Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Day James Fenimore Cooper Saved My Life

Though the exact date escapes me, I'm certain it was in the early '90s. I was a couple years shy of thirty. I lived in the same place I live now, though at the time it was secluded. Except for the view down my driveway, all I could see in any direction was trees.

And I liked it that way.

Somewhere along the way I had bought a hammock and tied it up between two trees out at the edge of my front yard. It was a cheap hammock -- the kind where the strings are so small they cut into your skin if you relax shirtless -- but it served its  purpose.

There I lay, engrossed in the muse of The Pioneers. Apparently Mark Twain didn't care for Cooper's style of writing, but then I never really cared for Twain's, so I never sought his opinion on the matter. Cooper's way of detailing a scene, showing rather than telling, fit the scene I found myself in on that particular afternoon perfectly. A storm was brewing off over my left shoulder as I lay there reading. The wind had picked up. Dark clouds slowly invaded the blue sky way off in the distance beyond the paperback propped against my chest.

I remember thinking it was a perfect day for lounging. It was spring, and the woods were just coming to life again after another mild North Mississippi winter (we rarely have snow). Birds flitted overhead, darting from limb to limb, or limb to ground and back up again. Occasionally I caught sight of a hawk soaring high overhead, likely focusing his keen eye on the lake that was just down the hill from where I lay.

Thunder rumbled off in the distance. The wind picked up and stirred the leaves overhead. It took a significant amount of wind to penetrate the dense woods around me, but I soon began to feel the coolness that precedes a good spring storm.


Rumbles gradually became booms. Lightning flashed against a sky that had become quite dark. The trees surrounding me harnessed the gusts of wind and washed me with a gentle breeze of perfect coolness.

I almost fell asleep a time or two. Each time my eyes closed the printed words of James Fenimore Cooper dipped against my chest and stirred me. Rain fell around me but the leaves overhead shielded me like an umbrella. Flashes of lightning became streaks, which soon became bolts. Thunder boomed now. Shook the ground. Rain pattered overhead. An occasional drop or two found me.

I made up my mind to ride it out. Few things are as relaxing as the sound of a good thunderstorm.

The rain intensified, until the umbrella of foliage could no longer contain it. More drops found me, then several, until I realized that to stay would cost me a good paperback. I rolled out of the hammock and darted to the safety of my front porch. The rain was whipping now, and drove me inside, behind the glass of my storm door. I stood there, book dangling at my side, watching the rain wash across the yard in sheets.

That's when it happened. So fast, in fact, that it addled my senses. Bark sprayed against the glass of my door like someone had stood close and emptied a large bucket of debris in my direction. I stumbled backward, not from the blow, but from the suddenness of it. An explosion followed and I felt it deep in my chest.

When I regained my senses, I saw the tree, split all the way to the ground. It stood naked amidst a scattering of bark, one end of my hammock still tied to it


And that, my friends, is how a man who died one hundred and thirteen years before I was born, saved my life. Fear of the storm had not driven me inside. Fear of getting soaked with rain had not. I was young and dumb toward the dangers of lightning. Lightning only struck golfers, and those who cursed God aloud in movies. No, it was the fear of ruining my paperback copy of The Pioneers that drove me inside.

Thank you, Mr. Cooper. We're kindred spirits now. May I call you James?


  1. Hey Carl, followed your link to this through Twitter. Loved it! Wow—that was quite an experience. The 80+ ft. tree in front of our summer home in northern NY has a strip of bark missing from top to bottom from a lightening strike last year and we found bark all over the place so I can only imagine what happened to you! Another synergy—I just placed a 1930s edition of Last of the Mohicans on our bookshelf this morning, rescued from the clearing out of my parents' condo. Perhaps "James" is still up to his hijinks and we were destined to connect?

    1. If you've never heard lightning strike a tree close up you can't imagine how loud it is. Deafening. And the spray of bark is like someone shot it out of a cannon.

      1930s edition, huh? That would be something. Is it in good shape?

    2. It's in "well-loved" condition—the outer cover of its spine is peeling off. It's a "World's Greatest Literature" volume by the Spencer Press with no date inside the front cover, although the Press's note inside the cover avowing its mission to "publish classics which have stood the test of time" is dated 1936.

      As for the lightning strike: I can only imagine. We were not here when our tree was struck, although it did trip a breaker in the camp. You're lucky you escaped without shrapnel injury—and with your hearing!

    3. Yes, I was inside the house, behind a glass door, looking out, when it struck. Had just gone inside, too.