originally published April 8, 2013
All of us have had jobs we’ve hated. I’ve spent time as a lowly grunt in a meat packing plant (a dreadful six hours of my life), I’ve talked innocent consumers into devoting entire hours of their lives to a lengthy, wholly uninteresting telephone survey of their recent purchases, and once I even worked as a janitor in a mannequin factory. When none of the company’s merchandise turned into Kim Cattrall within the first two weeks, I had to quit.
Sometimes we find ourselves doing a job we genuinely enjoy, but we simply aren’t very good at. I spent three months working in a CD store when I was 19, and found that I was far better at getting high with the staff and talking to customers at great length as to why they totally had to purchase the 20th Anniversary Edition of Dark Side of the Moon, but I wasn’t particularly adept at actually moving product. Sometimes though, it almost seems as though a force from above is attempting to intervene on our career path, nudging us in a different direction.
This is the story of one such man. Roy Sullivan was a devoted park ranger, committed to… well, to ranging the shit out of Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Someone upstairs wasn’t happy with this career choice, and Roy found himself struck by lightning. Seven times.
(not all at once. That would have been weird)
According to Roy, his first encounter with lightning occurred when he was a boy, helping his dad hack down a field of wheat. This is actually an undocumented eighth lightning strike for Roy; the good people at Guinness who bestowed the notorious World Record upon Roy only allowed for the seven strikes on official record – the ones which occurred on the job – to count.
While Roy was out slicing wheat field, the lightning struck the blade of his scythe without injuring him. No doubt this was either terrifying for the child or else it felt tremendously empowering. Like a superhero, living through his origin story with the stone-jaw grit and confidence of a modern-day movie idol. Seriously, this story is much more uplifting if we imagine that, in between getting roasted by lightning Roy was battling crime under a secret identity, clad in tights and sporting a kick-ass logo on his chest.
Roy began working in Shenandoah National Park in 1936 at the age of 24. He got married, and settled in to what should have been a happy, normal life. After six years on the job, Roy found himself caught in a vicious April thunderstorm. He ducked into a fire lookout tower for shelter. This wasn’t a great idea; with no lightning rod on top of the tower, Roy’s shelter had become more of a fire instigation tower. Lightning hit the thing seven or eight times, spewing sparks and flame all around him. Roy decided he’d be better off facing the storm than this Parks Department tinderbox, and he ran outside. Just a few feet away, a bolt of lightning – which appears to have been egging him out of the shelter, just to be an asshole – blasted through his right leg, hit his toe and left a deep gash in his skin and a hole in his shoe.
Roy survived the blast, and probably logged a lot of anecdote-miles telling the story of how he survived two bolts of lightning. I wonder if Roy ever bought a lottery ticket.
The Evil Lightning Gods gave Roy a bit of a reprieve before slapping him again. Flash-forward to July, 1969. Roy was 57, with more than thirty years of rangering under his belt. He was driving through the park in his truck – I’d like to think he was listening to a radio report on the Apollo 11 astronauts, because that seems more cinematic to me. Now, a metal truck is going to protect a person from being struck by lightning, that’s common sense. But it won’t protect you if a lightning bolt ricochets off a tree through the truck’s open window.
Roy was knocked unconscious, lost his eyebrows and most of his hair, and nearly died when his truck rolled to a stop near the edge of a cliff. At this point he’s got to be asking himself if he’s the unluckiest guy in the world for getting hit by lightning so often, or the luckiest for somehow not dying.
The next year, Roy received blast #3 (four if you count the one from his childhood – screw you, Guinness and your untrusting ways!). He was in his front yard at the time, and the blast leapt to his left shoulder after hitting a nearby power transformer.
1972: Roy gets blasted again, this time while he was at a ranger station inside the Park. His hair ignited – Roy tried to smother the flames with his jacket (didn’t work), tried to stick his head under a water faucet (didn’t fit), and wound up throwing a wet towel over his scalp to kill the flames.
At this point, Roy was convinced this was all a deliberate act by some otherworldly force. He began carrying a can of water everywhere with him, just in case he ignited again. If he saw a storm coming, he’d lie on the front seat of his truck until it passed. The poor guy was getting a little squirrely.
August, 1973: Roy was on patrol when he saw a storm cloud forming. He quickly drove away, but swore the cloud chased him. Finally, when he thought he’d escaped, Roy carefully emerged from his truck. He was struck immediately; his hair lit on fire again, and the bolt moved down his left side to his knee, where it jumped over to his right leg. Luckily Roy was able to crawl to his truck and pour that can of just-in-case water over his burning scalp.
Wow. This just keeps going. June, 1976, he tried to outrun another cloud but was struck anyway. Then a year later, Roy was fishing in a freshwater pool when he was struck again, burning his head, chest and stomach. He turned to head to shelter, and found himself face to face with a bear.
With a fucking bear.
Roy thwacked the bear with a tree branch and escaped. He later claimed this was the 22nd time he’d hit a bear with a stick. I’m thinking no one wanted to argue with this guy after what he’d been through.
The seven lightning strikes in Roy’s adult life were all verified by doctors and documented by the superintendent of the park. Even his poor wife couldn’t escape Roy’s bad luck – she was struck once also, while she was in the yard, hanging clothes to dry. Roy was there (of course), he was just lucky enough to be out of the line of fire.
Roy passed away in 1983 from something completely non-lightning-related. I wish I knew more of the story here – he apparently died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the stomach over “an unrequited love”.
In the midst of all this drama, all this electro-charged abuse of his innards, it was ultimately Roy’s broken heart which led to his demise. A tragic end to an American superhero.