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If you grew-up in the southern United States, chances are you've heard the term "heat lightning". One of the my earliest experiences with this phenomenon came on a hot July 4th night when I was very young. Independence Day was usually the date of our big family cookouts. These events were always a lot of fun, and they were often quite adventurous.

Imagine gathering a group of 40 family/friends (nearly one third children) and pumping them full of cake, ice cream, kool-aid, hot dogs, hamburgers, & chips. Then turn them loose on a farm filled with equipment, swing sets, barns, and trees. There was never a dull moment. Honestly, it was the best playing I ever did as a kid.

One year in particular, it was especially hot--- not just the usually 90 degree misery, but nearly 100 degrees. I can still see my great granddaddy sitting in his folding chair. He would always arrive early so he could sit and watch the children play. He would prop his walking cane beside his chair and wipe the sweat from his brow with an old handkerchief. You would have thought he was miserable in the heat, but nothing made him happier than to watch the grand kids playing.

Of course, as a kid you never really think about being hot. You also don't think about safety. Just beyond where granddaddy was sitting, dad had set-up a child's crawl-through tunnel for the younger kids. This play tunnel was the old fashioned (ie dangerous) kind, with 8 big metal rings covered in that wonderful non flame-retardant material. As the kids were running through the peach orchard waving lit sparklers, one of the sparks ignited the tunnel. Thankfully, no one was inside at the time.

Imagine the rather comical sight of 20 adults simultaneously dropping their kool-aid cups and converging with great rapidity on an eight foot long flaming kiddie tunnel. Passing neighbors probably thought we were crazy. As the smoke died away, the tunnel was a complete loss. The hot dogs were great, however. And granddaddy got a good laugh.

Later that evening as we were cleaning up the mess, I remember looking up at the sky. There was an odd intermittent flashing all around us. I was old enough to know what lightning looked like, but there wasn't a cloud to be seen. I asked my mom about this strange sight and she said it was "heat lightning". Heat lightning only formed on the hottest nights, when the air was bathed in humidity and the only sounds you could hear were the chirps of crickets.

Of course, the term "heat lightning" is something of a misnomer. The mere presence of heat does not create lightning, but thunderstorms often thrive on the instability created by summertime heat. At night, the light given off by a bolt of lightning can be seen over 50 miles away from the parent thunderstorm. In rare circumstances, this light can be seen over 90 miles away. At these distances, the light appears much more "dull" in appearance. So whenever you see "heat lightning" on a hot July evening, just know that there is thunderstorm somewhere generating the flash- even if the overhead sky appears to be clear.

And if you ever see you neighbors throwing water on a smoking tunnel, don't be too quick to jump to conclusions.

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By: Jerry Jackson