Chapter Six – King Roach
A tornado is nature’s demon. Rotating winds, tight as a knot, with a body and energy that give it life, coherency, and a dislike for trailer parks. It’s lucky for me they are rare in Tucson. This town has so many trailer parks, and so few tornadoes, I hardly worry about them.
We do get hellacious thunderstorms, though. They make a lot of lightning and rain – never enough, of course – this is a desert, but it all comes down in the “monsoon” season, so for the moment it can seem like a lot. Monsoon season is July through September. It’s often spotty. Storm days can be separated by weeks of blazing, cloudless, dog days.
Tornadoes and lightning are intimately related. You might not get that impression from consensus science – they don’t treat them as related in any physical way other than the fact thunderstorms produce them both. Gee, that doesn’t imply any connection does it?
No, say the consensus. Lightning is just a static discharge from hailstones rubbing together, and tornadoes form by some chance circumstance of cross winds into spontaneous, coherent spirals of death. The only connection is the winds that rub the hailstones and spin the tornado come from the same storm – that’s all. Nothing else to see.
I beg to differ.
Tornadoes and lightning are two forms of electrical discharge from corona. Since the storm itself is a coronal construct of looping electrical current from the updraft core, it has to dump all that energy. Making rain, in some cases, isn’t enough.
Three facts help help illustrate the connection. One is that the faster the updraft wind flows, the more lightning the storm makes. Another is that when a tornado forms, the lightning abates. And finally, tornadic storms are prone to produce more positive lightning.
It’s a motor running. Plug it in and it sparks and spins.
My own experience with lightning began watching summer thunderstorms from the back porch. The roof of the porch extended the length of the house, facing north with a view of the mountains. Thunderstorms formed over the mountains, and spread across the valley to engulf us. Lightning was often intense before and during the downpour.
Watching thunderstorms form was more than casual entertainment. Thunderheads building over the mountains gave hope – hope that there would be rain to break the heat. In the sweaty days of August, the evaporative coolers – the only means of cooling the house – didn’t work. The air is already saturated with moisture, so the damn things just blow hot air.
Thunderheads start with bright white cumulus piling over the nine-thousand foot peaks of the Rincon and Catalina mountains. The updraft can be seen doing its work, pushing the cloud into a tower, broadening its base until it turns black. Under the blackness is rain, winds and licks of lightning we see striking the peaks.
We will that horror to come our way, because it is preferable to the horror of melting alive in 110 degree heat. If the clouds lower and swallow the mountains, that is a good sign it’s spreading out to get us, too.
As a child, I remember my Dad paid a lot of attention. He’d say, “Nope, that one will miss us. They have to form over there to reach here,” and he’d point to the north-east. He also kept tabs on weather in the gulf of California and Mexico. “If they have a cyclone, it’ll come our way,” he’d say, anticipating days in advance the effects.
My Father was a ham radio operator. He also had several CB radios, and had erected a large truss tower for all of his radio antenna. I think he violated code when he installed it, and had to remove the top section to bring it into compliance. It’s still there, though, the bottom section at least, used as a permanent ladder to the roof of the house.
When the lightning struck, I was in the living room with my niece.
“Holy crap,” we said, or words to that effect. After that, it was, “Do you smell smoke?”
This quote I’m sure of. Dad’s radio room was full of it. One of the CB’s was still flaming when we got there. We found the CB antenna fifty yards away. It had speared off the tower like the crucifix on the church in the “Omen”. Fortunately, there was no priest below to catch it (I doubt my Dad would have allowed a priest on the property).
I had another experience like this in Sumatra. For a few months, I lived in an oilfield work camp in the jungles of central Sumatra, a place called Duri. I and a colleague from another oil company were doing a feasibility study for a joint-effort project to be located there.
We lived and worked in a three-bedroom bungalow with the address, Jati 103. Every day our team of a dozen local engineers and analysts would assemble in the bungalow and work with us on computer models and power-point presentations – that is how building a power plant begins.
It was like working from home – I never had to put my shoes on. After work when everyone left, Gary and I would pop bottles of Bintang, and relax with cockroach target practice.
Sumatran cockroaches are very large and wily. Jati 103 had a resident roach that was as big as a baby’s shoe. He was the only one I saw there – apparently it was his territory.
The whole camp were these family bungalows for expats and local management. It was like a little suburban neighborhood sitting in the middle of the jungle. There was a golf course, if you didn’t mind the cobras. Also a gym, a community store and a club with a nice restaurant and pub. And that was it.
I spent spare time at the gym, or taking a run through the camp. No one else ran there. I figured it must be the heat, but then found it was because of the monkeys. They ran in packs like coyotes. They’d tear into garbage and run across the roof of the bungalows at night. They were as big as chimpanzees and dangerous. They were not cute monkeys.
I found myself far at the outskirts of the camp on one run. I went all the way to the fence, behind which was a wall of green rain forest. My attention was drawn to a single huge tree. I didn’t know why, but something seemed off about it.
After I stared at it for a minute, I saw a branch move, and one of these monkeys stared back. Then another branch moved, and another face appeared. This kept happening faster and faster, until I was being stared-down by a tree with a hundred monkeys. I ran for my life.
Gary had brought a set of juggling balls with him for a time-passer. The cockroach had a timetable and was always punctual – at six P.M. he’d appear. The only uncertainty was where he’d appear, but he always came out like clockwork. So most evenings we’d drink beer and lay in wait with the juggling balls.
I don’t know how, but King Roach always moved out of the way. We were both good shots, but never hit the thing even though it was as big as the side of a barn. We did hit some computers and lamps, I recall, but never the damn roach. Anyway, we were so occupied when Jati 103 got hit.
Wham! It was like a sledgehammer hit the ground. The house shook and we smelled ozone. Then the telephone wire began to buzz. A sparkling ball of discharging electricity passed down the wire in slow motion, maybe a foot from my elbow. It took at least three seconds for it to pass down the wire from the ceiling to the phone jack, where it exploded in blue flame.
It was way better than King Roach for excitement, however briefly it lasted.
Those storms in Sumatra were like storms in the mountains. The cloud comes right down to the trees and the lightning just pounds out of it. There is no flickering, no peeling crack, no counting seconds… just wham. Flash, crack and destruction in a single moment of awe.
I’ve seen a tree blown apart in the Sierra’s. At ten thousand feet in the mountains you’re part of the storm. Lightning damaged trees litter the high passes and ridges, and huge rocks are blown apart. Lightning has much more to do with erosion than it’s given credit for.
Let’s take a look at lightning, and tornadoes and see if we can’t make sense of it all.