Meet Thunderman

TAMPA

Tad Staples savors summer, especially afternoons when the cumulus clouds pile up like dumplings before turning gray and ugly. He likes when the atmosphere above Florida develops late afternoon indigestion. First there are the little rumbles, then the dramatic rolls. When the main course arrives he can hardly contain himself. He attaches two microphones to the screen front door. He clicks on his tape deck. He listens to what he is recording through headphones. As the tempest peaks, as the wind howls and the frontyard maple bends — as the crash-boom-bah apocalypse seems imminent — you can see him standing in the dim light, swaying to music that has moved his soul.

Staples, 56, is Florida's Thunderman. He keeps track of it for the rest of us. It's his hobby. He likes its majesty and power. He collects it on tape and in his memory. He listens, he critiques, he interprets.

Sometimes he sells a recording to a sound-effects company, but that's just icing on the cake. Thunder is everything in his other­wise small world. He is always surprised when he discovers other people who lack his enthusiasm about thunder. They may tell him they are fascinated but they lie. He telephones, they don't answer. He leaves a voice mail, they don't call back.

"They just flap their gums about being interested,'' he says after the latest bout of hurt feelings.

Kerpow!

Summer in Florida. The sky is on fire!

Thunderman can't see it. He has been blind since infancy.

Crackety-blam!

While the rest of us cower in the closet, he points his dead eyes toward the heavens and for a moment feels like a lamb of God. "Whoa! That was a good one!''

For an instant, a profoundly lonely human cracks a small smile. He has diabetes and arthritis to go along with his blindness. He is pale and overweight and needs dental care. He lives alone in near-poverty in a rented house with a leaky roof. His personality gets in the way of friendships; he suffers from depression. He has never been able to explain to family, friends, strangers or doctors his obsession with thunder. Perhaps he doesn't understand it himself.

People disappoint but thunder never does.

Thunder never says, "You're crazy! Quit bothering us! Grow up!'' Thunder fills him up like the lamb chops in his refrigerator.

He sometimes believes he was born lonely, in Melrose, Ill., on Feb. 13, 1952. Tiny and weak, he ended up in an incubator, one of those rare infants who develops retinopathy of prematurity or ROP. The high doses of incubator oxygen damaged his undeveloped retinas. Some babies recover, but he didn't, and even when he stands on his porch and lightning electrifies northwest Tampa, he sees nothing of the flash.

"My blindness was a blessing. It allowed me to develop my other talents. I listen very well.''

He never forgets a sound. A Piper Cub flies over and he can imitate the sputtering engine. He listens to bowling on television and immediately performs an accurate imitation of ball meeting pin. He performs train imitations, steam-locomotives and diesel. He is always trying to talk someone into driving him to the tracks so he can make a perfect recording close up.

Thunder is his raison d'être. "Each thunderclap is different, like a snowflake,'' he says, and the imitations pour out of him, the cloud-to-ground, ground-to-cloud, cloud-to-cloud, the rolling thunder he hears on summer afternoons.

"I disappointed my parents. They wanted, I guess, the best for me, they wanted me to use my intelligence and find a way to support myself. They hated my interest in thunder. They said, 'Cut it out!' They thought that my love of thunder was a distraction from the important things they wanted me to be doing. I'd record it, and listen to it, and I'd say 'Listen to this' and I remember my mother saying'' — he mimics her voice — " 'If you say one more thing about thunder you will be severely punished.' I'd have to wait until my mom and dad left the house to get back to my thunder.

"They'd swat my interest in thunder away like it was a fly.''

Bzzzzz.

He imitates an obnoxious housefly.

• • •

He says he could read braille as fast as sighted children could read their school books by third grade. Even now he devours books, and books on tape, like a starving man. Recently he read The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. He likes the atmospheric novels of Cormac McCarthy because they contain violent weather to go along with the violent men.

Braille books and Library of Congress recordings are scattered about his claustrophobic three-room bungalow in a blue-collar neighborhood where men work on their own cars under the oaks. He knows his nearest neighbors and their dogs; he hears a distant bark and says "There's Skippy.''

He can hear the mail truck coming a long block away. He can hear the faintest train horn in the distance. He identifies birds in the maple by their songs. Years ago, he listened incessantly to a book on tape about birds and learned their vocalizations. He can imitate any number of Florida frogs since listening to a tape.

He listens to famous speeches on tape. He can do Babe Ruth, his throat ravaged by throat cancer, delivering his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. He can do Winston Churchill emoting about blood, sweat and tears, only his Churchill suddenly evolves into Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien broadcasting a tennis match at Wimbledon.

• • •

His folks, the late Archene and Eugene Francis Staples, never understood their son's love of thunder. He no longer has contact with his three siblings — his choice. ''If I saw them they would only say, 'You still haven't given up thunder,' and that would be a great big downer.'' Ask him where they are, or for their phone numbers, any details about them at all, he says, "I prefer not to think of them.''

When he was a boy, the family moved to Indiana. He was 12 when he became obsessed with thunder after sitting at home listening to a passing storm. "It was the sound, the deep, satisfying sound.'' He also had an affinity for music. His working-class parents hoped he might have a career like Ray Charles. He lacked the dedication, though he has played organ at Calvary Community Church in Tampa for 18 years. A small church salary and Social Security are his only sources of steady income.

Sometimes he skips the Wednesday evening service when a thunderstorm is brewing. Otherwise, a church deacon picks him up and drives him to the service, stops at Publix on the way home and buys him groceries, enters the dark house, maneuvers through the debris on the kitchen floor and stacks the groceries in the refrigerator — the only place in the house with a working light.

• • •

When he is lucky, a clap of thunder wakes him. If not, he depends on the radio. He has many, including weather radios that broadcast alerts when storms are coming. If he hears something interesting, he might telephone the nearest weather bureau for more information.

Many people know him only by voice. Some automatically hang up when they hear the voice because they know a long monologue about thunder is in the offing.

He telephones newspaper columnists. He telephones the Rwanda Embassy in Washington and asks the consul, Andrew Tusabe, if there is a way to get a recording of an African thunderstorm. He calls the research desk of the Tampa-Hillsborough Library, then launches into a tirade when he feels his questions about thunder are considered a low priority.

He is a prolific correspondent, both on his braille machine and on a regular typewriter. "Dear Sir, please excuse my bad typing but I'm blind,'' he wrote in a letter to a charity, requesting a grant to help him rent a mobile home on the edge of town — where he hopes to get traffic-free recordings of thunder.

Thunderman wishes he could develop healthy relationships with professionals who share his weather interests. In a perfect world, he might telephone Fox 13's Paul Dellegatto, who would rush over between newscasts for their daily chat.

Thunderman would fix lamb chops and pour glasses of diet tea. After their meal they'd retire to the den to listen to one of the hundreds of recordings he has on tape and compact disc. He'd put on a favorite from July 4, 2004, and turn the volume way up.

Rumbles. Wind in the distance. The sound of the interstate.

CRAAAAACK!

Thunderman wouldn't jump. He would sway.

Dellegatto has never heard the recording.

"I have actually never met Mr. Staples," Dellegatto says. "But I'll bet I've talked to him 500 times. He seems to always call about two minutes before I'm going on the air."

• • •

Thunderman listens to jets landing at Tampa International. If he hears them circling he knows they must be flying around bad weather and goes on high alert.

"We have three or four clusters in the vicinity,'' he says. "They're pulsing up and down. HEAR THAT RUMBLE? It's north of here, on the Hillsborough and Pasco borders, and that won't help me. WAIT! Hear it? The other one? It's 4 miles away, to the west of us, over Tampa Bay, heading for Caladesi Island. It's going to miss us.''

CRACK!

"Excuse me. That one has possibilities. It's east of us, coming this way. I must prepare my equipment.''

Once or twice a year he gets a recording he might sell, for a couple hundred dollars, to a sound-effects company. Tampa's Michael Oster, director of F7 Sound and Vision, once edited a Thunderman recording. He tells people, "I can tell you it's challenging enough for a sighted person to make professional recordings. There are meters to read, tape lengths to consider, microphone placement to consider.''

Thunderman does everything by feel.

"Okay, sounds like a good storm. It could even have hail. It could be big.''

It peters out.

He comes out of the house, sits on a moldy chair across the lawn.

"I have a theory about thunder. You can tell how powerful a storm is going to be by its lowest audible frequency. I would love to work with someone about this. We could warn people about the storm by the sound of the thunder. I can't get scientists interested. They are like everyone else I have met. They are like the people who say to me, 'You are a thunder-loving son of a b----, aren't you?' My dad was like that."

A different kind of storm is brewing.

"My dad was like me. He sometimes spoke before he thought things out. The blankety-blank this and the blankety-blank that. He had a heart of gold; he could fix things. He had a wonderful singing voice. He'd get so mad at me. 'Get off your a--, you stupid blankety-blank. You cold, selfish blankety-blank. If you don't like my blankety-blank rules, pack your blankety-blank bags and get the blank out of my house.' ''

Thunderman did. With grant money from a charity he was able to move to Tampa from Indiana 19 years ago. He did not return home even after his dad suffered his final heart attack. Sometimes, in a nightmare, his dad is alive, in his room in Tampa, demanding that he come back home and forsake thunder.

"Every day I live with the hatred.''

For this he wonders if he — the disappointing son — is destined for the nether regions.

"God gives you a report card. Did you go to church? Check. Did you read your Bible? Check. There are other things, too. I get angry, I curse, but I am working on those things. I am trying to work on emotional maturity.''

He thinks there probably will be thunder in heaven. Perhaps they will need somebody to study the thunder up there in the clouds. In Thunderman's heaven, nobody hangs up on you because you're different.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Sounds of Thunderman

Meet Thunderman and see and hear him do his remarkable imitations, at links.tampabay.com.

Meet Thunderman 07/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 8:23pm]

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