered must have thought it was the end of the world.

And rainbows? Don’t get me started. A tornado came straight down the river within a quarter mile of the tenderhouse, and I am very grateful that it happened on my day off.

Mostly what I have learned is that I’m a very, very lucky woman to be able to observe the world in long running increments. It makes me look at the passage of time in a whole new way.

At least once per shift, I like to step outside, look up at the sky, and say, “Thank You.” Nature. It’s happening all around you. Stop and look.