Thirty-seven years ago on May 18, 1980, I sat on spring grass at an outdoor picnic for a cast party to celebrate our community theatre production, Carousel. I held a white paper plate, and picking at my potato salad, I noticed dark speckles. Funny, I didn’t sprinkle pepper on it. Looking around, I noticed others peering oddly at their white paper plates. All at once, we scrambled to our feet, eyes skyward. Is this radioactive fallout? Did a bomb go off somewhere?
Keep in mind, no internet or social media in 1980. We had 1) Radio, and 2) Television. People bolted for the house. Instead I ran to my car and turned on the radio. Not a bomb, a volcano. Mount St. Helens. Volcano? Where the heck is a volcano around here? I peeked through my ash-speckled windshield at the stable, forested Rocky Mountains in East Missoula. I remembered my geology 101 class at U of M discussing volcanoes in the Cascade Range, two states away, on the west coast.
But Missoula is so far inland. Then I remembered that thing called the Jetstream.
The ash wasted no time layering everything, like a grey snowfall. People poured from the house, dashed to their cars. We lived in Clinton, a tiny berg seventeen miles east of Missoula on I-90. I raced home, windshield wipers rubbing abrasive ash, unaware I was permanently scratching the windshield of my Volkswagon squareback.
When I reached our four-plex, everyone was outside, bandannas over mouth and noses, looking like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My husband had a hanky over Kodi’s nose, our golden retriever. When she saw us wearing them, she resigned herself not to shake hers off. We attempted to herd our ducks and geese under the back porch, but the little buggers were like herding cats. We herky-jerked around the yard, snatching ducks to tie little hankies over their bills. It worked at first, then they’d shake them off, tiny hankies sliding down their skinny necks, like Woody in Toy Story.
I scowled at a bucket of volcanic ash in my back yard, as supplementary ash from the sky piled onto it, as if the bucket wasn’t full enough. A pointed grey cone formed, like a mini Mt. St. Helens. The ash slid down the cone to the ground, forming an ash-moat around the bucket. I’d purchased the ash the day before, paid ten bucks for it on the advice of a newspaper gardener. What were the chances a freaking volcano would go off, covering my bucket of volcanic ash with volcanic ash? It felt like the universe was folding in on itself. Obviously a foreshadowing (as a writer, that’s the only way I could rationalize it).
My trusty employer, the U.S. Forest Service, said, “Stay home, don’t drive roads and highways!” Oh, bummer, you mean I can’t go to work? That’s a shame.
The ash blackened Missoula skies for days. We partied for a week in our four-plex with the other couples, mostly university students, playing all night poker, Monopoly and Risk. I conquered the Soviet Union (not called Russia in 1980) a few times at 3 a.m. Our biggest challenge that week was, how do we get more beer?
We’d flip coins to see who would risk ashing their engine to pick their way to Poor Henry’s Bar, a few miles down the road. Our next-door neighbor’s engine sucked in ash and quit on the way back, so we sent an envoy to rescue the beer. Oh, and our neighbor, of course.
Then there was the wedding food. My mother bestowed a sum to buy our reception food for our June wedding. In keeping with our Do-It-Yourself wedding theme, I made food ahead of time and stuck it in the freezer—cocktail pasties (a la Butte cuisine), homemade bagels, wedding mints, Swedish meatballs, you name it. We even made elderberry wine, inspired by Elton John’s song, Elderberry Wine.
You guessed it. We raided the freezer.
Ate all the wedding food during volcano week. Had to skulk back to Mom, begging for more cash for a wedding-food do-over. We even drained the elderberry wine. It was bitter, needed another month to ferment. But, what the heck, it was alcohol we didn’t have to ruin our car engines over. Beggars can’t be choosers in a volcanic ash-fall. We gulped and puckered.
Once the ash settled and street cleaners hit streets and highways, everyone returned to work and school. The Forest Service had us print tiny little V’s above each 8 hours of administrative leave on our timesheets. I found that weird, but then—it’s the government.
Afterwards, we learned fifty-seven people died when Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m. Autopsies showed most of the people killed in the eruption died from asphyxiation after inhaling hot ash, according to the U.S. Geological Survey report. The eruption lasted 9 hours.
I flew over Mt. St. Helens last summer, and the regrowth of timber and vegetation is amazing. But the side of the mountain is still missing, the volcano hasn’t rebuilt its dome. Yet. It is still an active volcano.
When May 18th rolls around each year, I think of our fellow four-plex partiers and the fun we had cooped up together, roaming from apartment to apartment, taking turns hosting the all-night parties. One couple always had floor-to-ceiling cases of beer on hand, which contributed greatly to our cause.
I wonder if they still do that. You know, for emergency preparedness.
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2017, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.