Mount St Helens Eruption

Personal Essay - Memory

My recollection of the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18th, 1980.

I was 9 years old and living in Salem, Oregon. I was born and raised in the capital of Oregon.

“Hell no, I won’t go!” is all I could think of as she blew her top, sending the mushroom cloud of ash and gases over 15 miles high into the atmosphere and 40 miles wide.

Harry R. Truman was on everyone’s mind on May 18th, 1980, when Mount St. Helen erupted. Our local legend and folk hero refused to leave his home, Mount St. Helens Lodge. He chanted that phrase repeatedly to the media and anyone who would listen. Harry was beloved by not only his friends and family, but by the entire Pacific Northwest.

Before his death, he was already a celebrity and caused a media flurry. He attracted the attention of National Geographic, United Press International, and The Today Show. He appeared on the front pages of The San Francisco Examiner and The New York Times. Many other major magazines did profiles on him such as Newsweek, Life, Time, Field & Stream and Reader’s Digest.

They continued to pay tribute to him after his death. Oscar-winning actor, Art Carney, portrayed Harry Truman in the docudrama film St. Helens in 1981. They also commemorated him in a book, poems, in several musical pieces, and many songs, including those by Headgear, Billy Jonas, and Shawn Wright & The Brothers Band.

I was a few months shy of ten years old and often think of the eruption which decapitated this mountain. Harry remains tied to this mountain in my mind. I worried about him and wished he would leave when they asked him to. I was a kid that didn’t want this nice guy to perish. I asked my mom what happened to Harry that Sunday. She looked at me, her eyes sizing me up. I imagine she was figuring out how to tell her overly sympathetic daughter the news. She put her arm around me and told me calmly he didn’t leave the mountain. She let me arrive to my conclusion of his fate. My mind went to picturing him standing there and struck with pyroclastic flows. I did not comprehend his choice to pick death. I grasped a little better as an adult why an 83-year-old man who loved that mountain and his home made that decision. It was tough for a ten-year-old.

We lived in Willamette Valley. Specifically, Salem, Oregon. We saw the plume from there, about 110 miles away. The eruption was audible farther than the 200 miles the scientists claimed. One account recorded was in Newport, Oregon.

As a child, I found the ash to be the worst. They closed the swimming pool in our townhouse apartment complex. It covered everything and everyone in ash. Cars, gardens, the pools, the world. The ash spread across the United States within 3 days and circled the planet within 15 days.

I was 14 years old when we moved to a five-acre piece of land out in the country, two miles outside of Salem, Oregon. It was about 500 feet higher in elevation than the city, as it was in the foothills. Our house had an unobstructed view of the entire Cascade Mountain range. I would gaze north and look at Mount St Helens and her flat top. She appeared peculiar among the other mountains with their sharp peaks. Stark reminder of that day and the later eruptions up through October that year.

I grew up hiking and camping on old lava beds. We would go swimming with the lake beach created from an old lava flow. This was my world. I flew back to Oregon in 2011 and our pilot let us know to look out on one side to see one of the Cascade Mountains spewing smoke that day as we were getting closer to Portland, our destination. Another day in this part of the world. The Cascade Mountain Range, or Cascade Volcanic Arc, is an active volcano mountain range. Occasional earthquakes are par for the course in our lives. Portland, Oregon sits at the foot of Mount Hood. It is one of five mountains they are watching to be the next major eruption in the chain.

People expressed, to me, how lucky I was to live through the eruption and its history. It is like many major events. You don’t want to live through it again. The next one may take exponentially more lives and be more damaging. Excitement comes with reality. It scared most of the population in the Pacific Northwest forty years ago when Mount St Helens erupted. I hope we do not have another devastating eruption in my lifetime.

The End