It was Pompeii that started my obsession with volcanoes, but it was Mt. St. Helens that really sealed the deal.
All of this happened before my sixth birthday, which is when Mt. St Helens began to erupt — a process that started in March, with a series of earthquakes and venting that was much covered in the news, and culminated on May 18th, 1980, when an earthquake triggered the collapse of the north face of the mountain.
This created a massive avalanche, as well as a lateral blast — a sudden release of volcanic gas that basically destroyed everything within 150 square miles. There was an ash plume that plunged surrounding cities from daylight to twilight. The eruption killed 57 people. I remember hearing reports about it on the radio, and seeing photos of the volcano on the front page of the newspapers, in news boxes, as I walked to school.
I was entirely fascinated, because, as I’ve written about before, I’d gone to see an exhibit called Pompeii AD 79 at the American Museum of Natural History — just in time for the 1,900th anniversary of that volcanic eruption. There were archaeological artifacts on loan from Italy, there was a show at the planetarium, and there was a plaster cast of the body of a girl and a dog who died. I thought about that a lot.
Children begin to learn to distinguish fact from fiction between the ages of three and six, a process I remember pretty clearly. (At about this time, I realized for example that Jimmy Carter and Jiminy Cricket were not the same entity.)
Anyway, I had filed “volcanoes” in the same mental category of danger as “wicked witch of the west,” as opposed to whoever snatched Etan Patz on his way to school which had everyone in Manhattan in a major panic — this also happened at about the same time. The eruption of Mt. St. Helens shifted my perception of this danger. If a volcano killed that little girl, why couldn’t it also kill me?
I don’t remember finding it that scary though. Children don’t completely understand death until about age 11. Now, I knew a lot about death for a child of my age — my father had died when I was an infant — and I realized that this made lots of people very sad, but it didn’t upset me particularly. And while I didn’t believe death was a real possibility for me, I also found the idea very compelling.
(Armchair psychologists might also point out that my fifth year was when I started living with my stepfather, a man with catastrophically volatile moods and tempers. And that perhaps the fact that something that seemed as placid and as a mountain could suddenly turn unpredictable and deadly struck me as practical information, news I could use. And that therefore volcanoes became a Topic of Interest, something that I urgently needed to know a lot more about. Certainly none of that occurred to me at age six.)
Anyway, I’ve yet to visit Pompeii in Italy, but I’ve now been to Mt. St. Helens twice, the second visit just a few weeks ago.
Every moment I’ve spent there holds great meaning to me, which I can glibly attribute to being a total geek (also true) without getting into all this heavy shit.
After visiting the Johnston Ridge Observatory — named for a vulcanologist who screamed into the radio Vancouver Vancouver this is it! on May 18th, 1980, just before he died.
I walked along the Eruption Trail for a bit, taking photos. I was just behind a boy who was around six years old and his increasingly exasperated father.
The boy asked the same questions over and over again: But what will we do if the volcano explodes again, Dad? But what if it did? How do you know it’s not going to explode now? What if it did?