Lightening Crashes, and Brother in Law Dies (Almost)

I seem to have a bunch of stories where someone says I almost killed them, or in which I myself almost die. In the vast majority of these cases someone is greatly exaggerating. In reality the worst cases could led to a trip to the hospital, possibly including flashing lights, EMTs and Emergency Rooms. In once case (the first story on this blog) maybe the possibility of life flight for my wife and some pretty tough questions from law enforcement officials for me.  In the story that follows, my brother in law would say I almost killed him. He is really stretching it though. I did probably scare the living shit out of him, but death? I mean it was a possibility sure, but a remote one. Here, you be the judge.

Sometime back in the late 90s or early 2000s when Jackie and I were living in Houston, Jackie’s sister Kim, husband Mike, and kids came to visit from Edmonton. We were excited to see them and show them around Houston, Galveston, my dad’s shrimp boat (doesn’t really sound like a tourist attraction, but it is really cool for people to see all the stuff that comes out of the water), and all the other cool things South Texas has to offer (including sauna like heat, billboards, bugs, and traffic). On one of the mornings, I took Mike on a fishing trip.

I’m not sure why we didn’t take my boat, there must have been something wrong with it. But for whatever reason I took him to my home town of Texas City to wade this big flat near Mosquito Island, which is actually just a little old shell reef. And not that many mosquitoes that I remember. There are mosquitoes pretty much everywhere else though. Maybe someone was being ironic when they named it. Not really an island. Not really that many mosquitoes. I know, let’s call it Mosquito Island.  But us Texas Citians (city-ites)  are not all that well known for our sense of irony, so it’s probably just a stupid name.  Anyway, we park near the poorly named island and begin our wade on a gorgeous spring morning.

Now the flat we are wading is really big, and a couple hours into the fishing trip we are several hundred yards from shore in waist deep water (and no fish as Mike is always pointing out to me) when Mike asks about some lightening he sees in the distance. I turn to look, watch a strike, and wait for the boom. Which never comes because the storm is so far away. “Don’t worry about it, there are always thunderstorms on the horizon down here. Nothing to worry about.” Not really that long later I hear a pretty decent sized BOOM and turn around again. The storm is much, much closer. Like going to hit us in the next 15 minutes or so closer. And here is the thing about thunderstorms on the coast. They really do happen all the time. If you run away from every thunderstorm you see you’ll never get any fishing done. But fast moving thunderstorms? Different deal totally. Fast storms mean high winds, lots of rain, and often lots of lightening. Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail advise, the best plan is to “Run away, run away,” like in this clip: Rabbit Stew

(Ok, so it takes awhile to get to the run away part, so maybe that was a stretch. But I’ve been looking for an excuse to link this scene and since it’s my blog I can do what I want.)

In fast moving thunderstorms it can go from nice and sunny to 60 mile and hour winds and constant lightening in a flash (pun intended). Here is a flashback to illustrate:

When I was 18 I worked with my dad on the shrimp boat. I started working with him on the boat when I was 16 and did it until I was 20 or so. Most mornings with him I was working or sleeping. Since he got me up at 5 am and many mornings I didn’t get home until 2 am I was often pretty tired, and in some cases maybe still drunk. So after finishing up culling the previous drag (taking all the fish and other stuff out of the shrimp and keeping the shrimp) I headed up towards the bed at the front of the boat. Dad mentioned the storms on the horizon. Whatever I think (or whatever we thought instead of whatever in those days) hit the bed and went to sleep. Only to be awakened by the boat jerking because dad engaged the winch to pick up the net with the engine running at a much higher rate than usual. “What the hell?’ I ask. “Look!” he points. The sky behind us is totally black. He says “it came up on us so fast I didn’t notice, we need to get the net out of the water right now.” Unfortunately it is too late and the wind slams us from directly behind. It is blowing so hard that the winch isn’t able to pick the net up because of the force of the wind on the cabin is pushing the boat too hard for the winch to drag the net in (winds on this storm were clocked at 80 mph at one of the refineries) . We try to turn the boat around so we are running into the wind (much safer), but that doesn’t work either. When the boat starts to go broadside in the turn the wind just blows us back around. So we have to go straight downwind, heading toward the Houston Ship Channel. I won’t get into specifics other to say this is bad. Because, you know, we have no control, we have a big ass net in the water, and we are heading for where the ships are. So yay for that. I ask dad what we are going to do, and he says, “if this thing blows for another 15 minutes or so we will have to dump the net before we hit the channel”. Which would cost him a bunch of money. So we are running straight downwind under power, waves are starting to crash over the back of the boat, which is not good as our bilge pump will not be able to keep up for very long. Then our culling table (weighs like 200 lbs?) blows off the boat. Dad says “get the life jackets.” Now I had been in a lot of boats to that point in my life, be it working, fishing, water skiing, and even some running of the shrimp boat by myself. The phrase “get the life jackets” had never been uttered in my presence.  I go to where the life jackets are supposed to be and they are not there. Which was totally awesome. Seems the boat had just came out of dry dock for maintenance, cleaning and repair and dad had forgot to put them back on the boat. When I say “the life jackets are not there” he tells me “of course they are”. When he looks and can’t find them (I would be willing to bet everything I own he tried to blame me for not putting them on the boat. Like all fathers, as long as they have sons in the house he never lost anything, the son(s) did!) “Ok” he says, “here is what we will do. If it comes to it we can rip the tops off of the big igloos and use them to hang on to.” Great plan, right? So I’m starting to sense that there may be some danger here. Like pee your pants danger. Fortunately, the storm blows over a couple of minutes later, and within 5 minutes everything is back to normal, except we don’t have a culling table anymore. “Well, that was exciting. Put the life jackets on the boat when we get home.” Sure dad, no problem. We pick up the net and go home. I got to cull right on the deck. Good times. Several boats did get sunk in that storm. Just dumb luck it wasn’t us.

So as you can see, t-storms can be scary things. With this one bearing down on Mike and I, I have a dilemma. We are about a 30 minute wade back to shore. The storm is going to hit us in 15 minutes, maybe less. Fortunately, there is a reef that goes straight to the island about 50 yards away. It is shallow and we can wade quickly to the island and then run the rest of the way to the car. Unfortunately, the water between us and the reef is about 7 feet deep. “So Mike, here is what we are going to do. The quickest way back is to hit a reef about 50 yards from us, but we will have to swim part of the way. It’s easy, just float on your back, hold your rod (mind out of gutters please) and kick.” “What?” he says. “Seriously man, nothing to it.” I say. “Can’t we just walk back the way we came?” he asks. “Sorry, it will take too long. The storm will hit before we can get back.” I think at this point he is starting to think I’m maybe not the most safety conscious guy in the world, but what choice does he have? So we wade until the water is up to our neck and then start to swim.

Now, have you ever tried to swim 50 yards on your back holding a fishing rod. No?  It takes a little while. Like way longer than I thought it should.  I keep putting my leg down expecting to hit bottom and I keep not hitting bottom. I start thinking “What if I’m out past the reef? It’s like a mile to shore if we keep swimming. Do I turn around? Keep going? Why can’t I find the stupid reef?” For Mike, things were a little more difficult. I was wearing light quick dry pants. Mike was wearing jeans (there are jellyfish around this area, so you wear long pants when wading). I’m worried about how long it will take and Mike is starting to get exhausted from the jeans, unbeknownst to me (a point he harps upon in his version of this story). So I’m kinda starting to maybe panic a bit when my shoe hits bottom (thank God) and a few seconds later we are standing in knee deep water. The island itself is still a couple hundred yards away, but the water is shallow so it won’t take long. That’s the good news. Bad news is the storm is only a couple of minutes away, and it is putting on a really impressive light show. And those big crackling booms. “Listen Mike, the storm is going to hit before we can make it to the car. But the water is shallow all the way to the island, so no big deal. We’ll be back to the car soon and won’t be in it long. One thing though, if your rod starts humming, just drop it.” “What? Why would I need to drop the rod.” “It’s made out of graphite so is pretty conductive. If lightening is about to strike the static in the air causes the mono line to start vibrating, making a humming sound. So if is starts to hum, just drop it.”  He gives me a look that can only be described as “are you the stupidest fucking person in the whole fucking world?” look. He turns and takes off to the island. Fast. Like I mean FAST. I probably laughed out loud, but not so loud that he would hear. I don’t think he had a great sense of humor at that point.

We didn’t make it to the car before the storm hit. Wind blew like hell and it rained crazy hard. But no one was hit by lightening, not even a close scary strike. That would have been sweet for the story. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Made it back to the car wet and alive, with both our rods.  Just another Tuesday in south Texas.

In my mind, this story shows how I keep my head in a potential crisis situation by calmly pointing out the options and taking swift action. In Mikes version of the story (I hope he has a rebuttal, apparently his version is different than my version) I’m some wild eyed redneck who bumbles himself and his poor trusting but unsuspecting friends and/or family into life threatening situations,  gets out of the situation by dumb luck, then tells stories about it for the rest of his life where he’s the good guy and tuns the unsuspecting family member into the pants wetting wimp of the story.  Ah well some say tomato……

By the way, anyone know the song I’m referencing in the title?

5 thoughts on “Lightening Crashes, and Brother in Law Dies (Almost)

    1. This one is fresh enough in my memory to be pretty accurate. The storm from when I was 18 or so is accurate as well for the most part, but memory is spottier on that one. Could be mixing events a bit….

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