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Spring: Exit Astraphobia, Enter Acrophobia

While the return of springtime weather is welcome, it is not without its scary aspects, including the return of thunderstorms.

As a child, I dreaded sky-brightening flashes of lightning and stomach churning rattles of thunder.

Today, I respect lightning’s power, but I don’t fear it.

I know that lightning can kill me. Heck, so can a hard fall onto the unyielding edge of our bathtub. Nearly everything can be fatal to someone, somewhere, somehow.

Florida features especially intense thunderstorms. The strong ones are more numerous than our Keystone State variety, giving me more opportunities to muse about them as I watch each winter while their winds swirl live oak leaflets into whirling cones outside my window.

Yes, I flinch at an unexpected crackle of lightning or rib-rattling clap of thunder. About 50 years ago, I was flung off a sidewalk and into a boxwood bush that bordered our front porch, leaving me dazed, scratched and forever aware of lightning’s power.

The blast of lightning left our elderly neighbor across the street in a panic. He was certain that he had witnessed my entire body being consumed by lightning. In fact, I was invisible to him while lying mostly behind the shrubbery, perhaps 50 feet from where the bolt had struck the ground.

Oddly, that experience erased my last lingering fears of lightning and solidified the fatalistic attitude begun in me by my Italian immigrant grandmother.

Seeing me crying and shaking during a summer storm, Grandma gathered me in her ample arms and, toothless as she usually was inside her house, clomped out to the side porch, holding me so that despite my wiggles, I could not get free.

There we sat, dry and out of the wind, while the storm cloaked the factory wall across the street with hazy sheets of water and slam-crashed its light-and-sound show.

About 100 yards from us, next to a railroad siding, stood a large old-fashioned Industrial Age crane bolted atop a huge concrete trapezoid. The crane had been used to load steel tanks onto railroad cars. It was a natural lightning rod as well.

A bright white bolt struck the crane squarely, or so it appeared from the porch. BAM! Thunder cracked but before it faded yet another bolt seemed to zag onto the top of the crane.

Grandma laughed out loud, shaking herself and me. My understanding of Italian, limited to spoken dialect at best, has faded to snippets and guesses, but the gist of Grandma’s lesson remains clear.

“Vedere?” she said, in Italian, “See?”

“No cadere!” or the Calabrian dialect equivalent: “It does not fall!”

The lightning does strike, she said, but as you see, the crane still stands.

I have forgotten the Italian for her next words, but she laughed even harder.

“It is already gone! You see what it was, not what it is!”

And what about the lightning bolt that can kill you?

“You’ll never even see it or hear it!” she said. “You will already be in Heaven!”

Decades later, after poor Mr. Whatsisname thought he had seen me obliterated, I got shakily to my feet.

I remember looking at the laced-up brown leather dress shoes on my feet, then my navy blue Dockers slacks. I looked at my hands, still at the ends of my arms that were protruding from the white dress shirt and gray patterned sport coat shoved by the concussion to halfway near my elbow.

“I made it!” I said to myself. “Grandma was right!”

I looked skyward, not even noticing that my eyeglasses lay atop a shrub.

“Grazie, Nonna,” I said. “Thank you, Grandma!”

We lose some childhood fears as we reach adulthood. New fears can take their place. Until I turned 35 and got bifocals, I had little fear of heights. Being small and a lightweight, I was occasionally called to climb to the top of a 40-foot extension ladder and paint cornices while sturdier adults steadied the heavy wooden ladders in use in those days.

Then I attempted something similar for a house I owned, using an aluminum 40-footer borrowed from a brother-in-law.

I got halfway up and was distracted by a clattering sound.

I looked down, forcing my vision into the lower “for reading” area of the bifocals, making me aware of how blurry and far below the ground seemed to be.

The clattering sound?

It was the sections of the ladder rattling against each other, pushed in and out by the quivering of my newly heights-frightened knees.

My brother-in-law chuckled.

“You come down and hold the ladder,” he said. “I’ll get you started on the high spots.”

Exit astraphobia, fear of lightning. Enter acrophobia, fear of heights.

Grandma isn’t around to ease me through this, so I invoke Plan B: I hire someone to do the high work, but not during thunderstorms.

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: notniceman9@gmail.com

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