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.”

My Life As An Elf

In my youth I had some interesting jobs over the holiday breaks.  My mother ran a temporary services agency that provided not only labor, secretaries, and such, but also had some seasonal gigs.  The litany of temp jobs I took during this era included several secretarial jobs (one of which taught me that some people who make a lot of money and boss people around don’t know how to alphabetize), a stint separating lug nuts and hubcaps from their packaging, a gig as Twinkie the Kid (read: Twinkie the Kid), and many other jobs with varying levels of difficulty and humiliation.  But my personal favorite was this: I worked as an elf.  No, that’s not a typo; during the Christmas season, for three years in a row, I was one of Santa’s elves.

There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes at Santa’s Village that most people don’t get to see.  First, there’s the training program, which includes lectures on why it’s important for Santa to be sober, how to handle crying children and testy parents, and studying up on the latest hot trends in toys.  There are lessons on how to apply rouge to Santa’s cheeks and keeping a false beard in place, too.  For the elves, not only are we taught how to support Santa in his role as this jolly icon, but how to use the instant camera that snaps photos of children (and a surprising number of adults) in various states of holiday joy and seasonal depression.

There are several rules to learn as well, such as only one Santa can be visible to the public at any time.  One must always refer to Santa as “Santa” and never slip and call them by their real name.  Where you can grab an unruly child appropriately. (Note: The answer is not by the ear or holding them up by the back of their belt, though at times this can be tempting.)  Elves don’t cuss, even when peed on or bitten.  Elves don’t wear denim… ever.  And above all, never promise a child they will get what they ask for.  This last one can be difficult as, while waiting at the front of the line, many children bargain and negotiate with the elves like death row inmates on their final appeal.

The elf and Santa costumes are re-used year after year, and at the end of the season nobody seems to take the time to wash them before stuffing them back in their boxes for another eleven months.  They stink, and require a good cleaning and dousing with deodorizer when unpacked.  A wise elf or Santa will get to the costume fittings very early so they will have their pick of the costumes as they are handed out.  The costumes are also “one size fits all”  —  one of the greatest lies ever told for any item of clothing.  With my petite stature my elf apron hung down well past my knees and had to be cinched tight with the cord to prevent my human clothes from peeking out underneath it’s blousey draping.  And the elf shoe covers would flop around as I walked, making me look a bit like a scuba diver walking up the beach with flippers on.

We had a few memorable Santas during my stretches as an elf.  One of my favorites was a twenty-four year-old young man named “Steven.”  Steven by no means had the portly figure of the traditional Old Saint Nick and required a lot of padding to fill his suit.  Steven was one of those rare individuals that is a truly kind and caring person.  He had immense patience with all of the visitors who came to sit on his lap and a sense of humor about everything, from having drunken holiday revelers crowd onto his lap to get a picture to having a kid wipe his snotty nose with Santa’s beard.  He made a point of listening very carefully to every child, making notes on what they said and often passing along their requests to their parents as they were leaving.  When a snow storm hit near the end of our shift, he refused to let me get on the city bus for the long ride home across the bridge, a trip which was over an hour on the best of days, and drove me all the way home, completely out of his way.

One of the most memorable Santas was “Milt.”  Milt was an appropriate age for Santa (and then some) and didn’t require nearly the padding that Steven did.  He had a doddering manner of speech that included many, many questions for his young visitors.  By the time Milt was done with each child, he had performed a complete interrogation, including their likes and dislikes, school, family, pets, favorite foods, favorite colors, their friends, and even their take on current events, before ever arriving at the crucial question, “What do you want for Christmas?”  This made for a very long line of tots awaiting their spot on the old man’s lap.  He also had an apparent sleep disorder that resulted in him falling asleep in the middle of a sentence, or while awaiting his next supplicant, and he would have to be shaken awake with a snort and a start.  On one occasion this resulted in his false teeth falling out and shocking some poor, unsuspecting youngster.

Then there was “Jerry”.  Jerry had been a Santa for over a decade, and was a “pro” – and he made sure everyone knew it.  He had an authentic long, white beard, a “round little belly” and a special pair of gold, wire-rimmed glasses that he wore during his role.  He also had his own suit, disdaining those that were provided for the job.  He had a lot of advice for the other Santas which was the cause of much strife in the Santa’s Village break room.  I guess most Santas don’t like being told that they need a breath mint before visiting with the children.  And they especially didn’t like it when Jerry would approach them in the dressing room and assist them with adjusting their costumes without being asked.  Jerry seemed to think that anyone who had to strap on a belly pad and a silky white beard was a poser.  He also took his role to heart when it came to imposing his will on the elves, insisting that we perform menial tasks for him in front of the crowd.  One favorite of his was to tell us to “give these boots a shine” while pointing at his feet as he greeted the crowd and was about to enter his little Santa hut.  We were expected to rush forward with clean white cloths and kneel at his feet, buffing his “professional” Santa boots.  He also had a habit of giving the elves nicknames throughout the day.  Many of these seemed to be modeled on the names of the “Seven Dwarves”, which was bad enough.  But when he called me “Tinkles” one day I had to ask him to stop.

Elves endure grueling, long shifts, dealing with people at their best and at their worst. They handle the same questions over and over with a smile and happy tone day after day. Elves are the unsung heroes of Santa’s Village, making sure everyone gets their turn and doing everything possible to get a decent photo for the family album at a moment of total stimulus overload for the kids they’re photographing.

Here are a few additional observations from my time as an elf:

  • A lot of adults come to see Santa, most just to get a picture but some seem to really be enthralled with the experience.
  • Too many candy canes can make you sick. (Don’t try this at home.  Trust me.)
  • Only about one in twenty kids under five cry and scream in Santa’s lap, but many others stare at him in mute silence and absolute terror for the duration of their stay.
  • Don’t try to give a kid a broken candy cane. This is, without a doubt, the worst mistake you can make.
  • No matter how long the wait is in line, it’s too long. By the time the kids get to Santa many of them are close to a meltdown, whether they wait five minutes or two hours.
  • Fake snow is a nuisance. It gets in your hair, your shoes, your bra, and many other places you don’t want it.

If you visit Santa this year, make sure to give the elves a pat on the back, too.  Santa may be the star of the show, but without us elves he’s just be a fat old man holding strangers’ kids in his lap; most people go to jail for that, you know.