Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mrs. Keltner and the Lightning

Of all the awe-inspiring forces of nature, lightning is my least favorite. I am genuinely terrified of its potential for sudden destruction, and I will do almost anything to avoid going outside when it appears. But it wasn’t this way before 1963, the year I started third grade.

Mrs. Keltner was our third grade teacher, and if memory serves me correctly, she was a fairly nice lady. She reminded many of us of our grandmothers, in that she seemed to watch over us like a flock, doling out practical advice whenever the opportunity presented itself. One of the things about which Mrs. Keltner was most concerned was our exposure to lightning.

Before I was in Mrs. Keltner’s class, I have to admit that I hadn’t given lightning much thought, but only a few weeks into the school year, she got into high gear with lightning warnings. She told us that during a thunderstorm, we should not ever go outside, stand close to a window, or even bathe or take showers. I translated this last admonition into not going anywhere near the bathroom or running water in general. In short, I truly internalized Mrs. Keltner‘s advice, to the point where I became deathly afraid of lightning, even after I’d finished third grade and headed on to fourth. And fifth. And sixth, and so on. But one memory stands out above all others in this regard.

The summer after I’d finished third grade, our family took a vacation to the Ozark Mountains. The trip was going fairly well until late one afternoon, when my parents decided to go to an outdoor play called “The Shepherd of the Hills,” which was held on the outskirts of as-then-undiscovered Branson, Missouri. We drove down a gravel road to a field that was set up for parking, and just as we were about to leave the car, I saw on the horizon one of the meanest looking storms I had ever seen. To this day, I have seen nothing that compares to its sheer ugliness. The sky had turned a deep, dark green above a narrow ribbon of sunshine. It looked unbelievably disturbing, and I was terrified. I began crying hysterically, fearful that my parents would insist that we leave the car to watch what by now I am sure I had dubbed “this stupid play.” Of course, my parents would never have done such a thing, but still, I was beyond help and was having a total meltdown.

"The Shepherd of the Hills" in progress
As with many summer storms, the green cloud turned gray, the rain poured in sheets, and then the whole thing was over. It was then safe to leave the car, but there was still the play to endure.

When you are nine years old, even an hour seems like an eternity, but seriously, "The Shepherd of the Hills" had to have lasted almost three hours. For all that time, we were perched on hand-hewn, uncomfortable, wet wooden benches. The play seemed to go on forever, and although it was billed as family entertainment, I couldn’t really follow the plot, but at least there was no lightning, so that was good. When it was over, I told my parents how sorry I was that I had acted so dramatically, but they seemed to understand, and by the end of the evening, the vacation was back on track.

In the many years since, I’ve seen my share of inclement weather, having lived through Memphis tornadoes, Chicago blizzards, and some wicked Southern heat, but still, nothing rattles me like lightning. If I am parked only twenty feet from the entrance to a store or restaurant during a storm, I will generally run like hell to the door, effectively folding time and space to get inside. I know Mrs. Keltner would be proud that I have heeded her warnings. Every time I see broadcasts from the “Severe Weather Center," which in Atlanta generally runs up the flag when we are having no more than an eighth of an inch of rain, I think of her and how she cared for her flock.

Bless you, dear Mrs. Keltner, for your lightning obsession. I’d rather be safe than sorry. And by the way, I just looked up “The Shepherd of the Hills” on Wikipedia, and you know, the plot doesn’t really look too awful. Maybe I’ll give it another try, but this time, I’ll wait until the sun is shining.