Mario Stories

Memories of Mount St. Helens

THE REQUEST: Write about Mount St. Helens

Note: I was living in Washington State when Mount St. Helens erupted back in 1980, and I still remember the whole thing very well. Mainly because my city (Spokane) was the one that got hit with most of the ash. And when people hear that I lived through Mount St. Helens, and I remember it, they always want me to tell them about it. So here's an essay I put together to talk about what it was like through the eyes of a six year old.

Mount Saint Helens. The mountain that hated my brother.

The main thing people need to know about Mount St. Helens is that it wasn't really a surprise when it erupted. The seismologists had been predicting an eruption, and warning people one was coming, for weeks.

Of course, I never PERSONALLY got any of those warnings.

The reason why I (and probably I alone) never knew Mount St. Helens was about to erupt was because my mom was very protective of me when I was a kid. She would never tell me anything or warn me about ANYTHING ahead of time that might frighten me. And to be honest she was probably right the way she handled that, because I was, and I always will be, a bit of a stress case. I was SO easily rattled and SO prone to anxiety when I was a kid that my dad would always tell me ... these were his exact words...  "Hey Mario, you gotta chill out, or you'll have an ulcer before you're twelve." So anyway, even though everyone in the state knew Mt. St. Helens was gonna blow up weeks before it actually blew up, that everyone didn't include me. It was a complete surprise to me when it erupted.

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18th, 1980, which was a Sunday. And for me, it was just about the end of my first year of kindergarten. So I had just turned six. But MY birthday wasn't the important birthday in this story, the REALLY important birthday was my little brother, Dominic's. His birthday is May 20th. And I will always remember this, he had a big party planned for his fourth birthday. My mom had invited all these people to come over to our house, and she had a big setup planned for our backyard. And if you knew my mom, you knew that she NEVER skimped on a kid's birthday party, Dom's fourth birthday shindig was going to be huge. It (like all of our birthdays when we were kids) was going to be an EVENT.

And this is why it was kind of soul crushing when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18th (two days before his birthday). And because of all the ash in the air, we had to cancel his party. My brother was absolutely pissed about that at the time, and I don't blame him.

So basically, the main thing I will always remember about Mount St. Helens was that the eruption fucked up my little brother's fourth birthday party.

They didn't want little kids outside breathing this in

People always ask me how close we were to the eruption. And the answer is, we weren't anywhere close. Even though we lived in Washington State, we lived allllllll the way over on the opposite side of the state. You probably don't know your Washington State geography, but here, if you want to visualize it, here's a map.

Spokane is over 350 miles away from Mount St. Helens, so there was no chance we were gonna get hit by the lava or any of the really dangerous stuff. We DID wind up getting hit with the majority of the ash, but I'm not sure if anyone had really expected that.

Basically what happened with St. Helens was, it didn't erupt from the top, it erupted from the side. A big chunk of the mountain just exploded out to one side and that's where most of the ash came from. And between that, and the wind, what happened was the majority of the ash wound up way over in the east, where we lived. Even though Spokane was nearly four hundred miles away, I believe we got more ash than just about anyone else in the state. That's how big the explosion was. And it didn't stop in Spokane either, I remember reading that some people got ash dumped on them as far away as North Dakota. It was a really, really BIG eruption!

And anyway, here are my memories.

The volcano exploded on May 18th, and it was a really big news story. And by the end of that day, or maybe early on May 19th, the sky had turned dark over Spokane because of the big ash cloud that was now over us. I don't remember specifically when it all actually came down, but by the end of the day on May 19th, our whole city was completely blanketed with ash. And when I say blanketed, I mean BLANKETED. This wasn't just a thin little layer of gray. I would say we had a good ten to twelve inches of ash on the ground now. Just imagine a really heavy snow day in the midwest, only instead of white on the ground, the snow is all gray. That's what Spokane looked like for next couple of days.

It was even deeper than this at our house, our poor cat would just disappear in it

People always ask me, what was the ash like? Was it hot? No, it wasn't hot. You could go out and walk around in it if you wanted to. But you wouldn't want to do that for long, because it would kick up everywhere and get into the air. And then it just got annoying. But no, it wasn't hot. It was just really fine, really soft, really annoying, gray dust.

Now, the first thing that happened after the ash came down was that all the schools in Spokane were shut down. I don't remember if they canceled the entire rest of the school year or not (we really only had a couple of weeks left anyway), but we were definitely shut down at least for a week or so. And then the city also put out an announcement. They said that anyone in Spokane who went outside should be wearing a mask. Mainly because they didn't know what would happen if the ash got into your lungs, and they didn't want a bunch of people to show up at the hospital with some sort of a new respiratory disease. This was the main reason why my brother's party was canceled. They were worried about what the ash would do to your lungs.

Side note: This is why, if you were a kid from Washington who lived through Mount St. Helens, the first couple weeks of Covid (in 2020) weren't really all that unique. So wait, you're saying the schools are all closed now? And we all stay inside? And we're all supposed to wear masks? Yeah thanks, but I already did that. In fact, I liked it more the first time, when it was called Mount St. Helens.

Every kid in Spokane in 1980

Aside from the "there's no school anymore" thing (which was awesome) and the "everyone has to wear masks now" thing (which was annoying), the other thing I remember about May of 1980 was the fact that you weren't supposed to drive your car anywhere. The experts told everyone that the minute that ash gets into your engine, it's going to f up your car. So everyone was supposed to stay home and just not go anywhere for a while. And that's why the entire city of Spokane basically just shut down for a couple of days. There was no school. There were no jobs. There was no way to go anywhere. No one was going for walks. You were just sort of stuck inside with your family, in your house. And again, remember what the first few weeks were like in 2020 when Covid finally came to America? How quiet it was? How there was no one out there on the roads? Well that's EXACTLY what it was like in Spokane right after Mount St. Helens. It felt like you were living in a gray, ashy ghost town.

Hope you weren't planning to go anywhere for a while

Thinking back on it now, here are the six strongest memories I have of what we would all later refer to as "Ash Month."

1. There was no school for a while, and no school for a while was awesome. It was like summer started early for everyone. As a six year old who didn't like school, that meant that "Ash Month" was the single greatest month of my life.

2. My brother was absolutely PISSED that he never got his fourth birthday party. My mom tried to make it up to him later that summer, but it just wasn't the same. He wound up having his May 20th birthday bash in our living room in July.

3. There was so much ash on the ground that our white cat, Spooky, turned gray for about two months. He didn't really seem to care, he'd just go traipsing out in the ash all day, as if it weren't even there. But I remember how gray he always was when he came back to the house. I remember thinking it was funny. Because remember, we had more than a foot of ash in our neighborhood. He'd start walking in it and he'd just disappear. The ash was way taller than he was.

4. Even though school was out for a while, and we all had a temporary vacation, it wasn't as fun as you'd think it would be because no one was supposed to go outside. We were supposed to stay inside all day until all the ash got cleaned up. If you went outside at all you had to put on your dumb mask, and that was no fun. So most of the time we just hung out at our house and watched TV or played board games. I remember playing a lot of board games with my mom during Ash Month.

5. EVERY single grownup I knew decided to scoop up the ash and make little souvenir vials out of it. The rationale being that they could sell it at some point in the future, and maybe this would all be worth a lot of money. But it kind of defeated the purpose when EVERY SINGLE HUMAN BEING IN THE STATE OF WASHINGTON had at least one hundred little ash vials. I mean, I can't even tell you how many people I knew who eventually had an entire cupboard full of these things. It was just sort of what everyone did.

6. And finally, I have VERY strong memories of all the street sweepers and all the cleanup crews that were constantly driving around. You weren't supposed to spray the ash or get it wet, because if you did it would just turn into sticky gray muck. So the only way to get rid of it was the city had to send trucks to drive around and sweep it all up. And I remember it took FORRREEVVVER to get the city all cleaned up. Oh yeah, and I remember my dad being super annoyed because he wasn't supposed to drive anywhere until they got it all cleaned up. Knowing my dad, I'm sure he only heeded that warning for maybe a day or so. I'm sure he was out driving his car again as early as May 19th. But I mean, you weren't SUPPOSED to be doing that. I don't know. Maybe that's why our car never worked. Maybe dad ruined it.

Hope you didn't want that shit in your engine

And anyway, those are my memories of Mount St. Helens.

Even though of course, technically, it was a tragedy... and even though, technically, a handful of people actually died... none of that happened anywhere near where I lived. So I never found the whole thing tragic at all. In fact, I always thought "Ash Month" was actually kind of cool. I mean, if nothing else, it's a memory that kids in Washington have that kids from no other states are ever going to have. So I always thought we Washington kids were just sort in a cool little club. We're the only kids in America who know what it's like to live in a volcano fallout.

Now in regards to... have I ever talked to a survivor from Mount St. Helens? Well, first off, you have to realize that like 99.99% of people from WA who were there at the time would call themselves survivors of Mount St. Helens. I mean, we ALL experienced the ash in one way or another, if nothing else. So we're all in this big cool secret club now that no one else is. Which means we would ALL say we're survivors.

Have I ever met anyone who was personally injured by the eruption? Or had their house destroyed by the volcano? No, I have not. But a lot of that is because people were warned about the eruption LONG before it actually happened. So most of the people who would have been affected had plenty of time to get away. The ones who died were generally the people who either didn't feel like leaving the area, or figured they'd ride it out (like a hurricane) and just see what the hell happened. So the actual casualties from the eruption were far less than you would expect. Most people, if they wanted to get away from the volcano, they did. And that's why I've never met anyone who was actually caught in the blast zone. Most of us just had to deal with the ash afterwards.

The other thing that's interesting about Mount St. Helens is that the area around the volcano is apparently SUPER fertile now. Like, apparently plants grow better and more lush around Mt. St. Helens than pretty much anywhere else in the United States. And that's because volcanic eruptions are apparently very, very good for the soil. Everything gets recycled from under the ground during an eruption, and you wind up with all these new nutrients.

So if anything, if you're an outsider (aka a non-Washingtonian), don't think of Mt. St. Helens as a tragedy. Think of it as the greatest thing that could possibly ever happen in nature. In terms of being good for the planet, the 1980 eruption was actually a GREAT thing.

Mount St. Helens. She's not a brat, she's a buddy.

Oh yeah, and one last thing.

Mount St. Helens was a BIG deal when it erupted. But it was also waaaaaaay down in the corner of the state, where not all that many people live. So the casualties were nowhere near as big as they would have been if it had been located up closer to Seattle. In fact, the casualties for Mount St. Helens were actually kind of minimal.

Now... on the other hand... if her sister volcano, Mount Rainier, ever erupted...

Mount Rainier. Seattle's dick neighbor.

Mount Rainier is right smack dab between Seattle and Tacoma. Which is where most of the people in Washington State live. And much like Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier is ALSO an active volcano. And it's actually kind of a scary one.

Which means that if Mount Rainier ever erupted instead of Mount St. Helens... well... in THAT case, then everyone's dead.

Seattle and Tacoma, one day

So at the end of the day, the best thing to say about the eruption of Mount St. Helens is...

Hey, at least we only had to deal with the nicer one. :)

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