Editor’s note: Readers submitted the following stories about school or college and the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Breakfast, renaissance faire and volcanic ash
I was a young professor at WSU in my second year in Pullman when Mount St. Helens erupted. While a considerable amount of news preceded the actual eruption, I don’t recall any mention of the consequences for the eastern part of Washington state. The first indication that there would be impacts occurred to my partner (she, too, was a young professor at WSU) and me when we emerged after a late breakfast at a local restaurant on that Sunday and could see a thick black cloud was rapidly approaching and nearly overhead. We thought little of it and went on our way to the Moscow, Idaho Renaissance Faire. While at the faire it became very dark and the birds began chirping, as if night were falling. Like others we quickly departed the faire and headed home. The seven-mile drive was especially memorable since we needed to operate the windshield wipers of our car at high speed in order to maintain enough visibility to drive safely.
The next day, with ash everywhere, we trod through it to get to our classes since the university remained open for that day and perhaps the next, before the decision was made to close it. Then, for many days afterwards, like virtually everyone else in the Inland Empire, we spent numerous hours cleaning the ash from our roof, gutters, driveway, and just about everywhere while wearing the protective masks that became pervasive at the time.
Attached are photos shot in Pullman and on the WSU campus on the day of the eruption and the next day.
Gene Rosa, Moscow, Idaho
Sky is falling
Sometime in my late 20s, with my husband’s encouragement, I began to work toward getting the college education I had missed earlier when I went straight from high school into work and marriage. Little by little, year after year, I accumulated college credits until finally, on May 18, 1980, I graduated. I was 46 years old. My father, congratulating me, remarked, “I knew if you ever graduated, the sky would fall.”
I also remember my first sight as I exited the auditorium on that day: other graduates in their long, black robes, looking as if they had a very bad case of dandruff.
The fun part of May 1980 was in gathering with the neighbors for a street party of sorts as we all swept, shoveled and hosed the streets and sidewalks.
Shirley Drury, Spokane
I had just finished my freshman year at the University of Idaho in Moscow. I was in the process of moving from the dorms to an apartment when the mountain blew. I was supposed to get the keys to the apartment the next day. Of course, everything was shut down and no one was out and about for days afterward, so I was sort of “homeless.” I slept on some friends’ couch in that same building for a few nights until I was finally able to get into my apartment.
One thing I will always remember is going to the grocery store with my friends-turned-roommates (and lots of other unnerved people) to stock up on supplies after the news of the eruption hit. The sky was already darkening then. Soon there was just a bright ring along the horizon, and pitch black above – in the middle of the afternoon. So bizarre. As we left the store, the ash started falling. I can still see the ash landing on the shrink-wrap of the strawberries at the top of my grocery bag. It looked like grey flour.
The sight of everything covered in inches of grey powder was the eeriest thing I’ll probably ever see. It seemed like Armageddon. Everyone was so freaked out about the health effects of being exposed to the stuff.
My RA in the dorms got married on that very day in Moscow. Talk about a bad omen. I heard they divorced a few years later.
We still have a couple jars filled with ash in our basement. Not sure what we’ll ever do with them.
Kim Keating, Spokane
Serendipity strikes again
There is some serendipity here. Have you noticed that we’re getting ash locally from the Icelandic volcano? Go out and run your finger across your car.
Mount St. Helens blew the morning after I graduated from the University of Idaho. I’ve tried very hard to not take it as some kind of career omen. Friends and I had planned a picnic that afternoon at the arboretum on campus. We still held it, under a shelter, in an afternoon that looked like midnight, with ash pouring like snow.
Stocking up on essentials: beer and toilet paper
I was a student at WSU along with my oldest sister Celia. My folks and other sister Cindy were planning on coming down to Pullman (from Spokane) for that Sunday afternoon to celebrate Celia’s birthday and mine. I went to work in Moscow at the University Inn, working the front desk on my usual 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. The morning was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. I drove my ’65 VW Bug on the two lane highway to Moscow. I was looking forward to meeting up with my family after my shift.
Around 10 a.m. we heard the announcement on the news that the mountain had blown. We really didn’t know what to expect and were more curious than concerned. About noon time some of us went outside the hotel to look at the western horizon and saw a big dark cloud-looking thing across the whole horizon. We went back into the hotel and as the afternoon wore on, the ash cloud continued east. Around 1:30 p.m. it started to get dark as the cloud covered the sun. Again, we didn’t know what we were supposed to do or not do. As I finished my shift, I decided to head back to Pullman on the eight 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. We grabbed our backpacks, covered our mouths and noses with bandanas and headed to the store. Those two items were in short supply, but we were able to make a purchase. In the meantime, my family luckily turned around about 30 miles outside of Spokane and headed back home, escaping the fate of others who were stuck on the road or in school gyms for the next few days.
The next day we woke up and headed out to class only to hear from our neighbors that WSU president Terrell had canceled classes. And of course, that meant our neighbors were going to have a party (any excuse). My roommates and I attended for a while but headed back to our apartment to listen to the news. 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.
It was a very interesting experience and something that very, very few people will ever experience.
Jay W. Scott, Anaheim
Like a nuclear ‘Day After’
On that historic day I was in line outside the Whitworth College fieldhouse with other students who were to receive our masters’ degrees. Our families, friends and other relatives were already inside. It was an incredibly sunny day with a clear blue sky, but we saw this massive black cloud coming out of the west. None of us thought, “Oh, volcano eruption.” It was simply an unusual thundercloud heading our way that was going to dampen this special day. Once inside the fieldhouse the ceremony continued without a hitch, but through the windows we could see the day was getting darker by the minute. Odd. Quite a thunderstorm. We were eventually told what was happening. Upon leaving the building it was like a thick fog but ash instead. More like “The Day After” a nuclear detonation.
Bob Isitt, Spokane
Senior didn’t regret missed school
I was 18 and a senior at Shadle Park High School on Sunday, May 18, 1980. I was looking forward to my graduation a month hence, much more than I was I (was looking forward to) my shift as a boxboy at Excell Foods on West Garland (now Rosauer’s corporate headquarters) that afternoon.
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. To look outside at 3 p.m. that day, one would have thought it a snowy winter night. It was more than surreal – it was apocalyptic.
I called my boss expecting to be told to stay home, or even to find the store had already closed. 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. Our customers had more sense: We had only a handful and wound up closing early. The Air Force had had even more sense, ordering an SR-71 at Fairchild that day for the base’s annual air show, to skedaddle as soon as the eruption occurred.
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.
It was uncanny how the ash cloud followed I-90, even as it curved up north to Spokane. After dumping on Spokane, the cloud promptly turned back south then headed east on its way across the country and around the world.
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 iron-clad, Slant Six-powered product of Detroit, it soldiered on faithfully for years. Wherever it is now, Mount St. Helens ash can surely be found in its every nook and cranny.
Michael Cain, Spokane
Band’s cleanup tune carries fourth place win
My wife and I were chaperones for the University High School marching band in May that year. The band was practicing on the parking lot of the school.
The mountain blew and the school did not want the band to practice because of the ash. Thanks to Inland Paper Co., they loaned us fire hoses and the water district said we could use the fire hydrants to wash the parking lot off of all the ash. That stuff was really heavy. Let me tell you that all the band members and a lot of the parents chipped in and we got all of the parking lots at the school clean.
This was great and the marching band took fourth in the nation on the trip back East. The band members were just great on this trip because taking I think about 148 members, 20 chaperones, and staff members was a great time. We even took small bags of the ash to sell to the people back East.
Royal Lee Myhre, Spokane Valley
Unforgettable events, uneventful ending
I was a senior at Washington State University in Pullman and three weeks away from graduation when I decided to visit my family in Kennewick. The weather on the morning of May 18 was beautiful, so my dad decided to take us for a boat ride on the Columbia River. As Dad hooked the boat trailer to the truck, the winds picked up and strange, billowy clouds moved across the sky. A few minutes later, Mom heard on the radio that Mount St. Helens had erupted.
We launched the boat on the Columbia, but the winds increased, visibility was poor, and the water was choppy. An hour later, we decided to end the boat ride. On the drive home the radio announcer warned listeners not to go outside because the health risks of breathing volcanic ash was uncertain. We grumbled, “Too late for us.”
Kennewick only received a light dusting of grey ash. Beyond our area, roads were closed for one week including all routes to Pullman. Of course, I had final reports due for my classes but brought none of it with me. One week later I returned to Pullman only to learn that all classes had been canceled for the past week.
Then an announcement came out from WSU (President) Glenn Terrell: If for any reason you think you should receive the grade you have now and go home, sign a form at the Administration Office and you are dismissed for the rest of the semester. Long lines formed at the admin office, but I stayed behind to ensure my graduation status.
My classes on Monday were nearly empty. My professors said that it was not fair for those students who stayed behind to do more class work and to take final exams, while those who left campus did not. They told us to turn in any extra paperwork by the end of the week if we wanted to improve our final grades; otherwise, final exams were canceled and we were dismissed from attending all remaining classes. By the end of the day, I walked out of my last class and thought, “Hmmm. I guess I am a college graduate.” It was a very uneventful end to my college life, but the events leading up to it were unforgettable.
As I packed my possessions into my car the next morning for my move back to Kennewick, I noticed that my landlord had swept volcanic ash into a 3-foot high pile in the parking lot. I found a large empty glass jar with a lid and scooped in as much ash as the jar would hold. Later, I divided the ash into smaller jars and handed them out to relatives. Thirty years later, I still treasure one small jar of volcanic ash and my WSU diploma.
Mary Fouts, Kennewick
Student lost in his own neighborhood
As a Washington State University student visiting home for the weekend, I was sleeping in on that Sunday morning. The clock’s chime at 8:30 woke me, and I was debating getting up when I heard the doors suddenly rattle for a few moments. It was strange, but I didn’t think any more about it except to check the clock – it was 8:32.
I was washing my car that afternoon when the western sky started looking like a thunderstorm brewing. My neighbor told me about the eruption so I threw a tarp over my car. About 4 p.m. the streetlights came on, and I could just barely see the sun through the cloud. There were really no shadows; everything was bathed in a weird, yellow light.
My roommate and I decided this was our cue to head back to Pullman and stopped off for a dozen donuts. We popped into a store near 29th and Grand; when we came out, the ash had begun falling, and we looked around in surprise. In the ten minutes it had taken us to get donuts, it was as if night had fallen. The air smelled of sulfur. We decided to stay overnight rather than risk the highway, which I later learned was closed. We headed toward my house near Wilson Elementary School. I had lived in the neighborhood since second grade, had walked its streets too many times to count, but this time I had no idea where I was. We stopped the car and I stepped out. The ash was coming down now like gray snow through the glow of the streetlight, falling too fast and straight down like fine sand. The particles were bigger and gritty in my teeth. I tried not to breathe much. It had grown profoundly dark. I actually climbed a street sign pole to find out where we were. Amazingly, we were at 26th and Lincoln, right at Wilson School and only two blocks from my house, yet I couldn’t even see the house on the corner where I climbed the pole. We stayed up late watching the news, perhaps feeling a bit like the War of the Worlds audiences in the 1930s.
Monday morning it was absolutely, stunningly silent outside. The carpet of ash absorbed every bit of sound and there were no birds, no animals, no insects. Monday afternoon I heard a honeybee flying about 10 feet over my head. It was flying aimlessly and too slow. Suddenly it quit buzzing and fell to the ground. It staggered through the ash for a few seconds, and died. It was eerie and somehow sad.
Long story short, I spent four extra days in Spokane. Being a weekend trip, I only had two pairs of underwear and socks, so I had to wash one set each night. We shoveled ash off the sidewalks, like everyone else, and knocked it off the bushes and flowers. Hearing that ash destroyed car engines, we stayed home until Thursday after when my mother drove us back to Pullman. The highway looked like a winter scene in a grayscale movie - dark ruts of bare pavement and a plume of ash in our wake. When we got back I heard Pullman’s grocery stores had run out of beer within a day of the eruption, and I believe it.
Lars Hendron, Spokane
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