I Had a Truly Horrible Dream Last Night - The Misery of Genius: Hunter S. Thompson
(They laughed at Thomas Edison.)
It has been raining a lot recently. Quick thunderstorms and flash floods…lightning at night and fear in the afternoon. People are worried about electricity.
Nobody feels safe. Fires burst out on dry hillsides, raging out of control, while dope fiends dance in the rancid smoke and animals gnaw each other. Foreigners are everywhere, carrying pistols and bags of money. There are rumors about murder and treachery and women with no pulse. Crime is rampant and even children are losing their will to live.
The phones go dead and power lines collapse, whole families plunged into darkness with no warning at all. People who used to be in charge walk around wall-eyed, with their hair standing straight up on end looking like they work for Don King, and babbling distractedly about their hearts humming like stun guns and trying to leap out of their bodies like animals trapped in bags.
People get very conscious of electricity when it goes sideways and starts to act erratic…eerie blackouts, hissing, and strange shocks from the toilet bowl, terrifying power surges that make light bulbs explode and fry computer circuits that are not even plugged in…The air crackles around your head and you take a jolt every time you touch yourself. Your lawyer burns all the hair off his body when he picks up the cordless phone to dial 911.
Nobody can handle electricity run amok. It is too powerful…Ben Franklin was never able to lock a door again after the day lightning came down his kite string and fused that key to his thumb. They called it a great discovery and they called him a great scientist; but, in fact, he bawled like a baby for the rest of his life every time he smelled rain in the air.
I find myself jerking instinctively into the classic self-defense stance of a professional wire wizard every time I hear rain on the roof. That is an atavistic tic that I picked up many years ago in my all-night advanced intelligence electronics class at Scott AFB, on the outskirts of east St. Louis — where I also learned about pawnshops, oscillators, and full-bore lying as a natural way of life.
The stance was the first thing we learned, and we learned it again every day for a long, crazy year. It is as basic to working with serious electricity as holding your breath is to working underwater….
Lock one hand behind your back before you touch anything full of dissatisfied voltage — even a failed light bulb — because you will almost certainly die soon if you don’t.
Electricity is neutral. It doesn’t want to kill you, but it will if you give it a chance. Electricity wants to go home, and to find a quick way to get there — and it will.
Electricity is always homesick. It is lonely. But it is also lazy. It is like a hillbilly with a shotgun and a jug of whiskey gone mad for revenge on some enemy — a fatal attraction, for sure - but he won’t go much out of his way to chase the bugger down if ambush looks a lot easier.
Why prowl around and make a spectacle of yourself when you can lay in wait under some darkened bridge and swill whiskey like a troll full of hate until your victim appears — drunk and careless and right on schedule — so close that you almost feel embarrassed about pulling the trigger.
That is how electricity likes to work. It has no feelings except loneliness, laziness, and a hatred of anything that acts like resistance…like a wharf rat with its back to the wall — it won’t fight unless it has to, but then it will fight to the death.
Electricity is the same way: it will kill anything that gets in its way once it thinks it sees a way to get home quick….
Right straight up your finger and through your heart and your chest cavity and down the other side.
Anything that gives it an escape route. Anything — iron, wire, water, flesh, ganglia — that will take it where it must go, with the efficiency of gravity or the imperative of salmon swimming upriver…. And it wants the shortest route — which is not around a corner and through a muscle mass in the middle of your back, but it will go that way if it has to.
Some people had to have their loose hand strapped behind them in a hammerlock with rubber cords, just to keep their hearts from exploding and their neck nerves from being fried like long blond hairs in a meat fire when the voltage went through. But sooner or later they learned. We all did, one way or another.
One night — perhaps out of boredom or some restless angst about the fate of Caryl Chessman or maybe Christine Keeler — I connected a 50,000-volt RF transformer to one end of the thin aluminum strap on the Formica workbench that ran around three sides of the big classroom; and then I grounded the strap to a deep-set screw in a wall socket.
Severe shocks resulted when the generator jumped its limiter and began cranking out massive jolts and surges of RF voltage. A 50,000-volt shock ran through my stomach, just below my navel, burning a long, thin hole that I can still pull a string of dental floss through on wet nights.
It was horrible, and still is, but it was also a massive breakthrough; and I will never forget the warped joy I felt when the first surge of electricity went through them. They squawked at each other and flapped their arms like chickens….
My own pain was nothing compared to the elation of knowing that I had just made an unspeakably powerful new friend — an invisible weapon that could turn warriors and wizards into newts, and cause them to weep.
Washington, DC, 1989