i was there when the mountain blew. i felt it rattle the core of the planet and then send a plume of ash skyward that within an hour, turned day into night; turned a robin’s egg blue sky into a roiling mash of powdered earth. all i could think of was: so long harry truman.
when mount st. helens blew in 1980, i was on the unhappy side of a wedding reception that i will never remember. i was awake, but an unwilling participant in what life had to offer. that sunday was my third day back in washington and third day in a row with a hangover that i could not seem to shake.
the only cure? another hangover.
i had taken the empire builder from st. paul to wenatchee washington a couple of days earlier, to attend the wedding of friends and to renengage a chapter of my life that was salacious at best, and ill-advised at worst. the train trip was spent primarily in the bar car and all with an ilk for partying were there, even after floyd the porter said “you guys are on your own.”
two days later, my equilibrium had yet to return and even on concrete, my body swayed to the back-and-forth of rail travel.
several years before that, i had worked for the gifford pinchot national forest, on the st. helen’s ranger district. within that district was the mountain and spirit lake. adjacent to both, was harry truman. harry served as a field trip destination for new district employees. he was always welcoming and always willing to engage in a story. i shook his hand. i petted his cats. somewhere, i have a picture of him.
in the end, he defied authority and said, “i ain’t leaving”. this after repeated warnings from geologists that the mountain was about to feel its oats.
my work buddies and i climbed st. helens one august day in 1976. from the summit, spirtit lake glowed an azure blue. harry was down there somewhere, probably bitching about something, we said. we stood at the apex of the mountain and watched as glaciers sloughed-off giant shelves of ice.
on the morning of may 18, 1980, my buddy pat and i were uncertain what the commotion was, deep inside the earth. paddy laughed it off, as he was (and still is) wont to do. when we found out the mountain was gone, we were disbelievers. i could only think of harry and his cats.
it had to be quick. no time to move or see what had occurred. the 50 feet of ash and mud that entombed him changed the lake and the landscape in an instant. i could only imagine him sitting there, a cat purring in his lap, saying, “i’m okay with this.”
now, every may 18, i take a few moments to remember harry and a period of my life that made me what i am today, for better or worse. i have reacquainted with paddy and stayed with him in 2008, when nikky and i took the empire builder to washington…without the hangovers or floyd the porter.
my son was with me the first time i viewed the mountain since it had experienced its tectonic reconfiguration. he could tell the mountain meant something to me. i also think he understood why i said “so long harry truman,” when we returned to our car.