You can call me ‘Lightning’ (if you really want to)


When I was young, my progenitor called me Lightning. My two older brothers had nicknames, as well. One was Tiger, the other was The Toad.

Later, I found out that The Toad was so-named because after he saw the Disney adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, he ran around the neighborhood, pretending he was driving a gypsy caravan, bowling over old ladies, and yelling, “I’m the Toad!”

We were fairly unsupervised, despite being heavily controlled.

I never heard how my older-older brother became known as Tiger. By the time I got around to asking such questions, he’d been excused from the family. I think it was just a pet name, like I call my daughter Monkey.

But I was called Lightning, by my father and by no-one else.

Eventually I got around to asking, when I was in my mid-20s, how that came about. We were talking about motorcycles, puzzles, boats, projects: I don’t know. We were talking about the things that we talked about.

“So, how did you end up being called Lightning?” you may ask. That’s what I asked, except with different pronouns.

I had made a few assumptions over the years, some of them reasonable. I had become a pretty fast cross-country runner, but have no proof of that since my school didn’t have a track team. That wasn’t it. I’ve always been a fairly enthusiastic bicycle rider, doing my first 100-mile day at age 11. But I wasn’t a successful racer, and the name predated that.

Eventually, he told me the truth: I had clearly never been in a hurry to do anything. Anything at all, aside from reading all the books I could get my hands on, of course.

“Lightning” was irony. Sarcasm. Whatever you want to call it.

From time to time it was funny to those who heard it, since I was always about as quick as mid-winter molasses.

Names are interesting things. It can be difficult to pick one for a tiny human you’ve never met. My wife suggested (before our daughter was born) that Rain might be a good name for a child. We didn’t know whether it was going to be a boy or a girl. But it could have been a nice hippie name, like River Phoenix, or his brother Joaquin Phoenix, who at one time decided to rename himself Leaf.

The problems with that name option – Rain – are multitudinous, so I’ll stick with only a few.

Number 1: We didn’t live in a yurt.

Number 2: We weren’t hippies. (See Number 1).

Number 3: Our last name is Cloud.

I had to repeat “Really, you want to name our child Rain? Rain Cloud? No, I mean, for real. Rain. Cloud.” There were a few repetitions before she finally blinked at me wildly and said, “Oh! Rain Cloud. I mean, maybe. It’s not a bad name, but that’s probably not a good idea.”

The true weirdness of the name “Lightning” Cloud came to light when I was about 16 or so.

My brother The Toad and I had a lawn-care business, with about 40 contracts including some commercial gigs. We had acquired a large mostly steel trailer in which to haul our equipment.

One summer afternoon, we cut our work hours short because of approaching thunderstorms. It had begun raining in earnest by the time we got home. I was trying to cover everything up with a tarp when lightning struck the trailer, upon which I was standing.

An electrician asked me recently what that was like, explaining that he has been hit many times by household electricity, but not by something quite so aggressive.

Honestly, I told him, I don’t remember much of anything. A flash and the overwhelming smell of ozone.

My brother and sister were standing on the porch 100 yards away, and they later told me what they saw. I was knocked about 20 feet through the air, landing far away from the trailer. I laid there for a couple of minutes then, calmly, walked up the hill to the house. There I took off my rain-soaked clothes, may have dried off, and climbed into bed, where I slept for two days.

No, they didn’t take me to the hospital, or even the doctor. I was still breathing and didn’t have any apparent damage, so they just let me sleep. We were broke, and doctors were a luxury.

As with most of my stories, there’s another level remaining: That was only the first time I was struck by lightning. (My wife claims I take a perfectly reasonable story, push it to its logical extent, then carry it a bit too far. She will never believe that all of my stories are almost entirely true.)

The second time lightning found me, I was sitting on a large stone in the middle of the Bald River, just upstream from the waterfall near Tellico Plains, close to the North Carolina-Tennessee line, taking a break from fly-fishing. Bold blue sky. Clear as you could ask for. I’d been there for a few days, subsisting on coffee, the occasional trout, and an abundance of silence. Hadn’t seen a human in a while. My fly-rod was carbon fiber, so not an attractor for electricity.

I’m just lucky like that.

Again, a blinding flash and the smell of ozone.

I have no idea how long it was before I regained consciousness. When I woke up, I was floating down the river. It took a little while to walk back upstream to where my tent, backpack, fly-rod, and coffee pot were waiting for me. The Bald River flows slowly there, a few miles upstream of the waterfall. A small divot had been chipped from the top of the rock next to where I had been sitting, leaving a scorch mark behind.

Some friends of mine find this story amusing. Some, like my wife, doubt its veracity. Others, hearing it for the first time, walk carefully to the other side of the room, then ask what exactly I did to irritate the gods. That’s a question I cannot answer.

There can be some lingering effects of being struck by lightning. I think once it’s happened, it’s even more likely to reoccur. About seven years ago, my first house here in Hattiesburg was struck by lightning, killing my computer, digital camera, removable hard drive, air conditioner, and clothes dryer.

I can no longer wear battery-powered wrist watches. There’s been enough electrical weirdness in my system, that my personal literal magnetism kills the watch within a few days.

You may think I’ve been tremendously unlucky, to have experienced this, not once, but twice. I prefer to look at it from the opposite point of view: I’ve been quite lucky, to have come so close to getting fried, and not to have been injured or killed.

So, you can call me Lightning, if you want. But bear in mind that, as monikers go, it’s a little too close to being literal to be very funny anymore.

J. Daniel Cloud is a Hattiesburg-based writer and photographer. He still only rarely gets in a hurry, and wears only fully mechanical watches when he must keep an eye on the time. And you can understand why he’s procrastinated for months to install his daughter’s new ceiling fan.