Spring 2006

Unlucky Strikes

A lightning survivor’s tale, in his own words

John R. McLain

McLain’s sock, with hole created by an exiting lightning bolt. Courtesy John McLain.

The Lightning Strike & Electrical Shock Survivors International (LS&ESSI), a non-profit organization based in North Carolina, has published two volumes of Life After Shock, in which victims of lightning strikes and electrical shocks talk about their experiences. Here is an excerpt from the story of John R. McLain, a clockmaker who lives in Lockridge, Iowa.

Hello, My name is John R. McLain. I was born in Canton, Illinois, on 17 April 1937. The following is a glimpse into the past fifty years of the events from electrical shocks and being hit by lightning strikes that I have endured and lived to tell about.

1945: Severe Electrical Shock
I was nearly electrocuted by some neighborhood bullies. In order to extract information from me, a hanging light socket was put in my mouth and the switch turned on. I became unconscious. My life would be changed forever. Out of fear I did not tell the doctors what had happened. Bed rest was recommended.

Left with learning disabilities, had to learn to walk again, no motor skills or balance, could not read, write or spell, learning was difficult when I went back to school, no memory of many of the events that took place, exhausted and tired all the time.

1953: Lightning Strike
I was sent to the barn to milk the cow. It was storming and raining hard. I was barefoot sitting on a milk stool milking when lightning struck the lightning rods on the barn roof. It followed down the ground cable that had gotten torn loose and was wrapped around the barn post directly behind the cow and me. The lightning bolt hit the cow and me at the same time. The cow weighed 1000–1200 pounds. Fell on me. After struggling for some time to get her off me I could smell burned hair. I could hardly stand I was so weak-kneed.

Conclusion—I had burns much like a serious sunburn all over my body and the burned hair I smelled was mine. Very sore joints in my knees and ankles, what was really weird was I was left-handed in a lot of things I did, like eating, shooting basketballs, and I could write with both hands. I actually saw people that were right-handed doing things the opposite way to me. I didn’t know right from left, even though I was born right-handed.

1963: Severe Electrical Shock
I had always wanted to build a car ever since I was sick in bed for so long. A friend of mine had a 1927 Model “T” car sitting down by the creek which he said I could have. After bringing it home I decided to make something really different... I put a Chevy V-8 in it. Little did I know I was about to lose my life trying to achieve my goal.

I learned to weld and had some welding to do under the car. Why, I don’t know, but I put a piece of cardboard down to lay on. I couldn’t reach what I needed to weld and I rolled off the cardboard into the damp ground, at this time my ear came in contact with the break cable. I got a electrical nip and in my panic I must have stuck the welding rod to the frame. I began to fry, I couldn’t get away from it. I must have relaxed, when I blacked out momentarily and fell away from the cable.

Conclusion—I was pulled out from under the car. I still didn’t have my eyesight back. My entire body was stiff like frozen laundry in the winter. My nerves were making me shake. I had stomach problems as well as pain all over my body. Every time I welded after that I could hardly breathe.

1980: Lightning Strike
It was storming out, the phone was ringing and I ran to answer it. It was my wife, Pat, calling me and about the same time I saw a tornado funnel going across the field in front of the house. Within seconds, lightning hit the house. It came in on the telephone receiver and hit me in the head. How, I could never explain, but I was up against the ceiling from the tremendous jolt. My head nearly blew apart. My ears rang so loud I couldn’t hear people talk. The house burned.

Conclusion—continued ringing in my ears to this day. Joint soreness, vision problems, confusion and short memory.

1980: Power Shortage
We started experiencing power shortage in our home. We notified the power company and told them. They made a service call and after inspecting, they said it wasn’t their problem. It must be something I had done when I wired the house. This went on for the next three years. We lived in total fear from day to day of high voltage. Sometimes it exceeded 260 volts through our 110 current. It burned every appliance we owned and did over $7,000 worth of damage.

1993: Near Electrocution
You could tell it was to be a bad night. I kept an electric fan turned on all the time. In this way we could tell when the power surges were coming into the house. The fan sounded like an aircraft on takeoff because of the doubling of the voltage. Sometime during the early evening I woke smelling burning electrical wire. The fan was on fire. In my haste I grabbed the wire to disconnect it from the wall outlet. I immediately saw the 4th of July in my head—red, green, blue, yellow, and white sparks. I was unconscious for several hours or most of the night. I lost the feeling in my toes and fingers. The skin came off my toes, toenails came off. It took three and a half years for my big toe on my left foot to push off the dead nail and a new one to grow in. 

I had a flu-like feeling that wouldn’t go away. My heart was irregular when it beat. Tired all the time. Had to sleep for an hour at noon and sometimes in the afternoon.

1996: Lightning Strike
I just can’t seem to stay away from electric shocks and lightning. My wife and I had gone to town and while there, a very bad storm was forming to the northwest and coming our way. We hurried home and the storm caught us. There was a lot of hard and fast lightning striking all around. I love to watch it and marvel at the power it has. I told my wife I was going out to get the acetylene bottle out of the truck. It was pouring down rain. Standing in the water I started to get a hold of the bottle and, wham, I got hit in the left side of my head by lightning. It felt like someone had hit me with scalding water. The bolt went down my left leg and out through my shoe.

I fell against the tailgate and I said to my wife standing in the door watching, “S.O.B., I’ve been hit again.” I later learned a quarter mile down the road the lightning struck heavy electrical transmission lines and dropped them to the ground. It had hit trees and buildings in a half-mile area.

I had eye problems all day. It was like looking through an ice cube. That afternoon it had cleared enough to mow the yard. I got the mower, bent over, and pulled the rope to start the engine and my heart went on a rampage. Finally it buckled my knees and down I went. It had stopped beating, it scared me to the point I actually thought this is it. I beat my chest with my fist so hard my ribs were sore for days. My heart was doing this ever since I got hit by lightning earlier in the day. It started beating again fast and my whole body throbbed from extra blood it was forcing through my veins. I didn’t know what to do so I decided to see if I could blow the sucker up. I started mowing and walking very fast. I had lost nearly all the grip in my hands and had little strength in my right arm. Finally, it started to beat normal.

What was to happen the next day I wasn’t prepared for. Over the years all the electricity and lightning strikes were to take their toll. I don’t know what it has done to my brain cells but I find it hard to function.

I went to my eye doctor and he said there is an electrical cataract in my right eye and an awful lot of debris in my left. It could be from the shock. I asked him why every time I go into a Wal-Mart store, lumber yard, some eating establishments, and even his office, my eyes start bothering me to the point I lose my vision, then I break out in a sweat and my heart starts irregular heart beats and if I don’t get away from the building I get very sick? I told him I could always tell when it’s time to get out because my veins in my arms bulge out and get very hard and my body throbs all over. He said the electricity might be causing a migraine headache.

Regardless what anyone says, I know for a fact that what my experiences have been are very real. I’m having the same effects in some of my own buildings as well as when I get around electric lines. Case in point, my own home; after three years of poor sleeping, tossing and turning and waking up feeling like I had the flu, and sometimes swollen eyes, I came to the conclusion that it was the electric outlets at the head of the bed. I decided to plug the outlets with plastic childproof outlet covers. Now I sleep like a baby.

I hope your readers will enjoy this article. My life has been very interesting. I’ve hit and missed some of the details, if I put it all down you could make a movie of it.

I’ve been blessed with a very understanding wife and family. I can’t overcome a lot that has happened to me so when I stagger and fall she picks me up, when I can’t dress myself she helps, and when my speech is slurred she helps me to find the right words.

I’m probably one of a very few people who can quack, talk, and walk at the same time. Once the lightning went out of my foot and burned a hard place in my foot, so when I walk it makes a quacking noise. I had to turn over the operation of my upholstery shop I had started over thirty years ago to my wife because I can’t cope with the physical problems I’ve been left with. She does a better job than I did. That’s a woman’s touch.

In final conclusion, I must say, “God must really love me, He made me Different!” Pat, you are a lovely wife for taking the time to write this for me, I love you!

John R. McLain lives in Lockridge, Iowa. Despite having repeatedly experienced severe electrical shock, he has continued to work as an avid clockmaker and woodworker. His intricate, human-scale clocks, all carved by hand with a single utility knife, can be seen at the Johnny Clock Museum, which is open to visitors from May to September.

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