Editor’s note: Readers submitted the following childhood memories of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Long walk turned into great adventure
I remember the day Mount St. Helens erupted like it was yesterday. I was 12 years old and was making an 8-mile trek on rural roads from our weekend home to go see my great-aunt in Springdale, Wash. My twin sister, our best friend and I set out on foot for the long walk into town.
About half way into our three- to four-hour journey, it started getting dark and gloomy. It had an ominous feel about it because it had been sunny and beautiful when we started out, with no forecast of an impending storm. We were talking about how weird it was because the birds stopped chirping, and the sun and sky were shrouded and gray.
Before long we could feel the grit of the ash (unknown to us at that time) in our hair and on our lip-gloss coated lips. Our eyes felt as if they had dust in them, yet you could see no ash as it was subtly coming down. We wondered amongst ourselves if the world was coming to end because everything was so still and eerily quiet.
When we reached my great-aunt’s, we were told of the eruption and we were shocked to see the amount of ash accumulating on the asphalt streets.
When we got back to Spokane, all of the cars, streets and sidewalks were coated in ash. I remember everyone wearing surgical masks as they cleaned up the fallen ash.
Denise (Beck) Aleto
Ash-fall led to BMX bike fun
I was 8 years old when Mount St. Helens permanently altered certain regions of the Pacific Northwest. If I would have known the true meaning of the phrase “the world is coming to an end,” my young and still impressionable mind would have imagined just that.
My family and I were on Lake Coeur d’Alene that day, on a springtime float aboard a cabin cruiser. I can’t remember if the weather was overcast or sunny, but the brightness of that day would soon become increasingly dark and sinister. We had no news of the eruption yet as we were out on the water.
I remember looking at my brother Eric as smiles lit our faces; what looked like snowflakes were from the sky in mid-May. I reached out and let a flake land in my 8-year-old hand and as quickly as it landed the “flake” blew away as if it was never really there. This was not any kind of snow I had ever seen. Soon the whiteness of the falling dust would turn a dark grey and stumbled through the sky with a mounting intensity.
It was then that the boat would come alive with the buzzing of a fearful unknowing. All souls aboard were desperately trying to figure out what exactly was falling from the sky. Whatever early 1980s music was on the tape player was shut off and the A.M side of the radio would inform us that a volcano I had never heard of had erupted somewhere in Washington.
As soon as I heard it was a giant exploding mountain, I immediately imagined lava bleeding down the Cascades, spilling out over the flats of central Washington, boiling the Columbia River, and crawling towards Spokane with its slow and fiery fury. But the end of the world was not to come that day, only the end of the childlike notion that man had officially conquered nature.
The owner of the boat soon embarked for land because, if I remember correctly, we were informed not to breath in the harmful and invisible particles. We roared across the lake through the darkening day, heading for what was then called the North Shore Hotel, the current location of the Coeur D’Alene Resort.
The resort area was completely different then with no boardwalk, no yachts, and no Starbucks Coffee stores. Upon arrival at the dock, the family and I would make for the hotel where, safely inside, we would hear a ménage of gossiping tales regarding the actual devastation the eruption had truly caused. As children, my brother, sister, family friends Gregg and Jeff, and I, were residing in a condition of wonderful anxiousness. We were going to be “trapped” at the lake.
Interstate 90, the gantlet between North Idaho and Spokane, would be shut down for at least a day so we would have to remain at the hotel until the roads would reopen. For a couple of days we would pass our time by strolling to the local grocery store or getting infinitely lost inside the soon-to-be last days of the time-fading hotel. Our moment of Elysium would come to an end just as surely as it began. The highway soon opened as did schools, and we were back on the road to Spokane.
I think my favorite part of the experience which Mount St. Helens presented me was after our arrival home. With surgeons’ masks covering almost our entire faces, my brother, I, 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 blur of grey would soon dissolve and meld strangely away into the surroundings with no real contrast to differentiate what was tangible and what was immoveable. 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.
Thirty years later, I still have a Crown Royal bottle, which in 1981 from Vantage, Wash., my dad would fill with the still-present ash from the day Helen let the world know what she was fully capable of.
Jason Webster, Spokane
The sky really was falling
On that fateful day, I was a third-grader at All Saints Primary school and attending a school picnic at Comstock Park with my family.
I was sitting on the swings as the sky began to darken. Worried that it was a thunderstorm coming in to ruin the picnic, I asked my dad about it. “Oh, the volcano blew up,” he replied nonchalantly. He might as well have been talking about the weather. I shrugged and continued to swing. Heck, it had been all over the news for months that Mount St. Helens was going to blow up. I’m sure I’m one of many people who thought it had all been Chicken Little saying the sky was falling.
But it was …
I didn’t start getting really scared until perhaps a couple of hours later when the floodlights were turned on in the park and my classmates and I were running relay races in the dark. It was surreal. Here it was, around 2 p.m. and it might as well have been 2 a.m. It is hard enough for an adult to comprehend the magnitude of it all, let alone an 8-year-old girl.
We left shortly thereafter, but we didn’t head directly home; rather, Dad wanted to go to the high point at Lincoln Park to look out over the city. I couldn’t have been more opposed to the idea. I kept picturing the next morning’s newspaper headlines with a huge picture of the my parents, little brother, and I screaming in our station wagon as we got covered in ash with a headline blaring “Family of four dies in eruption.” It wasn’t even 3 p.m. and all the city lights were on, absolutely pitch black outside.
Shortly after we got home, the ash began to fall. It was so weird, like gray snow. And my parents didn’t have film in the camera. It was around this time our cantankerous yellow tabby cat, Peanut Butter, came in from the back door, covered in ash, and furious. My dad looked at Mom and joked, “There’s the gray kitty you’ve always wanted, Sue.”
Mom looked disgusted and replied, “Not that gray kitty.”
A couple of other snippets from that day – trying Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion potato chips and Country Time Lemonade for the first time. It’s funny the souvenirs our memories seem to take.
The aftermath: A day or so after the eruption, and before we got those God-awful state-issued masks that squeezed your head too hard and made your breath so hot that breathing was unbearable, my dad, brother, and I made a grocery run by walking over to the Excell Foods on 17th and Ray, looking like robbers as we wore bandanas over our faces and watching in amazement as the ash poofed up in little clouds around our feet as we walked.
Because of the eruption, we were out of school for a week. In the entire eight years I would spend at All Saints, I could perhaps count on one hand the days the school closed on account of snow. From my perspective, it was cool.
My 7-year-old daughter tells me this is her favorite story of my childhood. Let’s just hope she won’t be telling a similar one to hers one day.
Jeni Steeber, Spokane
Sunny day turned strange
I was 11 years old and living in the Spokane Valley when it happened. It was a beautiful sunny day, my dad was working on a car in the garage with the radio playing and our two dogs, a German shorthair pointer named Guy and a beagle named Walter, were frolicking in the backyard. My mom, who was a nurse’s aide, was at work and I was out riding my bike.
My dad heard the news about the eruption on the radio and told me about it when I got back from my bike ride. The sky began stated to turn dark and we decided to go into the house. To me, it seemed very strange for it to be the middle of the day and yet have the sky turn dark as though it was nighttime — for it to be the middle of springtime and yet have a substance that somewhat looked like snow fall from the sky.
The television was on and the news about Mount St. Helens dominated the airtime as my mom walked through the door from work. Our dogs were brought into the house and looked like dusty stuffed animals that just came to life. Our front yard, complete with a small lamppost in the corner of our driveway, looked like a Christmas postcard as the ash rained down on our quiet neighborhood.
Scenes on the television played over and over again of the entire side of what was once a beautiful majestic mountain, turning into a giant sloppy mud pie as well as the devastation of a place called the Toutle River Valley.
As a result and somewhat happy news to a kid’s point of view, school was canceled for a day or two. But we had to wear masks every time we went outside, even to pick up the mail and go to the grocery store. I also recall when school started that we had to wear the masks to school for quite some time.
Sulfur smell preceded ash cloud
I remember the day like it was yesterday. My family lived in St. Maries and it was a Sunday. My dad and mom took me and my brothers to Clarkia, Idaho, for the motorcycle races.
I remember it was about noon and we started smelling sulfur in the air and my dad said we’d better head home. It was an hour or so drive and as we got closer to home the sky turned dark like it was nighttime and the ash started to fall.
My parents were very concerned about us kids breathing it. No one really told us what harm it could do to us.
We spent the entire night listening to the news. The next day school was cancelled and we were allowed to go outside and “play” in the ash. We took the hose and started cleaning off the cars and anything that we thought needed it.
School was out for the next week or so, that was the best part. My mom got a Spokesman-Review for all of us to have and then we all keep a vial of ash too. I still have both.
Kelly A. Nicholson
Parents convinced kids it was bedtime
At the time of the eruption we were living in a mobile home near Sprague and Vista, until we finished building our house.
As the ash cloud approached Spokane it started to get dark. We told our three children that it was time for them to get ready for bed. They looked outside, saw that it was getting dark and went to their rooms and changed into their pajamas. We told them that we would let them stay up for a while longer past their bedtime.
It continued to get darker and eventually it started to “snow,” as we told the kids. They wanted to go out and play in it. The children were 8, 6 and 4 at the time.
We still have a jelly jar full of ash that we collected at our building site and ran into pockets of ash for years as we did various projects around the property.
Skateboarders scolded for getting ‘fresh air’
I remember skateboarding outside with a friend. We were in the sixth grade and our parents were always telling us to go outside and “get fresh air” because it’s “healthy.”
Well, at the bottom of the hill, this woman runs out and yells at us, telling us it’s not healthy to be outside, the air is poisonous, etc.
We went home to find out what was going on, and learned about the eruption. It would be several hours before any sign of ash appeared.
Train-car time warp feared
I remember when Mount St. Helens blew. My best friend and I were out walking toward downtown Pullman when we decided to go and check out some really old train cars. We had a blast in this old train car for a while, but when we got back outside, the sky was completely black, and I thought to myself, “did we just do the time warp or something?”
I thought we were going to be late getting home to my parents’ house, as they were really strict on curfew. So, we started to run home, and all this stuff started falling from the sky. It wasn’t snow, I wasn’t sure what it was, all I know is when I tried to comb the ash out of my hair, my hair was ripped from my head.
Oh yeah, the nice part about the mountain blowing up was Pullman High School cancelled all of our final exams.
Kelly Cox (with best friend Vannessa Windsor)
Dad stuck in Las Vegas, mom stuck at home with four kids
I was in kindergarten with my mom and three younger siblings at home.
My Dad had gone on his annual weekend trip to Las Vegas with my Grandma. They couldn’t fly back in to Spokane, so they ended up flying to Seattle and then flying in a couple days later. They had no idea what had happened until they arrived at the Las Vegas airport to leave and discovered their flight had been cancelled.
When my Dad did finally get home, he went out and bought a case of air filters for each car. I’m almost certain we eventually sold both cars before opening either case of filters.
My mom was stuck at home with four small children and had been told that anyone going outside needed to wear a hat, mask and eye protection.
My mom still has a couple baby food jars of ash.
Hard to believe that was 30 years ago.
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