Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Where were you when the mountain blew?

Every so often, an event happens that stops time. Years later, people will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened.

The day President Kennedy was assassinated? Sorry, I was just shy of my second birthday. The moon landing? I was in Chicago visiting my grandmother and remember vividly watching it on her console TV. The Challenger disaster? I was at work at Turtledove Clemens, an ad agency in Portland, when Lisa called and told me she had seen it happen live. 9-11? I woke up to get the kids ready for school just in time to see the first tower fall. 

And Mount Saint Helens? When she blew her top, I was winding up my freshman year at Washington State. My parents had called earlier in the day, telling me the mountain had erupted and that the ash cloud was headed straight for us in Pullman, on the eastern side of Washington. Sure enough, not long after noon a black cloud formed on the horizon and quickly made its way toward us. I was on the 7th floor of Roger's Hall, with a room that faced west. Within the hour, the sky was pitch black and all of the automatic street lights came on, thinking it was night. Then it started to snow, only the snow was actually volcanic ash. No one knew anything about it, so police cars and ambulances drove around campus, using their sound systems to tell everyone to remain indoors with the windows shut. This went on for hours.

Before long, we had a good inch or two of ash on the ground. They cancelled school for Monday ... then Tuesday ... then the whole week. Life pretty much ground to a halt. We went down to the dining hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then back to our rooms. This was the week I learned to play hearts. Bandanas and surgical masks were handed out. And if anyone needed to drive, they were told to stretch a pair of old panty hose over the air filter. It was a crazy time, but definitely one to remember. And speaking of crazy, my girlfriend at the time decided to take the university up on its offer of "if you're having issues because of the ash, you can take your grades as-is, skip finals and go home." Me and my blue bandana stuck it out — the semester, that is, not the relationship.

So now, as we look back fondly some 30 years later, I can say "wow, I was there." And saying that out loud makes me also think "wow, am I old!" Not as old as a volcano, mind you, but ...

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