Riding the lightning

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 16, 2013

At Faith Elementary School in the 1960s, it was common to hear the schoolyard taunt, “My dad can beat up your dad.”
I was never sure why, but dad comparisons were important in those days. All my friends were proud of their dads, and I was no different. My dad was younger than most, and he had a cool job. He traveled around the state driving a truck and erecting billboard signs.
On the back of his huge truck was a large crane used for moving poles and large portions of the signs. Using a metallic remote connected to a cable, he could flip a switch and stretch it to towering heights. Once, he even let me sit on a piece of board connected to the crane by a chain, and raised me high in the air.
So it was hard for my eleven- year-old mind to comprehend the details of the accident on February 9, 1967 involving my dad, the truck and that crane.
He was part of a three-man crew erecting a billboard sign in the eastern part of the state. It began to snow. In fact, the snowstorm that day would be one of the largest the area had seen in years.
Suddenly, the crane my dad was maneuvering swung directly into the path of a high voltage power line. In a blinding instant, thirteen thousand volts of electricity slammed into my father’s 33-year old body.
Several hours away, my friends and I had been dismissed early from school because of the snow. We were playing in the basement of my house when my grandmother’s stern voice resounded from the top of the basement steps.
“The rest of you boys go on home now. You three kids grab your pajamas and come to my house. You’ll be staying there tonight. Your father’s been hurt.”
Hurt? What happened? How? No answers were given.
As we made our way out the door and down the driveway, a car suddenly pulled in directly in front of us. Our new pastor, who had been on the job exactly five days, would be driving my mother to the burn center in Chapel Hill where my father had been taken. Her tear-stained face told us this was serious.
At my grandparents’ house, we were told of the accident, and how badly my father had been burned. He would have died on the spot had his co-workers not worked to get his heart going again. The electricity severely burned his right arm, the left thumb he was using to control the remote switch, and his right ear where some of the voltage exited his body. Even the nails in his boots were completely destroyed as the electricity coursed its way to the ground.
My dad was clinging to his life in a hospital bed, and our lives would be changed forever.
Sleep wouldn’t come that night. I kept dreaming of dad standing in the doorway of my grandparents’ kitchen where I’d seen him so many times before, just passing the time with pleasant conversation.
A few days later, his arm was amputated at the shoulder. The charred left thumb and right ear were also removed.
But fortunately, that’s not the end of the story.
He began a slow and quite miraculous recovery. Over the coming weeks, he would endure painful skin grafts and lengthy treatments that I can only imagine on his slow road to restoration. Mom never left his side.
We continued to stay with our grandparents through a large part of the winter and spring. I grew fond of our Saturday visits to the hospital, where we watched his progress and made the entire hospital our giant playground.
Finally, one sunny day in late April, I returned home from school with my brother and sister to find our dad standing in the yard waiting on us. We were a family once again.
During the next year, dad would be fitted with an artificial arm which he mastered rapidly, and would undergo a radical surgery to move the index finger of his left hand to the position of the missing thumb.
Life slowly returned to normal, and he returned to work for the 3M Company in the spring of 1968, now as a real estate representative.
I’ve thought about those days many times; the fear I felt at the prospect of losing my father, and what that experience taught me. Life can change in an instant, and nothing truly prepares you for such changes.
But I’ve watched my dad through the years, and the thing I find most remarkable about him is, I have never heard him refer to himself as handicapped or disabled in any way. If there were moments of despair or self-pity while he struggled to adapt to his new condition, I never saw them.
He simply began doing the things he had done with two strong arms — with one strong arm and a shiny new hook. And he never slowed down.
He also never lost his sense of humor. Often, I would see him raise his one arm and brag about “catching a fish this big.” And once, when he encountered a curious young boy in a department store wondering what happened to his arm, he replied, “I lost it. Can you help me find it?”
“Uh…we don’t live here,’’ muttered the uncomfortable child, before running off. Dad just grinned.
My father turned 80 this year. His positive outlook and gentle humor has accompanied him through a long happy life, and he has a lot to be proud of since he “rode the lightning” in the winter of ’67.
Just ask anyone over in Faith who knows “Snooky” Bernhardt, and they’ll tell you.

Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.