At the ocean with my uncle and I got to see this happen, real life.

Sitting on the beach and out on the ocean near the horizon is a fishing boat. My uncle knew the name but it sounded too foreign for me to capture at the time. The clouds were looming in the distant sky and he pointed them out nonchalantly. There is going to be a storm soon, want to watch it? And of course I did because I've got scientist blood in me. Of course I wanted to watch it in all its glory from the safety of my lab, the beach, and be left to think that somehow storms on the east coast are one thousand times different from the storms on the west (they are).

The distant sea became blurred and the boat became hard to distinguish as the rain started pouring, but the beach stayed dry, at first. The storm was over the ocean and not over us and for the looks of things out there, we were thankful. We strained our eyes hard to see the boat being tossed around on the waves, that were beginning to toss and turn upon the sand as well, creeping up and stealing bits of rocks and shells and leaving new ones behind.

The sky boomed loud with thunderous excitement and I jumped, momentarily terrified. The lightning crashes came not long after, a bright amethyst on the background of a gray sky. We counted the big ones and ignored the small ones and laughed at the people running from the beach as the rain moved in to us. Women with little kids, struggling to keep beach towels and floaties and sand buckets all in their arms as they hurried off to their vehicles. Boys dragging up surfboards that had only become useful in storm waves anyway. My uncle and I, having the benefit of ocean front property moved under the carport in plastic lawn chairs and opened up cold sodas that felt refreshing. The storm had not chased off any of the heat.

The sky blackened and the lightning kept crashing out on open waters. We spotted the fishing boat again, attempting to make its way back to shore and then our eyes became all attentive to it. Rooting for it like the little engine that could, I think it can make it back; I think it can make it back. The masts became twisted in the wind and rain and we could begin to make out the men on deck in yellow slickers attempting to straighten it all out.

In an instant it happened, the sky lit up purple and so did the boat. The bolt came streaking down straight from the heavens above and directly on to the hull, violet and violent. The light raced down the top rail around to the side of the boat using the metal like a train track to its destination. It took a few minutes for all the light to dissipate. I gasped in both awe and horror; afraid that was the end of the little boat that could and the men on board. My uncle, sensing my fear, eased it in his natural manor, using science to calm me. Its only corposant, a corona, he said. When I didn’t get it, he said, Saint Elmo’s fire, and at the time I still had no idea what it was; the movie didn’t even exist.

He explained how it happens, out at sea or even to planes in the atmosphere, how it is only electricity. How sometimes it even happens on the horns of cattle or to people’s heads during dust or snowstorms and in those scenarios, it doesn’t even hurt, only tingles. He had seen it happen once to a military buddy of his and could vouch that every thing ended up safe. Its easy to understand if you understand this: Saint Elmo’s fire happens when the electricity in the atmosphere around and object reaches 1000 volts per centimeter. During normal weather, the air usually carries around one volt per centimeter. During a thunderstorm, it increases to five volts, and just before a lightning bolt stems from the clouds, it races up to 10,000 volts. Saint Elmo’s fire can occur at anytime an object will absorb at least 1000 volts. That’s why it happens in the snow or dust just as well as rain, though the atmospheric electrical field is generally only strong enough to produce it during thunderstorms. Or here, understand this: Ohm’s law.

We watched the men on the boat stand up from their crouching positions and take back to the sails, working their way home as quickly as they could. The storm moved up closer to the shore with the fishing boat keeping a steady pace only slightly ahead of it. When the boat disappeared around a bend in the shore, we decided it was time to head in. The lightning had reached the beach and the rain was pelting down hard and blowing into the carport, soaking us. We raced inside and dried off, taking the rest of the afternoon to lounge around and read. We opened some windows when the rain died down and it was only thunder and lightning left and the smell of rich sea rain lofted into my uncle’s house, filling my nose and my heart. I took several deep breaths just to make sure I got to keep this in my head, in order to remember that it doesn’t happen like this on the west coast. The rain started up again as I was trying to sleep. Curled up on the guest bed with all the windows in the house open; I listened to the rain and the Atlantic, and I felt safe.

The next day we walked out to the beach just after sunrise to see all the shells and drift wood that had been washed up on the shore. I found an odd looking shiny black rock and picked it up to pocket. My uncle found it later while doing the laundry and asked where I got it. What I had found was lightning captured by the sand. I still have it. The smell has faded but if I hold it close and close my eyes I can smell the rich Atlantic and see amethyst lightning bolts running just under my eyelids.