Thirty years ago I was living at my Dad’s in Yakima, going to college. That Sunday was a beautiful day, and Dad was outside in the garden as I was getting ready to go to work. I worked for a photographer who had a studio in the Yakima Mall. I liked working Sundays. Sundays were always quiet, especially when the weather was nice.
I heard a loud boom but didn’t think much of it. Yakima was right next to a military training center and it wasn’t too unusual to have a hot dog pilot break the sound barrier. Some minutes later, my Dad yelled for me to come outside. I ran out and saw this ugly dark brown/black cloud rolling towards the town. We knew that Mount St. Helen’s had erupted.
We ran inside and quickly shut everything up. My boss called to jokingly tell me that I didn’t have to go into work. Unfortunately, the Mall didn’t shut down the air intake system quickly enough, and when we were able to get into the studio three days later, all of my employer’s cameras would be ruined.
The day began to turn into night. The ash started falling all around us. It was quiet except for the ash, which made a slight hissing sound when it fell—like a snake who is only going through the motions. On the TV, it interesting to see our quiet little town being the top story for most of the major networks. The President flew by. We waved.
My cat was still outside. I’ve learned since to keep cats inside. Well, I say “my” cat, but Bonzo was really Dad’s cat—a case of love at first sight between those two. I thought he would come back when he saw the cloud, but evidently the ash must have panicked him. I told my Dad I had to go find him. He was torn between wanting to keep me inside, and being worried about Bonzo. Go find him, Baby Doll, he said, but don’t stay out too long.
Yes, he called me Baby Doll. Dad’s been dead a few years now—I don’t mind telling you he used to call me Baby Doll.
I put on a plastic raincoat I bought on a lark once, and never wore. It ended up being a perfect cover for the ash. I wet a handkerchief to wrap around my nose and mouth, though it didn’t work as well as I hoped.
Walking through the streets, looking for my cat, was like walking on the moon. The ash was very fine but so persistent. It covered everything, though it slithered off the plastic of my coat. After about half an hour, I couldn’t handle the ash anymore and came home— hoping Bonzo would be smart enough to find cover.
During the day, the ash cloud would sometimes thin out, leading us to hope the worst was over. Then the ash would thicken, the day darken again. I must admit to being more than a little worried about how long the ash would fall. Would we be evacuated if it fell for days?
Were we in danger?
Towards evening, we heard a faint meow at the back door. I opened it, and there on the step was a mound of ash with two brilliantly blue and really pissed off eyes. Bonzo had made it home.
The ash fell throughout the day and into the evening. The darkness was oppressive, the acrid smell overwhelming at times. Sometime during the night, though, it finally stopped. When we woke the next day, we woke to another world. Ash covered everything.
I used to smoke in those days. I had run out of cigarettes, and we also needed milk and some other odds and ends. We couldn’t drive because of the ash, but there was a neighborhood store a couple of blocks away. I knew the store would be open—you’d have to bury that store under lava for it not to open—so I again donned my plastic coat and set off.
If the walk during the ash fall was unnerving, the walk the next day was surreal. You could see tracks of animals, including that of a bee that had become so weighted down, all it could do was squiggle along the sidewalk. Bird tracks, cat tracks, other small critters—no people tracks though.
People were out and about, primarily shoveling ash off roofs because the weight was enough to cause some real concerns. Others, seemingly indifferent to the effects of mixing ash and engine, were out driving, and their cars would send up clouds of acrid dust. Some of our more enterprising neighbors built a speed bump of ash mixed with water, which worked pretty good until the street crews knocked it down.
For the next three months, we cleaned up ash. In the beginning, we wore a lot of masks and some folks took off for ashless climes. Silly, really, because bad stuff happens everywhere. If you’re going to leave a place, you leave it before the bad stuff happens. Otherwise, you’re just moving from bad stuff to bad stuff.
My Dad used some of the ash from around our place to mix into cement for a new sidewalk. Other people created souvenir statues from the ash. I bought a t-shirt that said something about the mountain and Yakima, but I can’t remember the words now. Probably something that seemed clever then, but would be stupid, now.
A day by day account at the Yakima Herald Republic.
St. Louis Today photo gallery.