S2E11 Volcanoes

The author and his sister in 1980, after the volcano

Joe tries to remember the eruption of Mount St. Helens but isn’t sure he trusts memory.


Around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980, my world changed. There was no way of knowing or suspecting, so soon into the morning, the sky would turn black. Not black like the night. Not black like an eclipse—there were no stars or moon. Black like a closet in a basement. And still. The stillness of attentiveness, the stillness of hiding. Then quiet, like the world after a blizzard. Silent. Silence that is both comforting and eerie. A quiet in which sound is absorbed into the surroundings. Like the world was quilted in black velvet. No echo. No reverb.

Then the snow came. The streetlights kicked on, in the morning, as we were getting ready for church. And—in the radius of the streetlight—snow. But it wasn’t snow. This was mid-May. It couldn’t be snow. But it looked like snow. Dirty snow. Gray. It was the falling pieces of trees and soil and stone, all reduced into flakes and dust and ash, the particles of a mountain 105 miles directly west of Granger, Washington.

Because of how memory works, I don’t have many details of that morning. Only that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, to me, a nine-year-old, was a welcome apocalypse. I did not want to go to church. Neither did my brother and sisters. Nor, probably, did my Dad. And in a world as small as Granger—with its 1,800 people, uncluttered by stoplights or movie theaters or even a McDonald’s—the eruption of a volcano was entertainment. It was sublime. It was bigger than anything I had seen or known or thought to know—bigger than the hydroplane races at SeaFair, bigger than the Space Needle, perhaps as big as Star Wars.

For me, that is the entirety of the memory: The mountain erupted, it was black on a late-Spring morning, and we didn’t have to go to church. I wish there were more. But memory doesn’t work like that. It is not a home movie—a rediscovered VHS tape in the garage. Based on the way memory seems to work, you can never be sure the details are correct. The memory becomes transformed by narrative—like my memory that we didn’t go to church—such that there may be no actual memory. Only the story that was crafted and called “memory.”

Since 1980, I have gone through similar collective events—the Challenger explosion, the Columbine shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Nisqually earthquake. Each event becomes lodged, internalized, by the “where were you when it happened” context—the place and time and feeling of the experience more than the event.

Ben Lerner, in his novel 10:04, writes of this phenomenon. He describes the Challenger explosion and how all us Gen-Xers remember where we were, how we watched the space shuttle blast off and explode. We were in school, encircled around a TV with our classmates. Only we weren’t. Not most of us. Not those of us in Granger. Lerner points out that only CNN carried the launch and explosion live. We didn’t watch it happen. We watched it as remembered later in story, as news. In 1986, I don’t even know if Granger had cable. Our school, among the poorest in the state, certainly didn’t have TVs in every classroom.

This week, I am trying to remember the explosion of Mount St. Helens forty years ago. I will talk to peers and tell stories. The Portland Art Museum is sharing its volcano exhibit. But, if I’m honest, I don’t know much more than anyone who wasn’t alive then or who isn’t from the Pacific Northwest—only that it happened and was worth remembering. I will, like many people I know, probably say, “I’ll never forget it.” Which, with few exceptions, is not a choice we get to make with memory. Of course I will forget it. Maybe I won’t forget that it happened. Every year since 1980, I associate May 18 with Mt. St. Helens. Just like I associate June 16 with my dad’s birthday. Though there is a substantial difference between remembering that my dad was born and remembering the events of his birth.

I can make a list of “never forgets.” But the list is short. It shifts from public catastrophes to private ones, from the attacks on September 11, 2001, to the death of my friend Nelson Ng on August 15, 2008. Nelson was a police officer. And he’s been gone so long. I’ve almost become used to a world without him. Though, not really. I still feel the cavity. Just as now, every time I drive north on I-5, if the day is clear, I see what remains of Mt. St. Helens. It is something like a tooth after a root canal, hollowed out and sunken. It’s top 1,313 feet are missing. Parts of it mixed in with the dirt and dust in Granger, Washington. I can’t see the summit. I only know that until forty years ago, it had one and that now there’s nothing in the place of where the summit should be.

I admit, it’s harder to see the chasm left by Nelson. I’ve moved away from Ellensburg, his wife remarried and changed his daughter’s last name to match her new husband’s. Though, earlier this week when the Kittitas County Sherriff’s Office posted pictures of officers who died in the line of duty—beneath the banner at the top of the page that reads, “Never Forgotten”—I noticed the absence of Nelson. These portraits were limited to the never-forgotten of 2019.

By definition, I do not know who or what I’ve forgotten. I’ve certainly forgotten many of the people and events I said I would never forget. Whenever someone says, “I’ll never forget,” it rings like a challenge to the universe. Yes, they will forget. I will forget. We might remember a feeling—or that we felt. We probably will create a story that takes the place of memory. Where we were when the planes hit the second tower, what we were eating when the radio reported the death of President Roosevelt.

I do wonder, when this moment in history ends, what will remain. Probably stories about toilet paper and a cartoonish American president. I will remember not being able to go to church—how the Plague took away Lent, then Easter, then (unless a miracle in the next week) Pentecost. But not much beyond that. Memories are a bit like produce on a counter: the browning of a banana, the softening of an avocado. So, we put new bananas, new avocados on the counter.

I have long envied that device in the Harry Potter books—the Pensieve. About which, Dumbledore says, “I sometimes find… that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.” The Pensieve allows the pure extraction of a memory so that it can be reviewed—by the original witness or by others. Like it was filmed before a live studio audience—a piece of television more than a concoction of facts and perspectives and interpretations. But, of course, this magic does not exist any more than does floo powder or the spells by which Voldemort can come continually come back from the dead. Memories fade into interpretations or absences. Dead people stay dead.

Perhaps I am reading too much theology and history lately. It’s strange the way that history, so often, feels more like discovery than recollection. The way I come across a story and think, “How did I not know that?” Which is another way of saying things were forgotten. I’ve been reading a family history my Aunt wrote. All of it feels like discovery. My family has forgotten—or chose to forget—or maybe I’ve simply forgotten. And the memories exist now only as stories, like a form of alchemy. How trilobites, once fleshy and living, exist now only as stone. How a mountain’s summit is now dispersed across states as part of the topsoil or makes up the silt on the ocean floor.

I don’t know what any of this means, only that I keep hearing about the things people will never forget. I wonder why they believe that. Of course we will forget. We always forget. Maybe memory was never about remembering. Maybe it is only a process by which an experience or person blends into us, that even if we forget all the details, we respond to the next tragedy or pleasure with an instinct or intuition, a sense that we’ve been here before. Or maybe memory is this flicker—this idea that we need to re-discover a thing that is in danger of being lost. And maybe that is why I write—to remember a few things, to try, as much as I can, to re-create the Pensieve. Or simply to store something that will otherwise be as distant to me as childhood and volcanoes and the celebration of staying home from church.

By Joe Johnson

Joe lives in Portland. He writes. Some of it is good. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing through the Rainier Writing Workshop (at Pacific Lutheran University).

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