Another day I remember for other people's memories, rather than my own. I was in Eugene, Oregon when Mount St. Helen's blew its top that lovely spring day. So busy working my job with mentally disabled adults, I was unaware it had finally happened--we'd been watching it get closer and closer, via media for months. Later I remembered having a picture of St. Helen's on the TV screen as I walked past it doing one task or another, but it didn't register. My mother, who always called each of us at the first sign of trouble, wasn't successful at reaching me until the next morning and by then was in high panic mode. I was merely surprised to hear her voice at 10:30 on a Monday morning when she should have been teaching her 4th grade class.
But the Pullman School District didn't go back to school that year. Washington State University, for the first (and last) time in its history, suspended classes and ultimately sent the students home without finishing the semester.
It's hard to fathom from here and now what that time was like, what that day was like--even three hundred miles away from where the real tragedy was happening--the uprooted trees, rerouted river, destroyed homes, and loss of life. But here's what I know from living with a man who was there that day, and from others as well.
The sky darkened in the west like a giant thunder storm was approaching. Some friends of mine were playing softball that afternoon in a city park and they remember how still the afternoon got, and how, unlike when a Palouse storm is coming, there was no wind. Over head, the sky was blue, in the west, came utter darkness as far as the eyes could see. Beve was driving back to his home in Tacoma, WA in his VW bus with a couple of buddies after a weekend with his parents--driving straight into that blackness--so he was about an hour out of Pullman when the ash began to fall. Fast and furiously it fell, obscuring vision like the thickest snowstorm. But unlike snow, even his windshield wipers and headlights didn't help guide him. It didn't take long to realize they wouldn't make it across the state, so they abandoned the bus, somehow made it to Beve's brother's place in a tiny town called Lind, where they found Beve's brother filling juice bottles with water because who knew whether the water itself would be contaminated. Those young men slept on the floor of Lind High school for a week--calling in to their schools back in Tacoma with updates--until a train made a stop for them and got them back to their jobs. Because all the ash went east, their principals couldn't quite understand what the deal was that week.
If those principals had only been there...I always wished I had. That's the truth.
In Pullman, people wore gas masks at first--the stores sold out of them--if they left their houses at all. Children had nightmares. I know my brothers did (they were 10 and 11 at the time). They worried about the ash plugging up their vehicles, getting into their houses, whether it would be toxic to plants, their animals. Sure, you laugh now. But in those first days, nobody knew for sure. Finally, people began inching out of their houses. Then they had to deal with the ash. Ash piled like the finest snowflakes. And, yes, snowplows were used, shovels came out of garages. Imagine using you snow shovel in shorts and a t-shirt. Shoveling ash that doesn't always go where you aim it, but flies...because it is, after all, light as ash.
By the time I went home for a visit a couple months later, you could hardly tell it had happened at all...rain had seen to that. Still, at the edges of streets, between blades of grass, there was ash. Like fertilizer, it was doing its job that year, too. Very well. And potters--like Beve's mom's best friend, had a field day, collecting it. We love the beautiful pieces she's glazed with Mount St. Helen's ash. So there were good things, I suppose one could say.
Still...this day--May 18--always draws that day to mind. And it's first the good things I remember. It's the fear of my mother, the disquiet in creation itself. The way the whole world stopped across a whole swath east from that one blast of earth. I think of how creation has such power and how often we forget. And, though the memories are not my own, I remember. Those given-to-me memories remind me that creation has power to move and change and overwhelm us. And we should be in awe of it.