Thunderstorms in Bermuda are extraordinarily violent. They come across the ocean as though they have been stalking the island and then they carry out their assault in such a horrendous manner that you find yourself questioning whether it was just a nightmare, or not, because where you come from, thunderstorms don’t act like that.
The storms begin as a low rumble that rides in on the waves. When you are new to the island, you don’t even notice it -- as far as you know, its the low timpani-like voice of a distant motorbike...a bike being ridden by an old Bermudian, headed home with groceries in his basket, he’s humming a song to himself and he’s thinking about walking in the door of his pink house and kissing his wife. But then the kettle drum multiplies into a battalion of baritone instruments that is escorted by these bruised cloud formations on that flat horizon that you look at day in and day out -- that line where the distant sky meets the distant surface of the sea, that place where you wish to see a ship or even just a little skiff, something, anything, to break up that damn straight empty blue line. And so the militarily organized storm advances and you know the electricals are starving for contact with land, they are hungry to ground themselves into the little limestone island. They are like sailors who have been out to sea for so long that they are mad with criminal desire and before you can unplug every appliance in the house and close the windows and the doors and lockdown the shutters on the windows without smashing your fingers, the storm is on you and your house.
The dog is panting and the cats are pacing and the thunder is so raucous that your mind reels from the sound and the vibration under your feet. You are afraid to try to unplug any more appliances for fear of touching the wires now. You just get into bed with the dog and your husband and you wait it out and you wonder whether the starved lightning is going to eat at your house or your neighbor’s. The house goes dark, darker than if it were night, and suddenly your scalp tingles, the hair on your arms stands up like sea grass and the room fills with this electrical uninvited guest....there is an audible zap and a zing, and then the most amazing thing dances before your eyes in the corner of the bedroom, next to the dresser neatly piled with fresh laundry -- St. Elmo’s Fire, shimmering like a girl in a sequined dress in a night club. And as fast as she arrived, she disappears, leaving you and your husband and the dog breathless. “Did you see THAT?” yes, you all saw it, and you are glad she’s gone and that she only sang one song, because who knows what would have happened if she had sung another tune, one that might have electrocuted all of you, right there in your own bed.
Thunderstorms in Bermuda are responsible for more property damage than hurricanes, floods, theft, vandalism, and or arson, I suppose. Our neighbor’s home was hit by lightning and not only did they lose most if not all of their appliances, but a supporting wall of the house was split in half...it looked as though there had been an earthquake, not a summer afternoon storm. Their television, their stove, their refrigerator, and their stereo were all burned from the inside out. They were in town at the time of the storm, perhaps if they had been at home they could have unplugged everything in time and only sustained the damaged wall, but then again, maybe it was a good thing that they were far away when the storm hit.
My neighbors Donna and Rick told me of a night when they were awoken by a thunderstorm in the middle night. They were safely in bed with their dogs and their cats, but Donna got up, she wanted to go to the kitchen and unplug everything. Rick told her to stay in bed, it was too late. But Donna got up anyway, and began the walk down their hallway. Their house was a small “shotgun” cottage -- a bedroom on one end, then a hallway to the kitchen that led into another short hallway and there was their den. That was it. There were doors on either side of the kitchen, the front door and the back door that led into their small garden. That night both the doors were open, with only the screen doors protecting the kitchen from the elements. As Donna made her way down the hall there was an enormous explosion of thunder and electricity all at the same time and while she stood frozen in the hallway, she heard the screen doors swing open and she watched as the lightning came in the front door and ran out the back door as though God was chasing it down. All Rick could see was Donna illuminated by the great but fleeting fireball. Donna was back in bed before the screen doors slammed shut again.
Where ever you might be on the island at the time of an approaching storm, you do your best to get home and unplug everything. Bermudians drop whatever they are doing to get home and unplug de house. It took me a few years to get over that behavior when I returned to the States and sometimes now, even a decade later, I still fight the urge to unplug the refrigerator whenever a storm approaches.