If you ask anyone in Lansing Falls, they’ll say all kinds of things about Lightning John. Things you wouldn’t believe, like how John was the devil’s own progeny, or how God had turned his back on him. They’ll tell you how, as a teenager, John stood alone in Farmer Johansson’s field with a kite and a metal rod and shouted at heaven to strike him down.
That last one might actually be true. Even Johansson himself will attest to that.
No, the incident came when John was a child. That was before I met him, back when he still went by the name John Marris. From his own lips, John would tell you that it was a strange twist of fate that the lightning struck him. Statistically, he’s right: One in three thousand over a lifetime with a much lower probability year over year.
“Of course,” John tells me, “I didn’t do much to help the situation. My family and I were out camping around Springfield Lake, about an hour north. A storm was coming in, and dad wanted us inside the house. Well, I was always a bit of a prankster, and I thought it would be funny to climb into the canoe and hide there until he found me. I didn’t realize that the mooring had come loose and I was halfway toward the middle of the lake until I heard him calling me from the dock. And that’s when the lightning struck.”
He tries to describe what it was like: a flash of light, a burning sensation, the smell of singed hair and seared flesh. The earth-shattering boom that still rings in his ears. In the end, he gives up and shrugs.
“There really aren’t words for something like that. But I came out of it lucky enough.”
That’s true. According to John’s medical records — which I verified at Holly Oak Medical — John suffered little to no injury from the bolt itself. During our interview, he points to his neck, where a jagged line of scar tissue runs vertically from ear to shoulder. It reminds me of tree branches, with small branches forking off the main line, branches even smaller with distance.
“Runs the length of my body,” he tells me. “Side of the scalp down to the little toe. Aside from that, though, I think most would consider me a lucky man.”
The people of Lansing Falls might disagree. When I ask him about that, John waves them off. “They’re just mad about what I did back then, when I was trying to figure everything out about myself. Word got out, and some churchgoers heard the gossip and ran with it.”
When I ask John to elaborate further, he takes a minute to gather his composure. This is the real reason I came for this interview, and we both know it. I want to get his side of the story out there — but I also just want to know for myself.
“I didn’t discover my immunity until I was in Farmer Johansson’s field, years later. There’d been signs before, of course. The fact that I couldn’t get close to an active lightbulb without it shorting out was probably the most noticeable, but advanced electronics didn’t seem to react to my gift. So I decided to find out for myself.”
John is referring to the incident with the kite and the metal rod. He tells me how he stole the kit from this sister’s room and grabbed a metal rod from his father’s tool shed before he got in the car and drove out to the field.
“I kept thinking of Benjamin Franklin,” he tells me. “About that story with the key and the kite. People say that’s a myth now, but it was all I had to go on. I wanted to see if lightning would strike twice.”
As John tells it, he climbed out of his car, got the kite as high into the air as it could go, and wrapped the end of the string around a metal rod — which he gripped with both hands.
“Just saying it, I can see why people think I’m crazy. I should’ve picked a spot a little farther off the highway, but it don’t matter that much. I just had to know for myself: am I immune to the storm?”
As it turns out, John is exactly that. Lightning did strike twice that night, but as it hit the kite and came down the string, it jumped away from John and his metal pole toward a distant pine tree.
“It came down the kite string like you’d expect, but then it leapt, almost like it realized who was on the other end of the string and decided it couldn’t go that way. I’ve never never seen anything quite like that.”
Those incidents have happened a handful of times over the years, and John’s lack of concern about the weather has left the religious community in Lansing Falls suspicious. Every time they see John walking around in bad weather or fishing on the lake during a lighting storm, the rumors spread.
“I guess I just want to tell everyone that I’m not out to get them,” John tells me. “I’m not the devil incarnate. Just a lucky guy. Blessed, maybe. I don’t know. Best thing about this whole thing for me has been the name. Lightning John is as good a name as anyone’s ever had for me. I guess it fits.”