by Nate Waggoner
When he was a boy, Roy Sullivan was out in the fields, hacking away at grain with a scythe. Picture a turn of the 20th century kid, maybe in overalls, sweating, buzz cut, diligent, serious. An expansive field lies in every direction around him. This grim tool in his hand, the tool of a psychopomp, the last tool you ever see. The way Death might show up with it one day and attack you crossing the street, or might wait around in your room with you for months, checking his phone. Little Roy cut and cut in the Southern sun, and the sun went away and clouds crept out, and a bolt of lightning struck his blade, bounced off it and sets the crops on fire.
Roy Sullivan of Dooms, Virginia, who holds the Guinness World Record for most times ever struck by lightning, did not count this incident among the seven times he’d been hit. According to the Lakeland Ledger’s coverage of the fourth time, he was too modest for that. The folks at the Ledger laid the article out next to a wig ad (“Use Your Maas Brothers Charge Card… It’s Better Than Money”), a recipe for tuna cheese bake, a local events listing (PTA meeting, Jaycees Awards banquet at the Yacht Club, AA, D.A.R., Christian Women’s Club, Twelve Step, WWI vets meeting, Delmar C. Lemmon speaking to the Woman’s Club of Lakeland about his hobby of amateur astronomy, AA…) and Mary Jim’s Signs of the Times, which features local deals arranged by astrological sign (Aries: “Latch onto what’s groovy at CORSO’S BOOTERY…” Sagittarius: Hammond’s Piper Autochord, “perfect for those who have a little musical training & a lot of desire to play… painlessly. The price is ‘painless,’ too…”)
Sullivan’s subsequent lightning injuries were as follows, in order:
Struck in the leg, toenail knocked off. 1942
Struck in the head, eyebrows zapped off. He was driving at the time. Normally a car acts as a Faraday cage in such situations, but the lightning bounced off some trees and went in through his window. He passed out and the truck rolled to a cliff’s edge, where it stopped. 1969
Shoulder burned. 1970
The time the Ledger reported on: he was struck in the head and ran into the bathroom, but couldn’t fit his head under the spigot, so dampened some paper towels and frantically dabbed at his head with them. He lost his full head of white hair. Per the Ledger, he was “curious” as to why God singled him out so much. “I’ve tried to live a good life,” he said. He started carrying a can of water around everywhere he went. 1972
Became convinced a cloud was following him, which it was. 1976
Struck on the top of the head. Ran to his car, only to encounter a bear. Hit the bear in the face with a nearby tree branch. This was the 22nd time he’d ever hit a bear in the face with a tree branch. 1977
Also once, when he was hanging laundry outside with his wife, lightning hit her.
Lightning is about five times as hot as the surface of the sun. When it hits wood, human flesh, or other materials, it creates an impression that resembles lightning: it tattoos an image of itself onto you. The chaotic force carves its name. The term for it is “breakdown.” They can manifest internally or externally.
Roy became isolated. People avoided him, especially when it was rainy. Although lightning strike victims get struck a second time more often than not, he had the same actual odds of getting struck by lightning every time he got struck by lightning– all equally very, very unlikely. There was no reason for anyone to think it was a better idea to stay away from him, nor was there any reason, really, for him to anticipate ever being struck again. But at a certain point, wouldn’t you, too, carry that water can?
The Ledger article states that two men in the area recently had been hit by lightning three times, and “in each case the third strike was followed by a funeral.” But then, everything is ultimately followed by a funeral. Roy died at 71 — lying in bed next to his sleeping wife, who was thirty years younger than him, he shot himself in the head over an unrequited love.
Nate Waggoner‘s work has been published in Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, the Columbia Journal, The New York Observer, Paste, The Hard Times, and “Loose Lips,” a literary parody anthology from Hachette. He lives in Brooklyn.