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Mount St. Helens memories: The day

Editor’s note: Readers submitted the following stories about the day Mount St. Helens erupted.

Skippy Joe found safe and sound

I was with Wallace in Sacred Heart Hospital after his surgery. I noticed it was getting dark outside, even though it was only about noon. I looked out the window and the sky was so black in the west. Something was falling, and since it was May, I didn’t think it could be snow. A nurse came in and told us that Mount St. Helens had erupted. Wallace said I had better go home.

I went down to the car and it was covered with ash. Some had even seeped inside. I brushed off the thick coat of ash and headed out Division Street for home. The ash was falling so thick and it was so dark, I couldn’t see if there was a car in front, back or beside me. I just kept driving in the center lane and arrived home safely.

Our little dog, Skippy Joe, had been left outside but was nowhere to be found. We had rented our downstairs apartment to a college girl, but she wasn’t there. I was getting frantic, wondering what happened to Skippy Joe.

When the girl came home she said she had put the dog in her apartment when the ash started to fall. I was so thankful our little dog was OK.

That eruption took many lives, destroyed homes and spread its ashes clear across the country. We had to wear masks when we went outside. It took a long time to clean it up, and for years after, you could see the ash on the side of the roads.

Grace Libby, Spokane Valley

The show goes on at Hauser Lake

I was the owner/operator of the county-rock nightclub Gator McKluskys on Hauser Lake. The club was doing very well and we were (in)famous for our Larry Mahan Buckin’ Bull Pen in the middle of the club, and mostly booked Northwest touring bands 3-5 nights a week. The club was large enough, so periodically I would book an expensive national act for special one-night concerts.

For May 18, I had booked a very popular 11-piece country-swing recording act, Asleep at the Wheel. They traveled in their bus — I think it was an older Flexible model. The Wheel was on a tour up from the Southwest through California. I wasn’t able to get a weekend date, so I took May 18. Their fee was pretty high, but being a fan I figured even if I didn’t make money on the ticket sales, I would do very well from the bar sales with a fine time had by all.

The Thursday before the show I got a call from Ray Benson, the leader of the band, telling me his bus had broken down somewhere in central California. He and the band were stranded so he was going to have to cancel the Friday and Saturday shows plus my show and the shows early the next week. It seems because of the age of the bus, it was very hard to find parts and mechanics to work on it.

I had so much invested in the show already, print and radio advertising, extra supplies I had ordered, deposits to the band, agent fees, rental fees on a larger sound system, baby grand piano and such. I was looking at a huge loss if they canceled, and even if we rescheduled, it would be costly. So I put my thinking cap on and begin figuring out how to get The Wheel to my club on time.

I had spent the previous 15 years in the music business as a player, manager, road manager, concert promoter, agent, babysitter to the tragically famous and other stuff all over the continent, so I had experience with this kind of disaster in the making.

I spoke to Benson again and found out they were within limping distance of Redding, Calif. I remembered I had a friend whose father owned a new car dealership in Redding. A few calls later, I was talking to the owner explaining my dilemma. He had on mechanical staff an old timer who was familiar with the Flexible bus. I put Ray and them together over the phone, and they worked out a plan to nurse the bus to the repair garage by Friday.

Then of course there were problems finding parts, and mechanics working late on Friday and early Saturday morning. Finally they loaded up and headed to Spokane. We had our fingers crossed that the repairs would hold, and if they drove like crazy they would make it to their hotel late Saturday or early Sunday morning. I received a call in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The plan had worked.

Back at Hauser Lake, we were watching the news for updates on Mount St. Helens while we set up the club for the evening show. Eruption, then ash, commenced and soon things began looking gray. Several calls back and forth with the band about what I wanted to do, finally deciding to go for it because, well, just because. I informed the media the show was a go.

Meantime the Washington State Patrol closed I-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 as devious and hard-headed as I and told him of my trouble. He was up to the task and 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 on the back roads and cattle trails through Spokane Valley, around the back side of Newman Lake and through the mountains, and the back way leading them to Hauser.

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.

I really don’t know how deep the ash was at this point, but I remember it as about a foot and a half. 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. By show time we had about half of the crowd I needed, but as they say the show must go on.

All night long we kept the air conditioning running to cool the club and clear the air, but of course people were running in and out all the time dragging more ash in, so we had a minor ash storm in the club for about four hours.

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.

Over the next few days we surveyed the damage: beautiful new baby grand piano – toast; sound system – thousands in damage; building air conditioning= – need you ask? The club – cleaning and shampooing for days; my pocketbook – moth preserve. In the end I guess everything worked out, plus it is always fun to hear Ray Benson’s retelling of their adventure in Hauser Lake.

Jim Christensen

Morning jog and monkey attack

I went out for a run on the day Mount St. Helens blew, but I was home before the sky began to get dark. It was like nightfall by midafternoon. The next day i went to work at the University of Washington Primate Field Station and was counting monkeys for the morning checklist when I was attacked by a male pigtail macaque monkey, weighing about 40 pounds. Someone had left the door of the room in which he resided slightly ajar and he bounced against it until he got out. He walked on down the hall and came up behind me. He wrapped his arms around my knees and began chewing on my right knee. I slugged him in the head, but that had about the same effect as a fly landing on him would have had. He bit my fist and returned to chewing on my knee.

I tried to move, but his grip on my legs made me fall over. I was in fear that he would then try to bite my face or other areas, but he seemed to know that he had won, and he walked back down the hall. I walked down to the infirmary and got treated for the wounds to my knee and hand, which were slight. In gripping my knees he had scratched the backs of my legs which were quite sore and would prove to be the most discomforting result of the experience. I stayed off work for a week to heal. I was living in Medical Lake at the time and it was eerie how quiet it was. Every now and then someone would race their car down the road near our house, apparently not believing that it would be bad for their engine. The rooster tail of dust was impressive and it was quite a show.

The monkey who attacked me was netted by my good friend and returned to his room. I bore him no ill will, but never felt as comfortable when counting monkeys for the morning checklist. And, as a result, I remember the Mount St. Helen’s incident quite well.

Robert Mitchell

We lost Harry and the lake

My home was 10 miles west of Longview, where I could see the top of Mount St. Helens.

During the several weeks before the major eruption, minor eruptions blew bits and pieces from the top – an obvious signal of what was about to happen. Hikers and campers were banned.

 An old man, Harry Truman, had lived for many years in his cabin below the mountain and overlooking beautiful Spirit Lake. Many who knew him desperately urged him to leave, but he chose to stay. His response was that if his mountain goes, he goes with it.

We lost Mount St. Helens, Spirit Lake and Harry Truman.

Fran Gorton, Spokane

Rush delivery

My story is included in my new poetry volume, Adventures in Poetry, coming out this summer:

“The Eruption of Mount St. Helens (8:32 a.m., 18 May 1980)”

Some guessed the saintly mountain peak was pregnant

As morning sickness plagued her throaty vent

With bloat and magma. How she strained her girdle!

Seismologists debated what this meant.

Then earthquakes kicked and shifted in her belly,

And uncouth steam blasts dogged her poor digestion.

Fierce tremors signaled nervous agitation,

And fumaroles attacked her white complexion;

Till suddenly, the eighteenth day of May,

Her muscles taut, the restless peak expelled

With cosmic force her strange demonic child—

Gray blast! Hot rush! as men and trees were felled.

A mushroom cloud rose from her northern flank—

An awesome symbol of some godless power

No atom bomb had ever hoped to equal.

Winds sped six-hundred-eighty miles per hour.

Beneath an overlay of ash, stick forests

Smoldered secretly for weeks unending.

Land slides and mud flows jammed the silver rivers.

Ash blew two thousand miles before descending.

Each witness had a story worth the telling:

How darkness chased them home to anxious spouses,

How birds did penitence in Lenten ashes,

How drifts were shoveled from the roofs of houses,

How auto filters had to be inspected,

And face masks worn against abrading grit;

And how a drunk, who, wakened on a sidewalk,

Asked shoppers, mystified, “What time is it?”

Well, that’s the way the eruption impressed me. I was at the Air Show watching the dark cloud approaching, then hurried home to my anxious spouse. Since I worked for the Spokane Police Department, I had to return to work days before my husband –a tech in Public Works – did. This meant cleaning the quarter inch of ash from my Volkswagen oil bath filter before leaving for work.

Mary Kienholz, Spokane

Critters behave strangely

I lived in Elk, Wash, at the time it blew. I was on my deck and the sky got dark, and the deer came out from the woods early, and my chickens started cackling. I knew something wasn’t right. Then my daughter said the mountain blew.

Alan Pyles

In the shadow, in the dark

We lived in Battle Ground, about 25 miles from the base of Mount St. Helens. We did not hear, see or feel a thing. The only way we knew about the eruption was when we saw it on the TV news.

Yet a friend who lived in Vancouver, Canada, told us that he heard it and felt the vibrations from it.

Larry Tanzer, Spirit Lake, Idaho

Howlin’ good time

When it was all dark and eerie, 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

Game called for ash

It’s 3 p.m. and I’m in right field at Grant Park playing Jack & Jill softball. The tennis court lights come on and I realize I can’t see home and I can hardly make out the pitcher’s mound.

Maybe that volcano ash from Mount St. Helens really did come this far. Game called because of ash.

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. Helen 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

Staying alive

We lived in Castle Rock near the mountain and were building in Toutle. My husband could have died, and we lost several friends. No, it wasn’t dark there that day. It bothered me for several years to hear on radio in Spokane on May 18, “What were you doing that day in the dark?” We were trying to stay alive.

Debbie Morris

School’s out for summer

I was a freshman. All of the sudden it was dark as night at 4:30 in the afternoon. When I turned on the flood lights, it looked like it was snowing in April, but weird – it was gray.

I asked my Dad if he knew what was going on and he did since he had been following the news. We got a ton of ash dumped on us in Spokane, so school was closed, not to resume until fall. Yeah for the “no finals” part, boo for being confined to home for a zillion weeks. I wonder how much glass I have in my lungs?

Mickey Bradshaw

Mad dash to get the kids

Beautiful sunny day. We lived on Long Lake. We were doing yard cleanup and waiting for the planes from Fairchild to fly over. Went inside for water and saw the news.

Kids were in town visiting. Had to make a mad dash to get them. Was not a comfortable time. I still have a jar of ash stored in the basement.

Carolee Crosen

Touch of grey

I was a year and a day old when the mountain blew up. I don’t remember anything about the day, but my mother has told me stories. I was at my grandmother’s house while my mom went to a Grateful Dead concert with some of friends in Portland. The last song they played that night was “Fire on the Mountain,” and when my mom walked outside there was ash falling to the ground.

Mic Adams, Spokane

Don’t blame the birds

Was straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. News broke: It was headed this way! (Run for your life?) And in a matter of a few hours, broad daylight had turned into night. But this phenomenon was not because of birds. Was eerie, amazing.

Leo D. Kenny, Spokane

A potent portent?

Her untamed fury exploded from the bowels of the earth flattening majestic forest pines.

A pristine mountain lake unleased from rocky prison walls raged on an unnatural course, destroying all in its path leaving a ravaged, desolate scenario for unbelieving eyes.

She spewed up ash that blew across the heavens on God’s furious pent-up breath.

Anxiety, born from lack of faith, settled with the dust that covered the countryside. An eerie blanket of gray blotted out the sun and covered every living and manmade thing.

Some said it was an awesome portent of future devastation or a look back on dusty relics of the past, a ghost-like emptiness pervading towns.

His spirit, moving on the winds, sent gusts of ash ever upward clouding our vision, a grim reminder of tribulatiion ahead, or rejoicing! We washed away the ash and affected a mode of normalcy, almost forgetting the mountain and her raging contents.

Fists doubled, our deity struck again in other country parts with hurricanes, floods and earthquakes with heat forced up from the depths of hell by the prince of the earth.

Still the conquerer, Mount St. Helens rumbles and boils within, a seething cauldron, priming herself, preparing to empty her latent power on the unsuspecting, the complacent; that once again God might fill her with his mighty wrath.

Her violence bespoke our lack of control, a warning perhaps to get our lives in order.

Is God tired of our scheming ways?

Audrey McClenahan, Spokane