“WHEN YOU TELL PEOPLE you’re making a game about something like a fire lookout,” Jake Rodkin, the Campo Santo creative director, said to me, “they will tell you about everyone they’ve ever heard of who has done that job, and all the books about it you should buy. [Jack Kerouac’s] The Dharma Bums is now sitting by my bed in the neglected pile of still-to-read research books, along with Fire Season by Philip Connors and Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever (for its depiction of a bear working in a fire lookout tower on page 35).”
But, Rodkin added, “Nobody has – as of yet – told me about the guy who was struck by lightning.”
* * *
Roy Sullivan, who died in 1983, was a park ranger and fire lookout better known for having survived more lightning strikes in his life than any other human. Sullivan was hit by lightning a preposterous seven times, once in 1942 and on six more occasions between 1969 and 1977 - a rate of almost once per year. He met his end in Dooms, Virginia at the age of 71, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest - a suicide that had nothing to do with lightning and everything to do, supposedly, with a mysterious, unrequited love.
Sullivan was thirty years old in 1942, six years into a park service career at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. He was stationed as a fire lookout in the Millers Head lookout tower in April, when a heavy storm set the newly constructed tower ablaze. Sullivan fled outside, but the lightning quickly found and struck him, burning through his leg and escaping out a hole in his shoe.
“Ever been shocked real bad?” Sullivan would say later. “It’s worse. Ever been scalded? It’s much worse. It’s like being cooked inside your skin.”
Sullivan recovered, and returned to work. There’s not much information out there about what he did over the next seventeen years, likely because he was not being struck by lightning at any point. Sullivan’s story picks back up in 1969, with the ranger driving a park truck along a mountain road. Lightning deflected off some trees and into the open window of Sullivan’s truck, knocking him out. By some accounts, the truck veered off the road and slowed to a stop at the edge of a cliff, which seems too insane to believe, but then again, what about this story isn’t?
In 1970, the year of Sullivan’s third strike, he was in his front yard when it happened. And so a pattern emerges: the lightning strikes were getting closer and closer to where he lived. The lightning was following him home.
The media caught on to Sullivan’s weird and statistically improbable tale around this time. “Bolts From Sky Have Struck Gentle, Upright Roy 7 Times,” boasted an October 23, 1977 article in the Lakeland Ledger, above the headline “‘Bubble Boy’ is Normal Mentally.”
“I have tried to lead a good life,” Sullivan told the press in 1972. “I have never been a fearful man. But I have to tell you the truth. When I hear it thunder now, I feel a little shaky.” He was struck that year - number four - while on duty at Shenandoah. The lightning set his hair on fire, which he extinguished with a damp towel from his ranger’s cabin.
“Just before it strikes,” he said, “I smell a certain smell, like sulphur, and my hair bristles all over. That’s the signal. In about two seconds, no longer than three, it hits. Too late to hide.” Now, Sullivan had come to expect it, to fear it, though he was no closer to understanding the reason for it. “I don’t believe God is after me,” he theorised. “If he was, the first bolt would have been enough…. Best I can figure is that I have some chemical, some mineral, in my body that draws lightning. I just wish I knew.”
God, he tried. In August 1973, he got in his car and floored it at the first sign of a forming storm cloud. Satisfied that he’d outrun it, he got out of his car to watch the storm and was struck through by more lightning. Number five. The same thing happened again in 1976. Sullivan, while surveying a campground, felt that a cloud was following him, and tried to run- but it got him anyway.
“Naturally,” Sullivan said, “people avoid me. I was walking with the chief ranger one day and lightning struck way off and he said ‘I’ll see you later, Roy.’ There’s a restaurant on Loft Mountain that even it’s just overcast they won’t let me in. I can’t blame them. Who wants to be near somebody that’s all the time getting hit by lightning?”
Sullivan did manage to escape at least one time. A storm appeared while Sullivan and his family were hanging out in his back yard, but the lightning missed him and struck his wife instead. And that changed things. “When a storm blows up,” Sullivan explained, “I put my wife and three kids in the living room and go off by myself and sit in the kitchen, scared.”
The seventh and final strike was in June 1977. Sullivan was alone this time, fishing in a freshwater pool. When the lightning hit, it almost didn’t matter. Sullivan brushed it off, attended to his injuries, and was about to carry on with business when he noticed a bear pawing at the trout hanging from his fishing line. One last indignity. Some might say that this turn of events was too much for Roy to ‘bear’. Some might say that Roy Sullivan was fucking furious, and that he broke a branch off a tree, ran at the bear, and bashed at its head repeatedly.
Maybe Sullivan’s battery of the bear with the tree branch was a kind of catharsis. A vicious, brutal release of the frustration and aggression that must have built up over 35 years of destruction visited upon him by an unconquerable tormentor, and a sustained campaign of violence that Sullivan was impotent to revenge.
Or maybe not - Sullivan claimed that that was the 27th bear he ever hit in his lifetime, so perhaps this was just something he did on the regular. We don’t know. And what of this bear? Could it have been famous itself - perhaps the fire lookout of which Richard Scarry wrote? We just don’t know. We don’t have that information.
Then, 1983, Roy Sullivan shot himself in the stomach. It was a brutal, sudden death, said to be wrought by the pain of unrequited love. We don’t know about the object of this love, nor the reasons for its failure. What we know about Roy Sullivan, what was the focus of his obituary, was that he was struck by lightning seven times. This love is unrequited and forgotten. What we do know is that it was painful enough that he wanted to die - so more painful than getting violently and repeatedly electrocuted his whole adult life and being made a fearful, freakish pariah.
Loving somebody who does not love you is hard. Roy Sullivan knew that, evidently, and so did the lightning that never let him rest. Lightning loved Roy Sullivan. Lightning never loved any human being like it loved Roy Sullivan. Out of five billion people in the world, it came back to Roy Sullivan over and over. He was the only one who could ever capture its attention.
Lightning went crazy for Roy Sullivan. It followed him home, and watched him while he worked. Sullivan never wanted lightning’s affection, actively tried to escape it, and was only ever made miserable by it. The love that lightning had for Roy Sullivan was impossible to ever reciprocate, but it did succeed: it claimed him. Lightning overshadowed Sullivan’s life, bound them together - he will always be remembered, only be remembered, as lightning’s unwilling plaything.
It was a strange kind of love. To some it seemed nothing more than lightning harassing the shit out of an old man, but to others it seemed like screams out of the sky, calling for an answer: I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, REQUITE ME –