Lightning Does Strike Twice


By kneeling on top of the desk in my upstairs bedroom in Webster, NY, I could just see a tiny strip of Lake Ontario located about a mile or two to the north of us.

These days, realtors would most probably list our home as “water view property.” To me, it was the edge of the universe. Canada and the far north lay beyond. How to get there was the problem.

The answer appeared one day at the home of my friend Cory. He had a beautiful Zenith Trans-Oceanic Short-Wave radio. I was desperate to have something similar.

The only catch was that the Zenith cost a lot of money. I had none. My folks had very little. But they did what they could, and under the Christmas tree that year was a small, dark red plastic radio. It didn’t look like much of a short wave to me, until my Dad showed me the little switch on the back that extended the FM band into a short wave frequency.

All through the winter I wrestled with the tuning dial, trying to extend the frontiers of my listening ability. Night after night I tried to reach out for distant signals. I invented reasons to stay home from school during the day – just so I could listen to my semi-short-wave.

Six months later, despite my best efforts, my entire listening log consisted of an CBC FM station in Toronto, where I got to know the Bob & Ray Show on a first-name basis, the Cleveland airport tower, a taxi dispatcher and garbled pieces of Morse code transmissions. I was discouraged and embarrassed that I’d told all my friends that I had a real short-wave radio.

Then one day at Cory’s, when he was tuning in the Moscow Evening News in English, I noticed that he made a slight adjustment with his antenna to better receive the incoming signal. Eureka! An antenna! That’ll do it! I hurried home to make my preparations.

In the garage I found a large roll of thin copper wire – a long-forgotten, leftover reminder of some family do-it-yourself project gone awry. Overcome with anticipation, I rushed up to my room and turning the radio around, found a small connection on the back, labeled FM antenna. I was in business.

I fastened the wire to the screw connection and fed it under my bed, across the floor, out my bedroom window, onto the infamous garage roof and then on up and through an open louver in the attic. With these steps completed, I started stringing the wire around the attic ceiling. Around and around I went. This was to be the mother of all antennas. Europe, the Far East, perhaps the South Pacific – who knew where this antenna could take me? What exotic languages would I hear? What unheard of music and events would I be privy to? In my effort to build the world’s largest radio antenna, I used the entire roll. Hundreds and hundreds of feet of bare copper wire now circled our attic in a monster loop.

All my efforts produced only mixed results. The Cleveland airport tower now sounded like it was in my backyard. The Toronto station was clear as a bell. And occasionally, exotic locations like Pittsburgh’s powerful KDKA – the world’s first radio station; a little-known station in Indiana, and late-night Southern Baptist exhortations against sin filled my room. Alas, Europe, the Far East and the South Pacific remained remote and unattainable.

But, the antenna really did work quite well in another way. The spool of wire acted as a huge lightning rod and as spring advanced into summer, lightning came to call at our house with such vengeance and regularity that our Beagle, Amigo, was driven nearly insane by the blasts of thunder. On one occasion, lightning struck and destroyed the television set in the living room—the whole thing was reduced to a blackened sculpture. Another time, a bolt hit a window screen in my bedroom, arced across the room and exited through a screen on the other side of the room! Scary stuff! Similar incidents occurred all summer long.

But incredibly enough, no one in our household associated the idea of 400 feet of live copper wire hanging around in our attic with attracting lightning! That fall, I finally gave up on trying to pick up remote radio stations, turned the switch on the back of the radio off, and wonder of wonders, the lightning looked for a different location.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was living in Toronto (The CBC was a siren song) and owned a real shortwave, that I read the simple instructions that came with it.

“If an external antenna is installed, disconnect in the event of a thunderstorm. Failure to do so may result in permanent damage to your radio or other appliances.” Duh!

(photo courtesy of Christian Meyn/