Re-posted for May 18th: Where were you when the mountain blew?

I used to live in the shadow of a volcano.  Seriously.

Growing up in Hazel Dell, Washington, we had a front-row seat for the pyrotechnics at Mt. St. Helens roughly thirty miles to the north.  I remember the day the eruptions started.  They were first reported by a traffic helicopter for a local radio station who saw the first plume of white smoke at the peak.  For many months after that day, watching the mountain for eruptions became part of daily life.  In fact, if you said “The Mountain”, everyone knew you were talking about St. Helens, and not any of the other peaks that jutted from the horizon.  It also became fashionable to refer to the mountain as “Loowit”, its indigenous Klickitat name.

Not too long before the mountain started spewing ash, my siblings and I had each received small cameras before going on a family vacation.  This was in the long-ago time of actually having film in cameras, and dropping off your used cartridge to be developed at the little Kodak kiosk in the parking lot of the local grocery store.  This was a considerable expense, and when my sister asked my mother if she should take a picture of the mountain as it loomed in the distance, my mother erroneously responded, “No, don’t take a picture of that.  It will always be there.”  At that time, Mt. St. Helens looked like a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream, with a rounded, white top.  Needless to say, this didn’t last after 1980.

On that first day in March 1980, my siblings and I had a big slumber party planned.  Some of the parents of our guests nixed their attendance, worried that burning hot lava might descend on our town at any moment.  As happens during any natural disaster, grocery store shelves were cleared out as people prepared for the worst. I told my mother to be sure to let me know if she spotted a red glow to the north after bed time.  Later I learned that this wasn’t “that kind” of volcano, and instead it spewed mostly ash and rock.  I admit I had no small sense of disappointment that I wouldn’t be seeing red and orange lava churning up into the sky like in the filmstrips of Hawaii we’d seen in school.  (If you’re too young to know what a filmstrip is, go ask your parents… or your grandparents.  Yeesh!)

Over time, these eruptions became routine.  For several days after volcanic ash had coated our town, children and even many adults wore surgical masks or construction dust masks to keep from inhaling the sandy substance.  I used to like to draw a smiling mouth or a toothy snarl on my mask.  Now, volcanic ash is not like the ash in your fireplace on the end of a cigarette.  It’s more like a fine, gritty sand.  It has an uncanny ability to get into everything, and was very difficult to remove.  The ash was none to kind to cars, and had to be carefully washed off without rubbing lest it scratch the surface; we found that out the hard way.  It also clogged up storm drains and coated sidewalks, requiring that it be shoveled like snow, often into big trash bins.  The city authorities had to put a ban on putting ash in municipal garbage cans as it caused them to be much too heavy to be lifted and dumped into the collection trucks.  Newscasts had updates on the activity on the mountain, and the growing “bulge” on the north face.  There were many occasions when the mountain would have another ashy eruption and everyone would watch to see which way the wind was blowing and whether or not it would reach our town.  I remember being at soccer practice when an eruption started climbing to the stratosphere, and the coach going home briefly to check with the local news station to see what direction the wind was blowing to see if practice had to be cut short.  Recess was often suspended to keep children from inhaling ash while outside playing games of “Red Rover, Red Rover” or kick ball.

The news was peppered with stories of locals who lived nearer to this peak.  “Harry Truman” (No, not the president, silly.) became somewhat of a local celebrity when he refused to leave his home on Spirit Lake, despite its proximity to the developing crater and “lava dome.”    He was a colorful character, who always had a glass of booze in his hand, and disliked the company of most people even though his home was a lodge and resort on the lake. By all accounts a crotchety old curmudgeon, he had lived there all his life, and would rather die than leave his beloved home.  Not long after his home-grown fame began, he got his wish.

On Sunday, May 18th 1980, (thirty-four five years ago today) the entire state was awakened by an incredibly loud, low BOOM.  The north face of Mt. St. Helens had completely disintegrated in a blast of ash and rock, leveling hundreds of thousands of trees and completely enveloping the area up to twenty miles north of mountain, including Spirit Lake.

The ash cloud reached as far east as North Dakota.   A local news reporter’s recording of his harrowing trek through the ash cloud, unable to see, struggling to breathe, and praying to make it to safety, was played repeatedly on the local news after his eventual rescue.  He begins by addressing his narration to “whoever finds this” and at one point says that he thinks he might already be dead.

Cities far north and east of the mountain were plunged into total blackness in a raining cloud of ash and pumice.  We were lucky that day that the wind was blowing toward the north, sparing us from being buried in several feet of ash.

The mountain became a sort of tourist attraction for quite some time, and still is today.  Key chains made from pumice stones and T-shirts emblazoned with “Where were you when the mountain blew?” were commonplace.  Our relatives in New England asked us to send them a box of volcanic ash which they sold in small containers to curious folks on the other coast.

Mt. St. Helens was quieter after that day, but was always lurking in the distance.  It still has not regained its ice cream scoop shape, but after the volcanic activity started my mother didn’t object to us taking pictures of “The Mountain.”

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