Friday, October 14, 2005

102…adding to my list…mt st helens

Number 102: I was in Spokane when Mt. St. Helens blew.

May 18, 1980. The family was headed out to the local air force base for the annual air show. Bright, sunny day. Blue skies. Only the wispiest of white clouds blew across the sky.

On the highway near the base entrance, military personnel were stopping traffic and turning it away. Over a loudspeaker, someone was telling us the air show had been cancelled due to the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s. We didn’t believe it at first. After all, doomsayers had been predicting an imminent eruption for years, and nothing. But as we turned around to head back home, something caught our eyes. Way out, on the horizon, at the end of those beautiful blue skies, we saw it. A line across the sky. And past that line, the sky turned black as night.

We watched that black line get closer and closer as we drove home. But we managed to get safely home and in the house before that black line engulfed the skies over Spokane, turning day into night. Much like an eclipse.

Then, slowly, the sky began to lighten somewhat, to a paler grey color, like the skies on a morning just before a winter snow. And then we saw it. Light grey powder, falling from the sky. We stood at the large picture window in the living room and watched in awe.

It was deathly quiet outside. No one out, no car sounds, animals, nothing. So quiet, we could actually hear the powder falling. Could hear it fall through the air and touch the ground. How incredible. It fell for a couple of hours. We settled in, went back to ‘normal’ household activity, and glanced out the window occasionally. We saw a few neighbors gather the courage to creep outside and put their hand in the air. The way you do when checking to see how hard it’s raining. Only they were catching the ashes in their hands. And feeling it. I got up the courage to go outside with a baby juice jar and fill it with the ash. As a memento. Sort of an ‘I was there’ thing.

Eventually, the ash stopped falling, and the sun came back out. And the world ventured forth to survey the results. The ash had the consistency of baby powder, or flour. And the same ability to resist water. Making it extremely difficult for the earth to absorb. The ash also, when disturbed, would immediately rise in the air, like a dust cloud, settling in cracks, coming in through windows and doors, getting into car engines. Getting into your lungs.

The city closed down. The mayor encouraged everyone to stay indoors, while the city planners tried to determine the health risk of breathing in the ash. And how to get rid of said ash. People who did venture forth, generally did so with surgical masks. Those with breathing problems flooded the hospitals for treatment from the effects of the ash clouds. My son, 6 months old at the time, developed an ear infection, and I was forced to take him out to the doctor and the pharmacy. Out into empty streets, filled with ash.

Along the way, we encountered numerous irate residents of neighborhoods trying to keep the ash dust clouds down. They certainly didn’t appreciate a car driving through and stirring it back up again. Fist after fist raised in anger at the back of my departing car. On one street, the neighbors blocked the street so I couldn’t pass through – blocked it physically, with their bodies. How could I drive through that? I wanted to scream at them, fuck you, my baby’s sick, and he’s more important than your fucking dust cloud. But I didn’t. I turned the corner, and found another street.

Over the years and moves, that baby juice bottle of ash that I’d preserved as a memento disappeared. Don’t know where, or how. Eventually, the earth took back most of the ash. Although for easily ten years after the eruption, if you drove on the highways after a rain, you could see the whitish grey marks on the concrete from the ash coming back up from the ground.


(photo credit)

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