This year, May 18th falls on Wednesday. To most people, if it’s not a family birthday or anniversary, the date just rolls by as part of the 365-day blur that creates each year.
But in 1980, it fell on a Sunday. I had just spent the weekend at the new in-laws house in Yakima, a home with a swimming pool overlooking the valley. Sunday was drive-home day, because I had to be back to work on Monday at my new Seattle radio job at KOMO, AM-1000 as the producer for the Larry Nelson Morning Show. Yes, this was a long time ago.
The game plan was to sneak in one more dip in the pool before driving back. There was no rush, but we didn’t want to leave too late in the day and hit returning-home traffic. Then, around 9am, I noticed clouds in the distance. Deeply dark clouds in the Southwest sky that seemed to be coming this way and in a hurry. I remember thinking, “Oh well, so much for the swim.”
Back in the days before cell phones and instant messaging and texting, the news wasn’t spreading like wildfire. But as we saw this dark, thick cloud start to swallow up the valley…and saw street lights turning on before disappearing in the cloud…..we flipped on the radio news and discovered that Mount Saint Helens had blown its top.
The mountain had basically, imploded, then shot the ash straight up into the sky and THAT was the cloud. Not being one of those things you train for, we turned on the TV and heard health warnings NOT to go out and breath the stuff. Of course, I had to go out long enough to scoop up a couple of coffee cans’ worth of ash. It was bizarre. Imagine a fine mist, like fog, that felt gritty. Soon we had inches of ash piled up on the ground. Later that day, as we looked out at our gray surroundings, a storm passed through…and I recall seeing an electric charge of some sort come into the house through the kitchen chandelier. I filed reports for KOMO as their on-the-scene insider, since all ways into town were closed due to the eruption.
Eventually, we drove down around through Portland to get to Seattle. I-90 was closed. It was probably sooner than we should have left, but we grabbed the first opportunity possible. My Plymouth Horizon made it through, although for years after that, every time I turned on the heater or air conditioning, a little bit of volcanic ash came out of the vents.
It’s an experience not many of us can claim. I happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. The eruption of a volcano in the United States seems to have already faded into the history books with everything else that has gone on since then. But for those of an age and who were there or in the path of “there” when it happened, the date of May 18th is always going to be Mount Saint Helens’ Day.