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A Bolt Out Of The Blue: Mourning A Man And A Myth

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Brad Meltzer's latest book is the The Inner Circle, out in paperback today. He is also the host of the show Brad Meltzer's Decoded.

My father was struck by lighting. And so was his father, my grandfather.

No joke. They were both actually struck by a flaming bolt of lightning from the sky.

When my father died a few months ago, I knew that this incredible detail had to be included in his eulogy, but as I started writing, a vital question arose: Was the lightning story true?

For decades, we knew my grandfather was struck by lightning because he had the burns to prove it. Indeed, it was that lightning attack that led to his eventual discharge from the military.

But in my father's case, his lightning story was family lore. Now, as a Jew, I understand that a family funeral allows some room for exaggeration. Here, I wanted truth. So before the funeral, I asked family members to verify what happened.

They all said the same thing: That's what they were always told. When I pushed, they'd spit out the story I'd heard since childhood: My Dad was at Camp Na-sho-pa in his bunk, and then a lightning bolt came from the sky and hit my father, who sank to the floor.

They thought he was dead. They even put a sheet over his head. He was dead! And then, in a moment of death-defiance, Stewie Meltzer sat up and blurted: What's everyone looking at?

My God, the story was so stupidly and chaotically perfect. To send him out in style, this had to be in his eulogy.

Yet it wasn't until three days after the funeral that the real lightning bolt hit: I opened an email from a stranger named Stan, who told me that he heard that my dad died and that he was there on the day my father was struck by lightning.

You heard me.

Amidst the outpouring of cards and emails telling me to "stay strong" and "let me know if you need anything," this man, Stan — this stranger — was about to have the greatest impact.

To be clear, I wasn't worried about it undoing my eulogy. What I'd said had already been said. I'd live with the results. What terrified me was that Stan's information would undo my father. His very life.

The good news is, it didn't.

"Yes, he was hit by lightning at Na-sho-pa," Stan wrote. My father was entering the cabin, with his hand on the metal doorknob. As Stan explained: "Lightning hit a nearby tree and a fraction of it could be seen splintering off into the knob, and it traveled through Stewie who went down ..."

Right there, I felt the story's cobwebs being kicked away.

From there, Stan confirmed the rest: that my dad was carried to his bunk bed and that, yes, someone had indeed yelled that my father was dead. He even added a key, long-lost detail: that as my father was hit by the lightning, so was Stan, since his hand was on my father's shoulder. The two young friends were knocked unconscious together.

For the next few minutes, I reread the email, then reread it again, soaking in every new detail. With the death, I'd become accustomed to seeing pieces of my father being taken away. But now, with a doorknob and a hand on my dad's shoulder, I had what I never thought I'd have again: a new piece of my father being given to me.

Those pieces are precious. Especially when you don't see them coming.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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