For many years, May 18 has held a certain distinction for me. On that date in 1980, I was in the second grade at Clear Lake Elementary School on Wheatland Road in what is now Keizer, Oregon. Sadly, the school has since changed locations and buildings, so I must admit a little part of me died in 2005 when I drove by the old location with my wife for the first time to find it closed. Thankfully, it was still there, so I could show it to her. Progress had claimed another victim, but that is not the point of this story.
Most people remember that on May 18, 1980, a natural disaster ranking with Hurricane Katrina and the San Francisco and Northridge earthquakes in terms of financial damage happened in southern Washington. On that day, at 8:32 A.M., a 5.1 earthquake shook loose the bulging north face of Mt. St. Helens, causing it to slide downward into Spirit Lake and the mountain to erupt, spewing some 540 million tons of ash into the atmosphere1. That’s 1,080,000,000,000 pounds. 1 trillion, 80 billion pounds of ash. Incredible. This event caused unimaginable damage to the surrounding area, and sadly, 57 people were killed as a result of the catastrophe.
But what most people probably don’t remember is that there is a great man buried under the debris of the north face of Mt. St. Helens. His name was Harry R. Truman (“No relation [to the President],” he said). He was 83 years old.
Harry became something of a national celebrity from March, 1980 until his death on the 18th of May. He lived in a cabin on Spirit Lake, directly under the north face of the mountain, which was exhibiting a bulge the likes of which vulcanologists had never before seen or studied. As a result, there was considerable fervor over his living in the cabin, and his refusal to leave. As the media began to promote this case in earnest, children all over the country began to take an interest in Harry, many writing letters to him.
However, the letters that piqued his interest most were those written by Scott Torgeson’s third and fourth grade class at Clear Lake Elementary. The letters written by these children, begging him to leave the mountain, asking him why he wouldn’t, and providing him advice for how to protect the animals in an eruption, prompted Harry to visit the school. He arranged a helicopter via National Geographic magazine, which was reporting on the mountain’s activity, and came to the school to meet and speak with the children. I’ll never forget that day. It was Wednesday, May 14, 1980.
The school took the opportunity to bring all the students out. (Accounts place the number of students at either 104 or 110 students2,3; that seems about right, but I can’t recall, having been seven years old at the time.) The parents came to see Harry and to watch the children interact with him. It was an amazing day.
We all went outside to greet him, banners held high, and he came down in a helicopter, accompanied by a pilot, a National Geographic reporter, and if I’m not mistaken, a photographer from the magazine. We cheered his arrival, waving and jumping, as the copter landed and Harry walked out to greet us.
If I recall correctly, he was given a chair. Though, he might have been offered one and instead said “I don’t need no damned chair,” or something like that. Harry talked like that, even when we children were present. In any case, Harry said a few simple words, “Hello, children,” and the like, and then took questions from us; that was the real reason he’d come.
One question sticks out in my mind from all those years ago, and it was: “What would you do if you looked out your window and you saw lava coming down the mountain at you?” I don’t remember who asked it, but it was one of the kids.
Harry’s response was exceptionally candid: “I’d run like hell.” We laughed, but it was exactly the right statement; I’m sure that’s what any person would do under such circumstances.
After a few more simple questions and comically truthful answers, the conversation changed. One of the children asked Harry why he didn’t just leave the mountain, to make sure it didn’t kill him.
This seemed to be what Harry was waiting for, because he dramatically changed his tone and explained. I don’t remember his exact words, but his message remains with me; I’ve brought it forward with me every day since. He told us he’d lived a long and mostly happy life, he’d lived up there some sixty years, and he’d buried his wife there. He told us he loved his wife and missed her every day, and that if he had to be buried, he wanted to be buried with her.
Then he told us someday we’d understand. Now I do. It was one of those rare occasions when an adult told me I’d understand someday, and I actually remember understanding. Then Harry told us goodbye, and we told him the same. He and his crew got into their helicopter and flew back to Spirit Lake. Four days later, the mountain erupted, and Harry joined his wife. We were the last people to see him alive, excepting those with him in the helicopter.
Below, I’ve added a link to a short YouTube video by spikedeadman showing the collapse of the northern face of Mt. St. Helens that would have killed Harry, and the beginning of the subsequent eruption. If you’ve never seen it, or if it’s been a while, take a look. It will leave you speechless.
I’m not sure if Harry was the first person I’d met who died, but he is definitely the first person whose death I remember. I knew Harry, so to speak, for only an hour and thirty minutes or so. But he’s had a tremendous impact on my life; I think often about that man and his philosophy. He had his priorities figured out, and he explained them very clearly to a bunch of grade school children, as if he were speaking to adults. As a result, his message still resonates with me and I suspect everyone else who was there, decades later.
Every May the 18th, I think about Mt. St. Helens and specifically Harry R. Truman. Every year. I feel a strange bond with that man, even though we never actually spoke. It’s amazing what an impact on one’s life twenty or thirty letters from third and fourth graders can have. (Along those lines, please make sure your children write. It can make a huge difference in their lives.)
Due to such a simple act of compassion on the part of children, kindness on the part of an old man resulted in one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. I wasn’t in Scott Torgeson’s class at the time, but I feel privileged to have been at Clear Lake on that day.
My world is better for your having been here, Harry. Run like hell.
- Tilling, Robert I., Topinka, Lyn and Swanson, Donald A. (1990). Eruptions of Mount St. Helens: Past, Present, and Future. U.S. Geological Survey. Accessed May 17, 2009.
- Findley, Rowe. St. Helens: Mountain With A Death Wish – In the Path of Destruction. National Geographic, January, 1981. Accessed May 17, 2009.
- The Daily News. Mt. St. Helens – 25 Years Later. Lee Publications Inc. Accessed May 17, 2009.