Friday, October 01, 2004

Ring of Fire

This afternoon I felt an anticipation I haven't felt for over 24 years.

Spring of 1980 I was an 8 year old third grader in suburban Portland, Oregon. Mt. St. Helens was up to something, and no one really knew what, but we all knew that as the closest city to the volcano we were in the line of fire. Every murmur the volcano made was cause for concern. No one knew what to expect, what would happen.

By the time May 18 rolled around the eruption was not a surprise, but it was amazing. I was able to kneel on a bench underneath my bedroom window and watch the plume rise from the mountain. There was a silence over the city that day, and words cannot describe the sight. Thankfully, for us, the blast was directed to the Northeast. That meant Yakima got the brunt of the explosion. The television shots showed a city in blackness in the middle of the day.

Portland became a study in grey, as everything was covered with a layer of volcanic ash. Volcanic ash is like a very gritty wet sand. The experts warned to be very careful cleaning it, as the grit could easily cause damage to cars and like items. My father disregarded the message, and scraped a message into the hood of the family station wagon: "Mt. St. Helens 5/18/80" for a photo opportunity. He need not have taken the photograph, because the message was etched into the paint until we sold the car several years later. The car also never ran well after the event.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion we had cans upon cans of ash that we had cleaned up from our modest suburban yard. You know how difficult it is to clean the sand off yourself after a long day at the beach: multiply that by your backyard. Over 10 years later we would still stumble across ash stuck in the deep brances of bushes and trees.

You cannot comprehend the impact of this event if you have not lived through it for yourself. There were two things that cemented this in my mind over the years. First, relatives from the midwest were visting and saw a small vial of ash my parents had kept on the mantle as a souvenir of the event. They were in awe, and wanted some ash of there very own. We gladly gave them some of the surplus. Ash is not to be coveted, it is to be feared.

Second, I was playing Pictionary with friends my freshman year of college. We were in Texas and my partner was from Galveston, may never have been outside the state. I had to get him to guess Mt. St. Helens. "Piece of Cake!" I thought. I drew a volcano. I got him to say "volcano." I gave him the universal symbol for "continue with that train of thought." Everyone I had ever known prior to this fact would have gone immediately to Mt. St. Helens. He didn't. I drew a map of the United States. I got him to identify the Pacific Northwest and the state of Washington. I indicated the volcano was in the state of Washington. He still didn't get it. He was an intelligent guy. Earned acceptance into an elite liberal arts college. He was NEVER going to say Mt. St. Helens. This was a major moment in my young life, and he would never have named the mountain if his life depended on it.

Today Mt. St. Helens had a small eruption of steam and ash. It happened while I was on my lunch break, and I immediately called my parents (who still live in suburban Portland) to see if it was large enough they could see it. They could not. But is this just the prologue of what's to come? I heard a news snippet on TV earlier tonight to suggest that there may be more to come.

A volcano, much like a hurricane, tornado or earthquake, really shows you the power that mother nature has over us. It lets you know its coming, but only gives you slight clues. At the end the size, timing, and direction of the blast are completely out of your control. I hope this time the mountain is just teasing, and doesn't choose to unleas its wrath upon us.


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