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By David Swinford
It seems no matter how busy I might be each year on May 18, I always remember it as “St. Helens Day.” Not that I have some special ritual. But when it comes around I always remember it without prompting. It’s like the birthday of a special friend who was so unforgettably graceful and inspiring yet enigmatic and self-destructive.
It was Sunday morning, and I was trying to sleep in. My mom was in the kitchen preparing breakfast for the family. That was a Sunday thing. The roof above my bedroom was flat and accessible via an upstairs door. The window was a fairly large, single-pane slider.
I was awakened by a thump that shook the whole room. It seemed like something large had been dropped on the roof above me. My first thought was my father was up there and had dropped something. There was a pause of maybe a couple seconds, then another thump followed by a rapid, staccato-like succession of lesser “thumps.”
“Is my crazy dad doing calisthenics on the roof?” I thought. A pause of a second or two was followed by another round of seemingly random larger thumps mixed in with brief bursts of diminished staccato thumps. It all lacked a particular rhythm or pattern and lasted only 10-15 seconds.
I had heard sonic booms before. My dad was a marine aviator, and we lived on air stations when I was growing up. I do not recall thinking the sounds I heard that morning were like the sonic booms I had heard before.
I got up after a bit and went to the kitchen. I asked my mom if she had heard the noise. She affirmed she had and theorized that it was the Canadian Navy performing exercises. That seemed mildly plausible since our house is located on the North Olympic Peninsula about a mile from the Dungeness Spit National Wildlife Refuge and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
I turned on the TV not long after, and the first thing I saw was this panoramic view from a news helicopter stationed what looked like miles to the west of the mountain. I had a hard time figuring out what I was seeing until I realized that the mountain was just a small mound at the bottom of the frame and most of what was shown was the billowing cloud of ash. The mystery of the sound was solved. It was an even less plausible reality than the Canadian Navy.
My summer job was to drive an empty truck from Sequim to Seattle and sometimes to Eastern Washington to pick up wholesale produce for a retail store in Sequim. I was at my final stop late one afternoon somewhere east of Yakima. The truck didn’t have a radio, so I didn’t know what was going on in the world. The folks at the warehouse where I was picking up that last load told me that Mount St. Helens had erupted again that afternoon and ash was headed that way.
I got the last part of my load and headed west toward Yakima. I recall seeing what looked like a fog bank rolling in. I stopped for fuel just about the time the fog enveloped my location. I recall not really feeling ash or even feeling like I was breathing it or it was causing problems for me. But while I was fueling, I noticed the superfine, grey powder had started to accumulate on the windshield and was sliding down in little grey waves.
I finished fueling and jumped in the truck and drove toward Ellensburg on Interstate 82. There is a long uphill grade on 82, and night had come. There was very little traffic. I was driving slowly up the grade with a loaded truck. It didn’t seem like I was driving through a fog or cloud of ash. However, when a vehicle came up behind me I could see, in the vehicle’s headlights, this fine cloud of ash swirling behind the truck. When the vehicle passed I could see the ash swirling behind the passing vehicle.
I recall the news reports leading up to the eruption, including the Harry Truman interviews, but I don’t think I really thought it would actually erupt. Maybe a little puff of steam would occur. It’s pretty amazing that I had some kind of tangible sensory experience with the long geological process of our planet via the St. Helens eruption – and that I didn’t have to get too close to do so.