A Socratic Rancher 6-15-09 | TheFencePost.com

A Socratic Rancher 6-15-09

J.C. Mattingly
Moffat, Colo.

Fear of being struck by lightning has never bothered me, for the same reason I’ve never bought a lottery ticket.

Summer thunderstorms in the West are works of art. The Colorado Plateau heats up during April, May, and June, the warm air rising off the spare land mass in giant bursts that sweep in moisture from the Pacific and Gulf, a phenomenon commonly known as the monsoon. It’s a time when afternoon storms come like clockwork, and cloudbursts that drop 2 to 3 inches of rain in less than an hour are common.

One late June afternoon back in the 90s, a big, black, green-bottomed-cloud storm hit. I jumped in my truck and drove out to look at the fields, to see how the storm was distributing its bounty. On the way, I passed my neighbor’s pasture where a pair of bulls were spending the remainder of the summer, having done their duty during the spring breeding season. They were thin and mud-streaked, but possessed long, straight backs, large heads, and sturdy legs. They were positioned head-to-head, as if fighting, but instead were taking turns seeking shelter under each other’s jowls and brisket, a strategy for getting out of the rain that I had seen many times among cattle, and always found amusing, as if the beasts took some ancient cue from an ostrich.

When I passed the bull pasture, perhaps 50 feet away, lightning struck at, or near, the beasts sending a pop-crack-flash through the air that jolted me into momentary blindness. I saw two large, black shapes in motion – at first I couldn’t make out more than that – and then as the flash dissipated I saw the last of the commotion: the two bulls literally flew apart in opposite directions, flopping in field puddles about 10 feet apart. I may have felt a tingle of electrical juice, or it may have been the proximity of powerful suggestion, but in either case, I sat, thunderstruck, for a long time, the soothing sound of rain on the roof slowly reminding me that I still resided among the living.

I drove to the neighbor’s house and told him what I’d seen. He left to investigate, and several days later I got a call from his insurance adjuster, asking me what, exactly, I’d seen. After I finished telling him, he took in a long breath before asking, “You’re sure about all that?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I saw.”

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“It’s unusual,” the adjuster said slowly. “The fact pattern doesn’t match what I typically see in lightning strikes,”

“How so?”

“The forepart of both bulls’ skulls were caved in, no burn marks or scorched hair or damaged hide were evident. Just two caved-in bull skulls, suggesting they collided with each other at high speed.”

Following a pointless abundance of speculation, we finally settled on the theory that the lightning must have struck near the bulls, detonating a charge through the wet ground that first sent the pair crashing into each other with sufficient force to crush their skulls, bouncing them back several feet.

“I know lightning struck and I know it killed them,” I repeated. “It wasn’t pretty.”

“Not for the bulls, but it was pretty lucky for you,” the adjuster pointed out. “Consider how close you were to the strike. It was as if you were standing on the street and a nearby wrecking ball was swinging at a building, missed the building, and came straight at you, knocking your glasses off your face without scratching your nose. That’s how pretty it was.”