March 20, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Back in 1955, Bobby Denton got a bit more than his 15 minutes of fame.

He did, at 15, what just about no one else had done he survived a direct strike by lightning.

Fifty-six years later, Bob Denton still relies on family members for memories of exactly what happened that day on a farm near Cove, even though deals daily with the results.

A robust, easy-grinning retiree, Bob Denton wears a wrap to brace his right knee that was torn apart by the surge of electricity moving multiple times through it; hearing aids help with conversation for the one-time patient who was told he might never hear again; his thumb, reattached after the lightning strike, bends at an unusual angle; there are plenty of scars.

And recent surgeries have revealed internal organ changes that have left normally smooth pieces of the intestinal tract looking as if they literally cooked all those years ago.

So, did the direct hit by lightning, and the resulting medical problems, change Bob Dentons life dramatically?

Its hard to tell, and even Denton dodges the question.

I dont think about the before and the after. I dont worry about what happened yesterday. Its done gone. If youre going to worry, worry about waking up tomorrow, Denton advised during a recent visit at his sisters, Ella Mae McClellan, home in La Grande.

Regular updates on Bobby Denton, struck the evening of July 22 while helping his uncle, Ronnie Puckett move a load of hay, appeared in the La Grande Evening Observer and regional papers for more than three months.

First Dentons lightning-shredded cap and gloves were pictured, with the news that he was very critical. Then there were updates of his miraculous recovery and friendship with members of the movie crew filming Pillars in the Sky.

And finally, on Dec. 6, 1955, there was the photo of Bobby Denton, using crutches, leaving La Grandes St. Joseph Hospital to return home to Union.

People in this town made a big mistake when they got rid of that hospital, Denton contends.

He remembers to this day several of the nurses and Catholic sisters who worked with him, and for years kept in touch with some of them.

He does remember waking up in the hospital after the lightning strike, thinking he had broken a leg. If only that had been all.

His sister remembers much more. The months of Dentons recovery placed a lot of stress on the family in Union, she says, which included her and a set of younger twin siblings. Their parents, who managed The Pebble, a Union restaurant, spent a great deal of time at the hospital, and Dentons siblings were cared for by neighbors.

There are other strong memories as well.

When I went up there when my mother finally let me go they were changing his bandages and you could hear him yelling all over that hospital, Ella Mae remembers.

Worse was the smell.

You could smell that burnt skin before you got to his room.

Those arent Dentons memories.

What he recalls is his private nurse, a Summerville resident. He grins and rolls his eyes at that memory.

Well, I didnt lose my eyes, he chuckles.

The 1955 newspaper stories talk about Dentons plans to return to school and he remembers a Mrs. Gilmore who worked hard with him.

But schooling did not work out as planned.

Before the accident, I wasnt too sharp in school anyway, Denton said. After that, I kind of kicked schooling aside.

Denton focused on another kind of education traveling the country.

I just went ahead and did what I wanted to do, he said. That meant a few side trips in and out of the county jail, he admits, but it also meant years spent traveling the country by boxcar and learning from everyone, those educated by life and those with advanced professional degrees.

Hes been to all but two of the 50 states. He picked fruit in Florida, fished off of Louisiana, washed dishes, logged, took care of horse stables, checked oil rigs in Alaska, and bucked bales at any number of farms around the country.

I worked, sometimes two, three, four months. Id get money in my pocket and take off again, Denton said. Hed call his family maybe once a month or once every other month. He never had problems along the way getting work, with a tough, wiry 150-pound body and a willing attitude.

If you get working and do a good job, youll always get another job.

Bucking hay bales rates as the hardest job there is, he thinks, but the worst job is shaking cattle hides out of their salt pits. He could only do that for three days, and then the stench was so bad he wasnt allowed to spend nights at a local mission. The strangest job he recalls was picking peaches and grapefruit.

Through all his travels, the lightning strike would force medical stops now and then. His ears were the worst, draining thick, odorous goop for years.

Doctors in Chicago told him to live with it, but Dr. Joseph Petrusek in La Grande was finally able to offer surgical relief.

About 11 years ago, Denton met Tuffy Fischer in La Grande through the help of her fat, wandering Siamese cat. The two have been together since, and now live in Ontario.

Fischers back gives her trouble, and Denton continues to deal with his health problems, but he dreams of his traveling years.

Even a dozen years after his last boxcar journey, he dreams of grabbing Tuffy and jumping a train.

And what makes a good day?

Heading out, getting lost from everyone, and camping out is good, he says.

So are stormy days.

The rain and lightning just relaxes me, Denton says. I like riding in the rain.