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May 18, 1980: In your words

Divine retribution?

My boyfriend’s uncle and aunt, Brad and Linda, invited us to go to his high school reunion being held in Echo, Ore., for the weekend. Well-knowing that my parents would never approve of me spending the weekend with my boyfriend, I made the choice to ask my mom if I could go out of town with Linda to visit some of her friends.

Yes, in the biblical sense it was a lie, but somehow in my 17-year-old brain, it seemed there was some truth in the request. Reluctantly she agreed.

(After spending the weekend in Oregon, the group, which includes Brad and Linda’s 2-month-old baby, heads back to Spokane on Sunday. Ash starts falling in Connell, Wash.)

Brad is driving; it is increasingly difficult to see. We can’t roll down the windows or turn on the air conditioner for some fresh air due to the “stuff” falling from the sky. Every time the windshield wipers swipe back and forth, it looks as if the window is getting scratched. Traffic is moving at a snail’s pace. Every time a vehicle passes going the other direction, it would swirl all of the falling “stuff,” making it impossible to see.

Several hours later we finally reach Ritzville and stop. … Hundreds of travelers have now stopped in Ritzville. The Washington State Patrol has closed the roads; the car won’t start again, anyway.

We are directed to go to a nearby church along with many other travelers. The hotels are all full now, so the church graciously sets up for overnight guests. At this point I know that my parents are worried about my whereabouts. I should have been home hours ago. …

The church lets me made a collect, long-distance call home. As soon as I hear my mom’s voice, I start crying, spilling my guts about where I am and where I really was over the weekend. At this point I am pretty certain that Mount St. Helens erupted because I lied to my parents – call it Catholic guilt.

Marci Vanderbosch, Mead

Because it wasn’t weird enough …

When it was all dark and eerie because Mount St. Helens had erupted, our neighbor went out on the porch and howled like a coyote. We thought that was very appropriate and added to the weirdness.

Don and Lois Bender, Spokane

Club owner made the show go on

During May of 1980 I was the owner/operator of the county/rock nightclub Gator McKluskys on Hauser Lake, Idaho. The club was doing very well and we were (in)famous for our Larry Mahan Buckin’ Bull Pen in the middle of the club.

For May 18 I had booked a very popular 11-piece country/swing recording act, Asleep at the Wheel. We were watching the news for updates on Mount St. Helens while we set up the club for the evening show. The Washington State Patrol closed Interstate 90 and some other highways; now I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get the band out of Spokane and to the club.

I called on a good friend … (who) immediately left for Spokane using back roads and cattle trails. He reached the band at the hotel, loaded them up in the bus and set out once again. …

I was pacing under the awning out in front of the club when finally I spotted my friend’s red-and-white convertible in a huge plume of ash pulling into our parking lot with the band bus following in his rooster tail of ash. As the dust settled, the bus door opened with a belch of ash and out stumbled the band coughing and hacking, dressed in their stage clothes covered from the crowns of their Stetsons to the toes of their Tony Lamas in the gray menace.

Of course we were all stressed out, so to keep up our courage and clear heads I ordered the band along with my staff and myself to begin drinking. …

The show started out great, but as the night wore on, the ash began to take its toll on everything. The sound system started to fail as speakers fried and the mixing board controls sounded like the point of a stick being dragged through gravel with every adjustment. The singers’ voices tanked, guitars wouldn’t stay in tune and other fun stuff, but The Wheel finished the show to a very happy but gray crowd.

Jim Christensen, Spokane

Stocked up on beer, toilet paper

As I finished my (work) shift (in Moscow), I decided to head back to Pullman on the 8 miles of highway. By now it was really dark, felt like a nuclear winter. Very few cars were out. It was very eerie, almost like a Twilight Zone episode.

I drove slowly, attempting to see the lines in the highway, but it was “snowing” ash and the visibility was extremely poor. After traveling about 15 miles per hour, I finally pulled into my apartment parking lot and headed to my apartment. My roommates and I decided that we should walk to the local Dismores and stock up on college essentials, beer and toilet paper. …

The next day we woke up and headed out to class only to hear from our neighbors that WSU President (Glenn) Terrell had canceled classes. … Eventually you had the choice to leave school and take your grades as they were, or stay and take your finals. We did the latter.

Jay W. Scott, Irvine, Calif.

Senior didn’t regret missed school

I was 18 and a senior at Shadle Park High School. I was looking forward to my graduation a month hence, much more than I was (looking forward to) my shift as a box boy at Excell Foods on West Garland.

Though the eruption had been expected, I think few in Spokane appreciated what was happening when the sky to the west began to darken in late morning. We had no experience with volcanoes then, and this was long before the Internet and omnipresent, 24-hour news. It didn’t take long to figure out this was no storm, however huge, as the sky soon went from dark to the black of night and the street lights came on. By then, of course, the news reporting had caught up with most folks. Still, we were awestruck as the ash began to fall like snow and gather everywhere.

I called my boss, expecting to be told to stay home. Bemused by my question, he irritably told me we weren’t letting some far-off volcano close us down. When I expressed concern the ash might damage my dad’s ’63 Plymouth Belvedere – my transport to the store – he said that was my problem and to get my tail into work.

In the week that followed, Spokane was virtually shut down. The days immediately following the eruption saw everyone everywhere cleaning everything and doing nothing else. Life gradually got back to normal toward the following weekend, but we’d missed another week of school, this in addition to the loss of the year’s first two weeks to the District 81 teachers’ strike.

Reminders of the eruption in the form of ash – in trees, gutters, alleys, anywhere that hadn’t been cleaned – lingered throughout the area until the following winter. Indeed, ash could be seen along I-90 for years following the blast and may be visible to the attuned eye in places to this day. The ash also can be seen in the homes of almost everyone who lived here at the time, as all made a point to collect a sample. My dad’s sits on a shelf in the garage to this day, in the same Cheez Whiz jar in which he originally collected it.

And the Belvedere that steadfastly hauled me to work that night was none the worse for wear. An ironclad, Slant Six-powered product of Detroit, it soldiered on faithfully for years.

Michael Cain, Spokane

Dinner of Mount St. Meatloaf

The next day, my daughter and I were to go with her preschool to a farm to see the animals, but people weren’t supposed to drive and if they went out, they were supposed to wear air-filter masks.

So, to make lemonade out of the lemons of the day, I invited the neighbors over to dinner. We had Mount St. Helens meatloaf with clouds of fluffy white mashed potatoes coming out of the cone-shaped top. A little ketchup, and there was even a lava flow!

Sue Plummer, Spokane

To Western Washington on back roads

It was a beautiful Sunday morning on Amber Lake when my father, architect friend and I were tossing flies at very cooperative rainbow trout. Frank remarked that we should hurry before the thunderstorm hit. I looked to the far southwest horizon and there was a monster-high thunderhead.

We pulled our fly lines in and headed to the launch ramp. We cleaned our fish and watched that thunderhead approach with its ominous gray halo in a paling sky. It was not until all the gear was stowed away and the aluminum boat was secured tightly to the canopy of my pickup truck that I turned on the radio. “Mount St. Helens erupted this morning and is moving to the northwest” were the first words we heard. “Highway 90 and U.S. 2 are closed at Moses Lake and Ephrata.”

My dad left for home in Spokane with instructions to call my wife (to say) we would try to get home as best we could. Home was Western Washington, south of Olympia. By 1 p.m. the area was pitch black with visibility less than 30 yards. With the headlights on low beam, I could barely see the edge of the road. I had grown up here and hunted the back roads many years, so I was confident I could navigate the back dirt roads around highway closures and get north of the ash plume in order to head west. There were times I could get my speed up to 10 mph, but those times were rare.

At 7 p.m. we arrived at Wenatchee. … I knew my wife would be worried to death because there was no way I could place a phone call to her as the lines were jammed. … We stopped every half-hour to shake the dust out of the engine air cleaner and kept the heater blower on high in order to keep the dust out of the cab of my pickup.

We arrived home at 1 a.m. with about 6 inches of volcanic ash in the bed.

Hobart G. Jenkins, Bayview

Tire store made hay with air filters

As manager of General Tire at Riverside and Division, the new question became, how can a tire store survive with very few people driving in the area? Then I remembered a recently received extra shipment of 2,000 air filters that I ordered for a sales contest from AC Delco.

Up went the air filter sale sign on Division, and in a matter of days they were all sold since car and truck air filters were plugging up and ruining engines faster than you could say, “Pay me now or pay me later.” Anyway, I won the national contest, which was good for a red sleeping bag.

Dennis Horlacher, Spokane

A BMX experience to remember

I think my favorite part of the experience which Mount St. Helens presented me was after our arrival home. With surgeon masks covering almost our entire faces, me, my brother and our other 8-year-old chums would vigorously rally our Roger DeCoster BMX bikes to the end of the block where we would then deploy a massive power-slide by slamming on the brakes, one foot dragging on dust. The cloud of ash would mushroom and confuse itself into the air, inevitably making the rider invisible to anyone within 20 feet.

The next few days would be a delight of laughter after every boy’s massive ash cloud. I could have repeated that day over and over, gladly, for the rest of my life.

Jason Webster, Spokane

Racing pigeon survived ash

One of the things my husband had been talking about that morning was his racing pigeons that had been released in Oregon and would be on their way back to their home loft in our backyard. Some had already gotten here and were safe, but some were still out there, so of course we were concerned. That afternoon I just happened to be looking out our kitchen window when I saw something land on our fence and then drop to the ground. I thought to myself that it couldn’t be one of our pigeons – nothing could have made it through the ash – but when I went out to see, it indeed was one of the females. She was absolutely exhausted.

I picked her up to see how she was and I couldn’t believe what I saw: Her eyes where mostly sealed with ash dust, as was one of her nostrils. She had flown for hours in those hellish conditions and somehow made it. I took her into the loft, cleaned her up as best I could and put her at the water. She did drink but was too weak and tired to eat, so I just left her to rest. Happily, she recovered and eventually went on to race again.

Holly Bickford, Spokane Valley

Newspapers in big demand

The next morning, I got up at 5 a.m. to deliver my newspaper routes. The Spokesman-Review had left face masks on top of the newspapers for their carriers to use as they delivered the newspapers.

I slowly drove down deserted streets, as if I was the only person in a great moonscape. I could see excited people run to their front windows, watching me deliver papers to their neighbors, and some ran out to the street in bathrobes and boots trying to buy a paper. Regretfully, I had to turn them away because I only had enough for my regular customers.

Sharon O’Brien, Spokane

Eruption taught her to be prepared

I was single and living on the outskirts of Cheney. My 3-year-old daughter, Jenny, and I were sitting in the dining room having a snack when the curtains from an open window gave a poof and we felt the wind. A few seconds later, we heard a loud boom. I knew instantly the mountain had erupted. I turned on the news and the horror stories flowed.

I immediately drove to Cheney to get bread, eggs, dog food and toilet paper. We got our milk from the neighbor and made our own butter. I had four horses, three pigs, a calf, six 3-week-old turkeys and 15 3-week-old chicks. I also had three Great Danes. I only had a two-stall barn, so I put the calf and three little pigs in one stall and the stallion in the other. I put the mares in the corral and hoped they would be all right. I put the turkeys and chickens in the second bathroom shower stall. The dogs became “house dogs.” We listened to the news and watched the skies, and slowly it became night at noon and ash fell like dirty snow covering everything.

I was stir crazy after a week and had run out of chicken food and dog food and needed a few groceries. Jenny and I drove to Cheney very slowly through the ash-covered highway. No one was outside. It was like being on the moon. It seemed as if we were the only people left on the planet.

Mount St. Helens taught me to be prepared for anything. My barn and my pantry are always full. She was a good teacher.

Nancy Hartley, Chattaroy

Thought it was a nuclear attack

I was living on the outskirts of Deary, Idaho, in a singlewide mobile home. I was roughing it: no TV or telephone. I didn’t even have a car. I got up that morning and was excited to see such a bright and sunny day. I had great plans of doing wash and hanging (it) out on the clothesline. As I looked toward the mountains, I noticed a kind of pinkish-gray cloud on the horizon. As the day wore on, it got bigger and closer. I thought to myself, we are going to have a doozy of a storm later.

By the afternoon it looked apocalyptic outside. There was no wind, and it was eerily quiet. The birds had stopped singing; it was getting darker by the minute. Then it started snowing. I was getting pretty freaked out. When I realized it was ash falling, I thought it was the end of the world. I thought we had been nuked. It didn’t help that people who had radios and TVs were being warned not to drive around because of damage to their engines, so there was not even any traffic on the roads. It was very scary, especially after being raised with the idea that nuclear attack was a real threat.

Tracy Russell, Sagle

Stranded in Moses Lake

We … had stopped the night before to spend the night with our daughter in Spokane. The next morning we left to go home to Everett, and eventually while traveling down the highway in our motor home, we noticed something that seemed to be kicking up from the highway and that it kept getting darker. …

The radio wasn’t working, so we couldn’t find out anything. It was around noon as we approached Moses Lake and very dark. It was then when traffic was stopped and we were told not to go any farther. The first heavy ash fell to the pavement as we were taking the off-ramp into Moses Lake.

We spent two nights at the truck stop in Moses Lake and were very lucky to have a place to sleep. … As people kept arriving, we settled inside the café and some of us played cards. Thirty-six hours later the news still didn’t know over 1,500 “out of towners” were stranded in Moses Lake.

Virginia and Leon Breckenridge, Spokane Valley

Cleanup thwarted by bad hoses

At the time of the explosion I was employed as a groundskeeper/ landscaper by Spokane County, in charge of caring for the county campus. I recall on Sunday evening the mayor and sheriff making public announcements to curtail any but emergency travel. Also as most businesses, schools, etc., were to be closed on Monday I didn’t go to work the next day.

Sometime around early afternoon I got a phone call from the head of maintenance wondering why I didn’t go to work that day. I told my boss I understood we were to stay off the roads for the foreseeable future. He said, “Who do you think is going to clean this place (the county campus)?”

… Some of us recalled there were hundreds of feet of fire hose hanging in cabinets in the Public Safety Building to help suppress indoor fires. So we walked though the building and pulled all the hose in the building and hauled it outside and began hooking to hydrants. … As we turned around we noticed all those hoses were sprouting water like lawn and garden soaker hoses with nary a drop reaching the nozzle. What had happened was those hoses were installed and hanging in the Public Safety Building since construction, completed around 1970. Those hoses were of a much lighter fabric than a traditional firefighting hose and all those years of hanging on metal clips had weakened the hoses to ineffectiveness. We later rounded up some genuine fire hose from various spots around the county and used them.

Terry Hontz, Spokane

Dizzy Gillespie cabbed it to Seattle

I’m a member of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra. We were at the INB (Opera House back then) enthusiastically rehearsing with Dizzy Gillespie for a concert that night. Most of us had heard about the eruption but, like most people, had no sense of the impending doom.

By the time the rehearsal was over (probably at 5 p.m.) it was pretty clear that something was happening because it was suddenly very dark and ash was beginning to fall. Despite this and the absence of any warnings about driving, air quality, etc., most of us left our instruments on stage and headed out for home, dinner, a change of clothes – planning to be back for an 8 p.m. downbeat.

Eventually, phone calls confirmed what by this time was obvious – no Diz tonight. Plus by this time TV and radio was full of information discouraging driving. So, most of the musicians’ instruments sat on the stage at the Opera House for three days. Diz spent several days holed up at the Sheraton (now DoubleTree) until he was able to persuade a cabbie to drive him to Seattle over the North Cascades Highway.

A makeup concert was scheduled for the following September. To the delight of the audience, Diz walked on stage wearing one of the now-famous white surgical masks.

Keith LaMotte, Spokane

Fairchild air show canceled

My husband and I were at the Fairchild Air Force Base open house. He was a pilot and loved being surrounded by the magnificent planes and their personnel at Fairchild.

Almost without a warning the “new” Black Bird was moved into its hangar along with many other planes. The announcement came on that the air show was canceled and everyone should leave immediately.

My husband’s first thought was that a war was imminent.

Kate Wendell, Coeur d’Alene