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Eric Johnson remembers Mount St. Helens eruption

A volcano? It all seemed so exotic and far away to a high school senior in the Spokane Valley.

It had been in the news, that's for sure. The mountain had been burping and rumbling throughout March of 1980. Steam and a little ash had been coming up through vents. It seemed like every night there was some new warning on the local and network newscasts about the possibility of an eruption, or the story of some old-timer who was refusing to leave.

I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "It'll probably never really happen."

Of course, even if it did erupt, it wouldn't affect my life. Mount St. Helens was 300 miles away. It might as well have been on the moon.

I was involved in my high school's student government, and for months we'd been planning a 2-day leadership conference that we'd be hosting at East Valley High School. I was supposed to go to the high school on Sunday, May 18th to greet the young leaders who'd be arriving from Pullman and Clarkston, and West Valley and a number of other schools.

That morning the news broke on the radio that the mountain had indeed erupted. "Hmmmm," I thought, "it really did happen."

But remember, this was a different time. No cell phone video instantly uploaded to the universe. No tweeted photos showing an unimaginable plume of ash shot skyward. Just a vague report on the radio, heard by a kid with a million more important things to think about.

When I got to the high school we stood outside and our vice-principal Mr. Wolff told us that the leadership conference was cancelled. He said there was a large cloud of ash heading toward Spokane. Students arriving from out of town were going to be sent right back home. This could be a big deal, he said.

It seemed like such an overreaction. A big cloud? Ash? So what?

I went back home.

That afternoon we listened to the radio and it was becoming clear that something massive and unforgettable had happened. They were tracking an ominous cloud of ash that was being blown in our direction. We kept looking outside, but it was a clear spring day. There was no dark cloud.

We lived in a house that my dad built, perched on a hill overlooking the Valley, and at around 2 p.m. that afternoon, way off in the distance to the west, it began to look as if a big rain cloud was heading our way.

As it came closer and closer it became clear that this was no rain cloud. It was like a massive grey curtain that covered the entirety of the horizon, swallowing up terrain as it plodded towards us, turning daylight into darkness.

My dad, Jack Johnson, was an amateur photographer. He pulled out his camera and started taking pictures.

By 3 p.m. it had arrived in the form of a gritty light-grey fog. The enormity of was almost unfathomable. Visibility gradually disappeared. The streetlight we had on a pole in the backyard turned on. It was the middle of the afternoon, but it was getting dark fast.

Nobody knew what to do. Was the stuff toxic? Would it hurt you if you breathed it in? I wanted to go outside and check it out. I was told to stay inside.

My dad would go outside every few minutes and snap off a few pictures. Within no time at all, they showed a bright orange glow in the distance, surrounded by blackness. It was like looking at a giant jack-o-lantern from across a lake at midnight. Streetlights were on everywhere, fooled into thinking it was nighttime. And the streets were dead quiet. Nobody knew what the ash would do to their cars.

I distinctly remember not really knowing what do do. Too early to go to bed, too dark and potentially dangerous to do anything outside, and too eerie and weird to ignore.

The next morning there was a film of ash covering every square inch of our world. My Dad took a picture of our Ford Bronco covered in the stuff. It was almost a quarter-inch deep in places. School was cancelled, and we spent the day listening, with doctors talking about the dangers of breathing the stuff, religious zealots talking about the Apocalypse, and lots of callers offering ideas about how to use the stuff.

This went on for days. People wore masks outdoors. Air filters on cars clogged and stalled. I swept off our deck but the stuff was so fine it was almost impossible to clean up.

It wasn't until I saw the film of St Helens erupting, with that awe-inspiring plume of ash billowing towards the heavens, that I realized I was living through something that would never leave me.

It was 34 years later that I found a box of Kodachrome slides in a closet at my Mom's house. I sent them off to be developed. And when the prints arrived, I was amazed to find my Dad's shots of the ash cloud, showing May 18, 1980 in all of its bizarre, spooky glory. It was exactly as I remember it.

Looking back, it was the biggest thing that ever happened in the Spokane Valley.

And probably the biggest thing that ever happened in my life.
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