It’s a cool cloudy day in Steubenville; as I write this, it’s threatening to storm. I like storms these days. I used to be afraid of them. Want to hear a storm story? Too bad, I want to tell a storm story. The rest of you can come back tomorrow. I want to tell you about the time my cousin was nearly struck by lightning for his irreverence, or maybe not.
I was nine years old that summer. My whole family was staying in North Carolina with my cousins for a week. My Charismatic mother had quietly expressed her objections to that particular group of cousins. “They’re too worldly,” she’d said. I wasn’t completely sure what “worldly” meant, but I knew that they watched Nickelodeon and sometimes said unrepeatable words like “idiot” or “butt.” Still, family was family, and we went and stayed with the cousins. There were six of them at that time, four boys and two girls, and the boys were closer to me in age. On the third or fourth night, there was a severe thunderstorm.
Everyone has a subject that fascinates them, and my mother was no different; she was fascinated by storms. She liked to watch them and make lurid comments about whether a certain cloud would touch down and become a tornado. She liked to talk about how, according to some private revelations she’d been reading, God was wont to “withdraw a country’s guardian angel” as punishment for national sins, and that country would not be protected from severe weather as a consequence. Recent hurricanes on the East Coast had been caused by this, apparently. And she had no concept that talking about all this would scare her impressionable, naive daughter half to death. Usually, a storm would send me to bed and under the covers, clutching my Rosary and praying for God to spare our lives and bring the guardian angels back.
I didn’t have time to be frightened that evening, however, and I didn’t even know where my Rosary was. I was thrilled to be with my irreverent cousins, saying words like “idiot” and “butt.” I’d even managed to watch the first five minutes of Fresh Prince of Bel Air before my father had caught us watching “commercial television” on the small upstairs TV and turned it off. We were never, under any circumstances, to watch modern sitcoms. Now we were in the basement, which was my cousins’ playroom. The house was built into the side of a hill, and there were glass doors in the basement playroom opening to the backyard and the swing set; also in the basement was a big screen TV and a huge library of VHS tapes. We had at our disposal every Disney movie imaginable and a healthy selection of cable channels besides. The storm would drown out the sound of anything we liked to watch, shielding us from the grown-ups upstairs. But my cousins did not want to watch a Disney movie, nor did they want to watch cable television. They had a different idea. My cousins quickly got out the videotape of Once Upon A Potty.
Thankfully, the storm outside was so loud that my parents couldn’t hear the video or why I started shrieking. I shrieked at the opening cartoon of the naked boy, then I shrieked as the gentle-voiced narrator listed the naked cartoon boy’s body parts. We whooped at the hypocrisy of a gentle-voiced adult who would use the term “penis” with a straight face but would still refer to urine as “wee-wees,” not to mention “poo-poos.” Poo-poos come out of the “buttocks” and not the “anus” in Once Upon A Potty, thankfully, or I think I would have died of shock. The idea that someone made a cartoon of a naked child to teach other naked children how to use the toilet was beyond anything I could have imagined in my Charismatic upbringing. In our family we did not say “penis” in a voice above a whisper, and even “bottom” was a bit raunchy for my mother’s taste. I was on the floor laughing when little Joshua mistook his new potty for a hat. When he managed to make it to the potty and actually brought the vessel to his applauding parents, I doubled over and cried. Mercifully that was the close of the story, so I had a moment to breathe before a live-action video of a stodgy man in a doctors’ outfit appeared. This section of the videotape was meant to educate parents on how to use the preceding film to potty train their naked toddlers. Perhaps the makers of this video never imagined that children would remain in the room to watch this bit.
I couldn’t hear a single other word that Mr. Wee-wee and Poo-poo said; it was blocked out by laughter and the ever-increasing thunder outside. Laughter melts into hysterics quite quickly when you are nine years old, and when you are a naive nine-year-old Charismatic whose mother reads about private revelations, laughter and hysterics lead to guilt. I knew I was being dreadfully immodest and wicked to laugh at Mr. Wee-wee and Poo-poo, and that I would regret it later.
My cousin was right by the glass doors as the video came to a close. He did what was unthinkable for a storm-phobic child like me, even more outlandish than a video showing naked children using the potty. My cousin opened the door, stuck his head out and shrieked “Shut up!” at the clouds. He drew his soaked head inside; he shut the glass door behind him.
We had no time to properly appreciate his antics. The moment the door was shut– I swear, this is exactly what happened– a bolt of lightning struck a cable on the patio right by the sliding door. And then another, right after that: zap, zap, like a spanking from a prudish angel’s cane. And just as that happened, two columns of sparks actually shot through the carpet indoors, less than two inches from my other cousin’s back. Electricity had surged through the television cable that was under the carpeting, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that a tower of angry fire had appeared in the play room like the condemning hand in Daniel, while we’d been laughing at wee-wee.
We ran upstairs through the smoke, begging for someone to call 911; it took quite some time to describe what we’d seen. I was certain that God was punishing us for our irreverence; our guardian angels had allowed the house to catch fire. But the fire department found that the whole thing was a power surge through the tv cable, which was under the carpeting. There was no fire, just a burst of sparks and smoke and two burnt holes in the carpet. After they’d gone, my mother showed us a votive candle in the kitchen.
“See that?” she said triumphantly. “We lit the candle to Saint Joseph, and we started to pray the Rosary, and that was just when the lightning struck. I bet the devil didn’t like what we were doing, and he sent the lightning to stop us!”
I went back downstairs and got on my knees to thank God for sparing us. My cousins laughed at me. Whether I’d witnessed Satan batting clumsily at a votive candle, a vengeful of God striking a television cable or merely a small house fire was not clear in my mind, but it’s clearer now.
(image courtesy of Pixabay)