Lightning in a Bottle

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Melvin Clemmons doesn't claim to have super powers, but he has been touched by the heavens. He got struck by lightning and, miraculously, suffered no long-term ill effects.

"A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work!" trumpets a jovial Melvin L. Clemmons Jr. to all who will listen. But Mother Nature put that theory to the test one summer day in Alabama when lightning struck the avid angler.

Clemmons, a publications and forms manager with the 688th Information Operations Wing at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, had been fishing at a lake by the golf course at Maxwell AFB, Ala., July 15, 1997, when a bolt struck his favorite fishing pole, which he held in his right hand. The graphite pole transformed into an efficient lightning rod, sending a violent electrical current through Clemmons' body and delivering a knock-out blow.

"I love to fish," said Clemmons, who grew up in Queens, N.Y. "I didn't get much chance to fish when I was in New York, so when the Air Force sent me to places like San Antonio and Montgomery (Alabama), I got addicted."

He's not exaggerating.

While working in the Air Force Doctrine Center at Maxwell, the retired senior master sergeant would fish three or four times a week.

"Sometimes I'd fish before work. Sometimes, I'd fish during my lunch hour. And sometimes I'd fish after work," he said smiling. "On a good day, I'd do all three."

He said that if his wife, Phyllis, wakes up in the middle of the night and he's not there, she doesn't worry. She'll just roll back over and sleepily mutter, "That fool's gone fishing again."

On the day of the mishap, Clemmons couldn't wait for 4:30 p.m. to roll around. It was a beautiful summer day, and his fishing fingers were getting itchy.

"As soon as I got off work, I jumped in my van and headed to the lake," he said.

By the time some darker clouds started rolling in, Clemmons had caught two catfish and a large-mouth bass.

"When I heard the thunder and saw the lightning, I climbed into my van to wait out the storm," he said.

There had been a few other fishermen at the lake, but when the rain moved in, they moved out. Clemmons, however, wasn't about to give up so easily. To him the storm was nothing more than an annoying interruption to his fishing excursion. He sat impatiently in the van, determined to wait it out.

After about 30 minutes, though, the storm only seemed to be gaining in intensity, so stubbornness slowly transformed to surrender. He'd have to fish another day.

"I got out of the van to gather up my gear," he said. "My fishing pole was leaning against a cooler. I reached for it, and the next thing I remember is waking up lying face-down in the mud."

The bolt, which shattered his rod, made quite a mess of him too.

Blood trickled from his nose, and his head pounded painfully to the steady beat of an imaginary bongo. He felt a cut above his right eye, which had nearly swollen shut. And his teeth ached as if he'd just swished icy water after a trip to the dentist.

But the worst was yet to come.

"My instinct was to get up out of the mud," he said.

"But when I tried to stand up, I couldn't."

He couldn't feel his legs.

"I said, 'Please, God, don't take my legs!'" he recalled with a solemn look in his eyes.

Then in a panic, he said he started furiously beating both of his thighs with his fists.

"I couldn't feel anything in my legs," he said. "It was very scary."

After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only about five minutes, Clemmons said he started to get that "pins and needles feeling" in his lower limbs. But that uncomfortable tingling sensation offered Clemmons his first bit of relief.

"The feeling was slowly coming back into my legs, so I was just happy I wasn't going to be paralyzed," he said.

He still couldn't walk, but drug himself into his van for fear of getting struck a second time as the storm hadn't let up. While in the van, his legs regained enough feeling that he could stand and even stagger around a bit.

"I must have been a little loopy, because I got back out of the van and threw all my gear inside ... not the most common sense decision," he said. "I needed immediate medical attention."

Since he was the only one left at the lake, he knew he would have to try to get himself to safety. So he got back into the van and slowly drove to the security forces law enforcement desk. He stumbled into the law enforcement office looking like someone who'd had one too many whiskey sours.

Security forces alerted the base hospital, and an ambulance arrived moments later.

"The medics immobilized me by strapping me to a board and hooked me up to an IV," he said. "Then they transported me to the base hospital."

After more than four hours of poking and prodding at the base hospital, Clemmons was transferred to Columbia East Medical Center in Montgomery for further tests, including blood work, heart exams, X-rays and a CT scan. They kept him overnight.

He'd suffered some nerve damage in his legs and a herniated disc in his neck.

"I endured pain in my legs for weeks while the nerves regenerated," he said.

Fortunately, though, he regained full use of his legs after weeks of physical therapy. He suffered no long-term ill effects, other than occasional stiffness in his neck.

According to Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors, International, Clemmons is lucky. Many lightning strike victims sustain permanent brain and neurological damage, not to mention internal and external burns, and in the worst cases, death.

"A lot of people think this could never happen to them," Clemmons said. "But, by the grace of God, I'm here to tell you that it can. I made a lot of mistakes that day: I didn't check weather reports, I went to the lake by myself, and I got out of the vehicle with lightning flashing all around. I'm lucky I wasn't killed. What if I'd fallen into the lake when I'd gotten knocked out? With no wingman there to pull me out, I would have drowned. Don't take any chances in a thunderstorm."

After the incident, Clemmons' vice commander nicknamed him "Zappo" and put up a slide of a lightning bolt by the lake at staff meeting titled "Mel's Fishing Spot."

Clemmons takes it all in stride and still believes almost any day spent fishing is better than a day at work. But to anyone who will listen, he'll tell them about at least one exception he knows all too well.