New Beginnings #13
New Beginnings #14


Today is the 30th Anniversary of Mount St. Helens' eruption, and I decided to repost the piece I wrote for my memoir writing class in 2004 about that day, May 18, 1980. Enjoy!

"Oh, my God!"

My mom’s exclamation drew my attention away from the box of plastic containers I was sorting. We were spring cleaning the garage, and I welcomed the distraction from my tedious task.

"What is it?" I asked. "Did you find the mother of all spiders? If so, I don’t think I want to know about it."

"No," my mom said. "If I’d uncovered a big spider, I would’ve done more than just say 'Oh, my God!'"

I laughed. "Alright, so what is it?"

My mom was standing in front of the white metal cabinet near the washer and dryer; the cabinet where we kept our tools, paint and other miscellaneous home repair items. When she turned, I saw the glass jar in her hand. My jaw dropped.

"Is that what I think it is?"

"It sure is."

"I can't believe we still have this!" I took the jar from her, closely examining its contents. It once contained instant coffee with sparkling flavor crystals, but was now filled with a fine, grey ash. "Man, this takes me back. I'll never forget that day . . ."

*    *    *

The morning of May 18, 1980 dawned bright and clear. The sunshine and blue sky promised another beautiful spring day in the eastern Washington farming community of Colfax. Chirping birds woke me only a few minutes before the sound of lawnmowers resounded through the neighborhood. It was still early – not even 8:00 a.m. - but I knew I’d never get to sleep in now that the Lawn Mower Symphony had begun, so I rose, dressed in jean shorts and a tee-shirt, and pulled my hair back into a ponytail. The back door was open, so I stepped outside to take in the morning air.  I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful day; a day to take a hike, or have a picnic, or ride a bike. I took a deep breath and sucked the fresh, spring air into my lungs, and exhaled dramatically. Then I went back inside and settled myself in front of the television like any self-respecting fourteen-year-old girl who couldn’t sleep in on a Sunday morning.

As I sat flipping through the television channels, I thought about the oral book report I still had to work on for the next day, the math test on Wednesday I should study for, a new piece to learn for band, and the Jr. High Track Meet on Thursday, where I would be doing the long jump for the first time. But it was Sunday, and I didn't want to think about any of that. Besides, my grandparents were driving over from East Wenatchee, and I wanted to spend the day with them.

It was a little after nine a.m. when the blue screen with the initials EBS popped up on the TV, accompanied by the familiar steady tone. At first I didn't think anything of it - after all, I'd grown up with the periodic interruptions from the Emergency Broadcast System, that annoying droning sound which was always followed by the calm, reassuring announcement "This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with . . ."  Blah, blah, blah.

But wait. They did it wrong, didn't they? They forgot to air the first part; the part that goes: "This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test." Surely I didn't just miss it. They must've forgotten to air it.

The blue screen with the pale letters disappeared a few seconds after the tone ended, and the McNeil/Leher Report resumed. So, what did that mean? I wondered. Was it a test and someone messed up? Or, was it an actual emergency, and they didn't know how to run the EBS?

After a few minutes with no more interruptions or announcements, or any indication that anything was wrong, I settled back down into the recliner, and continued contemplating my day. My grandparents were coming for a visit, and would arrive around lunchtime. I should try to get some studying done before they arrive, so I can visit with them without the homework hanging over my head. I should, but I probably wouldn't. I wanted to lay out and start working on my tan. The streaky orange stripes from the QT tanning lotion I'd tried over the winter had finally faded, and since the weather was so nice, there was no reason not to get a real tan. I should call my friend Stephanie, and see what she's up to . . .

Suddenly, the EBS tone came on again - and again without the familiar, "this is a test" statement. My heart jumped. 'Crap!' I thought. 'Something's wrong. Something's really wrong! If someone is just screwing around with this thing, it's not funny!'  When the tone ended, the news came on, and a grim-looking reporter gave us the news: something bad had happened. Something that scientists kept saying was going to happen, but no one believed them. It was too outrageous. It couldn’t possibly happen. But it had: after almost two months of rumblings, and grumblings, the occasional belch of ash and smoke, and the growing bulge on its side, Washington State's most famous volcano, Mount St. Helens, erupted.

They showed dramatic pictures of the eruption on the news. The side of the mountain where the bulge had been growing blew out, a huge dark grey cloud of smoke and ash shot into the air, rose into the atmosphere, and, according to the news anchor, was moving. Towards us. 

Experts quickly came on the air to tell us what to do. They recommended we cut our lawns as short as possible. If we got any ash fall, short grass would be easier to clean up. They told us to move outdoor furniture inside, and put our cars in the garage, or cover them up. They told us to stay inside once the ash fell. Don't go outside! Not for any reason! Don't breath in the ash! Wear a mask or use a damp handkerchief to cover your face! Keep your pets indoors as much as possible!

The ash cloud was expected to reach Spokane, which lay 63 miles north of us, around noon, so we didn't have much time to get stuff done. Dad started mowing the lawn, and mom moved the hammock and lawn chairs from the deck to the garage. There was nothing for me to do, so I put on my sneakers and headed down to the track by the school, just a few blocks away. I thought I'd better practice my long jumps now, just in case we didn't get any practice time in before Thursday's meet.

As I walked down to the track, I couldn't get over what a beautiful day it was – so fresh and new and peaceful and still. I couldn't believe something so bad had happened and not that far away from us, either. I thought about the people who lived and worked on the mountain – residents, loggers, tourists, rangers and scientists. Everyone had been evacuated, but there were still scientists monitoring the mountain, residents wanting to get back to their homes to gather belongings, tourists wanting to see the spectacle, and police securing the "Red Zone," the area where the blast would be the most devastating.

And, there was one old man, Harry Truman, who wouldn't evacuate.  He'd become quite famous for his emphatic refusal to leave his cabin by Spirit Lake, just at the foot of the mountain, or abandon his belongings or his cats. His was a nice, almost lighthearted story in the midst of the gloom and doom predicted by the scientists. A reporter near the scene of the devastation said Harry's house was right in the line of the mud and rock flow, and it was very likely he was dead. It was hard to believe; Harry had just been on the news two nights ago.  But, in truth, this whole situation was hard to believe. It was hard to believe that in just a few hours, a huge black cloud would block out the sun, and dump ash, and rocks, and whatever else came out of the volcano on top of us. Hard to believe things would ever return to normal.

The track was quiet, as was the adjacent Schmuck Park, City Pool and tennis courts. I practiced a few jumps. I looked up at the sky every few minutes expecting to see The End of the World coming over the tops of the pretty, spring-green hills. But each time I looked, the sky was still blue, dotted with a few small, puffy white clouds, the hills were still green, and the birds were still singing. I ran around the track a few times, mostly to expel my nervous energy, then headed home to wait. Dad had finished mowing the lawn to golf-course height, and mom had gotten all our outdoor furniture stored away in the garage. I went around and checked that all the windows were shut. We kept the TV on the whole time, the news showed the ash cloud getting closer and closer to us. There were a few minutes when we thought it might miss us, but then the wind shifted, and the cloud once again headed our way.

My grandparents arrived safely just before noon. "There's quite a thunderstorm coming," my grandfather said. "We outran it, but just barely."

"That's no thunderstorm, Bud," my dad told him. "Didn't you hear? Mount St. Helens blew this morning. What you saw was the ash cloud. Looks like you guys got here just in time!"

My dad was right: the cloud arrived just about twenty minutes later. As darkness fell, the birds stopped singing and the street lights came on. The sky was black - pitch black - like the night sky but without a moon or any stars. And, it was quiet - no cars driving by, no people sitting and talking on their porches, or walking down the sidewalk. No dogs barking, no kids playing. Nothing. The four of us stood in front of the sliding glass doors off the kitchen, and watched nighttime come in the middle of the day.

When the ash began to fall it looked like snowflakes sparkling in the streetlights; dirty, grey snowflakes that didn't melt when they hit the ground. It piled up about an inch thick on the deck, the roof, the lawn, and my grandparent's car, which was parked on the street in front of our house.  We huddled around the TV, watching the eerie pictures of a dark, ash covered ghost town that was once the big, bustling city of Spokane. All modes of transportation were halted, the news said: cars, buses, trains, planes - all stopped because of the ash. It was a creepy sight. I felt like we were watching a horror movie, not looking at live news pictures.

Once the cloud passed and the ash stopped falling, there was the problem of what to do with it? The city used snow plows to clear it off the roads as much as possible, but the wind always blew it back. We shoveled it off the sidewalks in front of our homes, and tried to wash it off our lawns, but it kept coming back; soaking into the soil only to surface again days later. People climbed on their rooftops to wash the ash off, and gently tried to brush the fine but abrasive material off their cars. Many engines were damaged by the ash in the air, and everyone was worried about the health problems we might have in the future. As a preventative measure, we wore masks whenever we went outside.

The early morning eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 effectively ended the school year. The buses weren't able to go out into the country to pick up the farm kids, and with only a few weeks remaining, it was decided to just end the school year. I never had to do my oral book report, take the math test, learn the band piece or participate in the track meet. I got pretty lucky on all counts but the track meet – I had a shot at a respectable jump, and now I'd never get the chance to show my stuff. Several weeks later, my classmates and I returned to school for a half day to clean out our desks and lockers, turn in our textbooks, and sign each other's yearbooks, then that was it. Eighth grade was over. We said goodbye to Jr. High, and looked forward to saying hello to High School in the fall.

*    *    *

I held the glass jar full of Mount St. Helens ash, my mouth agape. "It is so cool we still have this!"

"Yeah," my mom said. "Do you remember when we went out and scooped it up off the grass with a spoon?"

"Yes!" I exclaimed, amazed that I actually did remember: my dad was up on the roof, spraying the ash off with the hose, my grandparents were washing off their car as carefully as possible, and my mom and I were in the front yard filling an old Folgers jar with volcanic ash.

We kept that jar under the sink in the kitchen, and mom brought it with her when she moved to California. It's been sitting in our garage for the past six years. Since I hadn't seen that jar in ages, I thought it had been lost, or left behind. I was actually glad to see it. Sure we still have the light blue "I Survived Mount St. Helens" T-shirts, and the small pottery vase an artisan made from the volcanic ash, but our little jar of ash is more important than those – it came from our very own yard the morning after the eruption. It's our own personal piece of a historical experience, an odd but still special souvenir.

The vase.

Our Jar of Ash.


That white, powdery stuff on the ground, the deck and the hills behind our house? That's the ash. Gah! There was a ton of it, and it took forever to get rid of!

In fact, I believe it's still out there, along the side of the highway, stuck in nooks and crannies in the hills ... that stuff will probably never go away!