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Memories from Mt. St. Helens eruption still fresh after 40 years

Later this spring, the Pacific Northwest will mark the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. A museum in Spokane has kicked things off with a new exhibit, as well as an online effort to collect memories.

Speaking from personal experience, 1980 was a terrific time to be an 11-year-old in the Northwest, and the 40th anniversary of that May 18 eruption is a real milestone for anyone who can remember the original event.

Working on various local history projects over the last 25 years, I’ve found that the 40th anniversary is something of a “sweet spot” for commemorating events. Four decades is long enough enough that the event feels like something historic. It’s also far enough back in time that the traumatic parts are not as traumatic. For Mt. St. Helens, this includes the fact that 57 people died in the eruption.

From a more positive standpoint, 40 years ago is recent enough that significant numbers of people are still alive who remember the event. The same isn’t always true when the 50th anniversary rolls around.

Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC) is the exhibit and programming arm of the Eastern Washington Historical Society. In honor of the 40th anniversary, they currently have two volcano exhibits on display. One is about Pompeii, the Italian city wiped out by Vesuvius in 79 AD; the other is about Mt. St. Helens.

The two disasters have their similarities, but MAC curator Freya Liggett says there was only one person who wrote about what happened at Pompeii: The Roman figure known as “Pliny the Younger.”

“This Pompeii story … a lot of its human element came to us through that one written record,” Liggett said, while leading a reporter on a tour of the gallery. “Whereas, [with] Mt. St. Helens, we have tens of thousands of experiences.”

Those thousands of local experiences, Liggett says, are what inspired MAC’s exhibit, formally titled “Mt. St. Helens: Critical Memory 40 Years Later,” and the museum’s approach to explore, and collect, both popular culture and personal recollections.

“That’s what we’re attempting to capture now, and see what is the value of [those Mt. St. Helens memories] 2,000 years from now,” Liggett said. “What will those experiences be like for exploring Pacific Northwest history?”

The exhibit is packed with social and cultural artifacts collected from people all over Washington state. You could almost call one thread of the exhibit “Volcano Pop Culture,” with its jars of volcanic ash collected by people as impromptu souvenirs, commercially made souvenirs produced by entrepreneurs – including a board game which I had never seen before – and terrific, if somewhat bittersweet, photos of people like USGS scientist David Johnston, who died in the eruption.

Also making an appearance is perhaps my very favorite Northwest person of all time: Spirit Lake Lodge proprietor Harry Truman. Truman, who was in his 80s, famously refused to leave the lodge in spite of the danger, and he ultimately perished in the eruption

On a personal note, I didn’t understand that unwillingness to leave as an 11-year-old, but I get it now. I feel like I would, under similar circumstances, probably do the same thing that Harry Truman did.

“I think people really responded to that kind of ‘pioneer hold-out spirit’ that he represented,” Liggett said, pointing to a picture of Harry Truman while a song about him (written 40 years ago by Ron Allen) played in the gallery. “It was it was kind of a generational throwback that really resonated with people.”

MAC and Liggett have assembled a respectable collection of audio artifacts — including that Harry Truman song — for the Mt. St. Helens exhibit, as well as some rare Spokane radio coverage of the aftermath of the disaster. A jukebox-style interactive display allows visitors to choose audio clips to play.

The provenance of one of those vintage radio clips is a fascinating time capsule of personal technology and local media, circa 1980.

Freya Liggett described an unusual Mt. St. Helens memory that involved a mom and three kids from Seattle driving in their car between Moses Lake and Spokane, as the monstrous ash cloud turned the day to darkness in Eastern Washington.

“The kids had a cassette recorder with them,” Liggett said. “So they were recording the radio reports [from Spokane Valley country music station KZUN].”

Two hosts provided live updates about what was happening as the ash cloud moved east. KZUN, nicknamed “The Voice of Spokane Valley” and referred to as “Kissin’ KZUN (as in “cousin”) was on the air from the 1950s to 1982.

“I remember doing this as a kid,” Liggett said. “You recorded not just what was on the radio, but [also] your conversations.”

Liggett says the unusual recording, with its mix of the personal and the public, came to the museum from musician Chris Ballew, a member of the Presidents of the United States of America who’s better known these days as Caspar Babypants. It turns out that Ballew was one of the kids in that car back in 1980.

If you have memories to share, MAC wants to hear about them. They’ve created a special website called “Mount Saint Helens Critical Memory,” and they encourage people everywhere who remember the 1980 eruption to share their stories.

KIRO Radio plans additional stories throughout the spring as the anniversary nears. We are very interested in tracking down audio from our coverage (on 710 AM) from that era; if you happen to have recordings, please send email to [email protected]

The Mt. St. Helens exhibit at MAC is open until September; the Pompeii exhibit closes in May.

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