“…that mountain top is sure to blow!”

Public domain photo from the USGS of the big eruption on May 18, 1980.

“The year was 1980,
May 18th, you’ll recall,
When daytime turned to nighttime,
In the town of Yakima…”

I never lived in Yakima, but Longview, were I was living and attending school in 1980, was in one of the flood plains that was in danger of major flooding when Mt. St. Helens began erupting in 1980. The Oregonian recently acquired some photos that were taken by a pilot that day, that have never before been published. They’re pretty awesome. Go take a look.

We were lucky on May 18, because the wind was blowing away from us. So while three of the rivers that converge there at the towns of Longview and Kelso rose so high that they almost overtopped the dikes, daytime did not turn to nighttime for us, and our houses, cars, and yards weren’t covered with muddy ash.

Than happened exactly one week later, on May 25, when the mountain had another really big eruption and the wind was blowing our way.

She had lots of little eruptions before and after. I took some really eery pictures one sunny afternoon of the mushroom-cloud shaped plume of ash rising up behind our house. I should find those pictures and scan them in. It did look scary having our house in the foreground and that cloud rising behind it.

Some time after that big eruptions, I heard one of many songs entitled “The Ballad of Harry Truman” that were written that year. The opening lines to one of them I’ve quote above. I’ve found a recording of that version, but there are several other good ones.

They are not about the former U.S. President, but about a cantankerous old man who refused to be evacuated from his home on the mountain. He had various responses to people asking him why he wouldn’t move. Usually he mentioned his secret cave, where he had a barrel of whisky stashed to “sit out the trouble.” He had other more colorful replies, including skepticism that it would be that dangerous.

Of course, not only was Harry’s home destroyed, but the entire lake it was near and hundreds of acres around it was disintegrated. Not just buried in mud, or lava, blown out as thousands of particles of gunk.

I understood, even though I agreed he was crazy. He’d buried a lot of friends and his wife on that mountain. He was 84 years old and had lived on the mountain most of his life. He didn’t want to live or die anywhere else.

Every year at this time I spent a while searching the net hoping to find a copy of the song whose opening lines I always remember. That version’s chorus called for us to raise a glass for Harry, and hope that he’s got his cats and whisky, still hiding in his cave. As I said, a lot of folk singers wrote songs about him. Of the ones I have found, I think Neal Woodall’s may be my second favorite:

When people ask, ‘Why don’t you go?
That mountaintop is sure to blow,’
And Harry says, ‘That may be so,
But it sure as hell beats dyin’ slow…'”

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