Thirty-five years ago yesterday, I watched a charcoal-and-ash billow rise 80,000 feet up from Mount St. Helens. I saw this on my grandmother’s television screen. From my ten-year-old vantage on our 30-acre Midwest farm, this seemed as far and away as anything else I saw on television. But days later, when we walked outside, my grandmother gave a vocal start. I looked up to see the sky discolored red. It was the carbon in the atmosphere from the eruption, and sunlight filtering through. Here in Indiana.
Just two weeks ago I was flying out of Portland, Oregon. The plane reached cruising altitude, and I turned to look out my window to the north. There were the 3 snowcapped peaks that I recognized from so many flights in and out of PDX. Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and that now cratered bowl of snow I saw on television 35 years ago, Mount St. Helens.
My recollections from the eruption of Mount St. Helens include Harry Randall Truman. He was a lodge owner and caretaker at Spirit Lake who said it would “take an Act of God and the Congress” to move him away. He was killed.
I thought about Harry as I looked down on these landmarks slowly drifting past the tip of the wing. In his opinion, scientists and the media were exaggerating the present danger. Even when the forewarning earthquakes knocked him out of his bed one night. His theory was that a mile distance from the mountain and the lake between would be enough to protect him.
What I find especially interesting is the hero status that Harry’s last stand evoked. At 84 years he had women fawning over him, children sending him fan mail from school, and men celebrating his bravado.
As I mentioned, I was ten, and I never had the pleasure of meeting the man. So he didn’t get a picture colored by me in the mail. I don’t really want to speak ill of the dead, but I remember my grandmother calling him an idiot. And Grandma’s dead now, so I guess that’s okay to mention.
Harry based his decision on what he knew of a mountain he’d lived at the foot of for over 50 years. He must have believed he knew more about what happened there than most. And he did. But he could not have understood an active volcano as well as people, say, in Hawaii, or Southern Italy, or on La Réunion island. That must have seemed as foreign to Harry as he did to me as I stared at that television screen from Indiana.
…or as foreign as climate change to those unfamiliar with drought, hurricanes, rising sea level, etc.
Today I watch the television to hear echoes of Harry in James Inhofe and the other fantastic media whores of the US Senate. They too defy the clear and collective science before them. They too play the celebrity, gripping their snowballs in public and voting on reality. The difference with these old men’s belligerence is that there are 7 billion people in the danger zone of their apathy.
Dollars to donuts, if there was any moment of time between the eruption and Harry’s death, I’d wager he regretted his decision.
But I’ll give him one thing: he didn’t take anybody with him.