St Helens in the Rearview

Looking Back on the Eruption of Mount St Helens

May 18, 2010

On Sunday, as I barreled down I-84 with my friend Chris, bound for one last day of skiing up on Mount Hood, I glanced out of my Jeep’s driver-side window and took a good look at Mount St Helens.

When the big mountain blew its lid back on May 18, 1980—thirty years ago today—I was a kindergarten-age runt growing up in Texas. In other words, when it came down to worries over exploding volcanoes, I might as well have been on another planet. In fact, I’m quite certain my biggest concern on that fateful day revolved around stalking the ice cream man on my Big Wheel.

My friend Chris, however, provided an entirely different perspective. A native Portlander, he remembered the explosion like it was yesterday. And as St Helens’s lumpy summit faded into the rearview mirror, he gave me a small taste of his own experience.

That morning, he had been inside watching TV when news of the eruption sent the teenage version of himself racing outside to watch a pillar of smoke and ash rise up like a thick gray curtain on the eastern skyline. I admitted that such a sight would have surely scared me right out of my Kangaroos. Indeed. It was pretty damn spooky, he said. But his next recollection made us both laugh.

Not long before the volcanic ash began raining down around town, he and an enterprising friend hatched a plan. The pair decided to round up as many surgical masks as they could muster. Then, stationed outside the Lloyd Center, he and his friend charged a premium for the little filters. There were plenty of willing patrons too. In no time, the pair managed to rake in a couple hundred bucks. The volcano’s wrath, it seemed, was no match for teenage ingenuity.

Get rich schemes aside, because I know Chris, I also know his heart was in the right place that day. He wanted to do something to help out. And his tale reminded me that while such monumental events deserve to be looked back upon with reverence, there’s usually room for a little humor too.

Searching my own memories, I’m still not sure what I was doing that day. But I’m quite sure that had I been around town, I would have gladly handed over my ice cream money for one of those masks.

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