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“Falling Ash and Brilliant White”

29 May 2012

I was almost six on May 18th, 1980. Almost six the way five year olds think of it; my birthday was still more than two months away. We were on the road. Me, my father, my sisters. Coming back from Grandma Eva’s house. She died a few years ago and I didn’t go to the funeral. She lived in Kennewick or Richland or Pasco. I still can’t tell them apart.

Mom had stayed home and my father took me and my sisters to see Grandma Eva and Aunt Christy. And Uncle Chet, even though he wasn’t Christy’s husband, he was Eva’s. He should have been Grandpa Chet but he was Uncle Chet. I guess because my real grandpa died when my father was a child, and he never got around to calling Chet “dad”. Uncle Chet died when I was 10 or 11, and I didn’t go to his funeral either.

On May 18th we were riding back from the tri-cities, and on our way home to the suburb of Seattle, Woodinville, where I grew up, sort of. We lived in what my sisters and I call to this day, “The Woodinville House”, even though my little sister has no real memory of living there, and mine are mostly vague and terrifying. But my older sister remembers it better than I do. Better than I want to. She and I went back there a few years ago, before it was razed for duplicate, standard subdivisions. We looked over the ruin of blackberries that had once been the pasture that our goats and horses grazed in, the skeleton of the old barn, the A frame where I learned to toenail two boards together.

My father had a darkroom in the basement, not that he was ever really a photographer. Another of his abandoned artistic attempts. My father was an artist with no medium. I guess that means an artist with no discipline. When my sister and I ventured into the basement (A place full of good memories as well as bad. Mom used to do everyone’s laundry together and we’d have great laundry sort-o-thons.) we looked at the door to the dark room. I remember the red light bulb. The peeling black paint on the ever-moist walls and the spider-webs that clung to my face every time I forced myself inside to confront some terrible something. I’ve never known what.

My sister said: “Let’s not go in there.” And I said: “No, let’s not.” And we went back outside and I found myself sobbing and she held me and she asked what was wrong and I said: “This is the last place where we were a family.”

On May 18th we were crossing some southern pass on a Washington state highway where there were sand dunes. The sand dunes were on the east side of the mountains. That makes sense because the west side gets all the rain. We always made my father stop and let us play in the sand. I loved the dunes. But I don’t think I’ve been back there since that day.

We had left Grandma’s very early in the morning and it was about 10 am, I think, when my father saw the clouds. Thick, black, rainclouds, he said. I know it was the morning, but it still feels like evening because of the night that followed. So I remember looking westward and watching the sun set through a nightmare of storm clouds. But it was morning.

My father ushered us into the old van. It had a motor mount on the inside with depressions on top for drinks and change. I was sitting in front; it was my turn. There were policemen when we got to the top of the pass. They had flashlights. One was talking on a radio. My father wasn’t talking at all anymore. He put the radio on. He told us to be quiet and there were creases in his forehead. It was getting dark, and I was waiting for it to rain.

It did not rain on the 18th of May, Anno Domini nineteen hundred and eighty in the southwest part of Washington State. What did happen is that Mount Saint Helens let forth a twenty-seven thousand ton explosion of ash, fire and light that blackened the sky, scorched the earth, and seared the memory of a boy, not yet six, with the image, burned forever, of his father’s face, etched in brilliant white by the dashboard lights of an elderly van on Interstate Five.

To this day, my sisters and I recall that day with the phrase: “midnight at noon.” At the hour of noon, I could see nothing. Nothing but the outline of my father’s forehead, nose, and jaw, and the ash falling through our headlamps. My younger sister looked up at my father from the back seat. Too young to understand the gravity, or even the meaning, of her question, she asked: “Daddy, are we going to die?”

“No dear. Don’t worry. But please be quiet. Daddy has to concentrate.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 May 2012 00:06

    You can fucking write. Brilliantly told.

  2. 30 May 2012 04:19

    What a day to remember! I cannot imagine the terror of being actually there and seeing that “midnight at noon”.

  3. 30 May 2012 08:26

    Wow, this is horrifyingly beautiful. I’m speechless.

  4. NatC permalink
    30 May 2012 09:02

    Wow. Terrifying.
    Glad you wrote it – it’s amazing.

  5. Penelope permalink
    30 May 2012 10:11

    I actually have lots of memories from the woodinville house. We didn’t move till I was 6. I remember putting on every coat I owned one august because I couldn’t go outside without you shooting me with your bb gun. I remember Aimee and you convincing me that I should suck on that old rusty gate across the street because “iron is an important vitamin”. I remember you guys goading me to jump off te goat barn, which you did easily when mom called you in for dinner, I was stuck there on the roof for awhile. I remember dad stopping at a gas station on that may 18th to ask if they had heard anything about the crazy storm we appeared to be driving into and I remember that it was after that stop that dad’s face changed.

    • 30 May 2012 11:05

      Oh sure! I didn’t mean to steal your agency about it. this is just as close to my own personal account as I can recall.

  6. furtheron permalink
    31 May 2012 06:44

    Super recollection – I was nearly 18 went that happened. I remember seeing it all on TV, the woods all laid flat then the stop frame photos taken a long way off showing in seconds how the whole of the side of the mountain was blown out.


  7. 31 May 2012 16:58

    yeah, I could correct your memories in several ways, but I won’t unless you ask me to. Your memory of the day of Mt. St. Helen’s is pretty close to one, except I also remember that we were the third-to-last vehicle let over the pass before they closed it. I also remember arriving home and mom running out to meet us, her face drawn and white. Remember: no cell phones.

    I also remember that day that you and I visited the old house. I don’t think it has been razed even yet. I was shocked when you cried: in my mind, we were touring the site of a basically happy childhood, even if scarred by a few major traumas. As we all get older, I am becoming more aware of the ways in which I was spared by being the oldest – which are balanced, of course, by the ways in which I was damaged by being the oldest.

    • 31 May 2012 17:47

      By all means! IF you want to contribute to the record, I’m happy to hear it. And I think that looking back at the Woodinville house I agree: it was basically happy a lot of the time. Hence, I said that it was the last place we were a family. Not that we weren’t a family there.

  8. 3 June 2012 16:11

    I think you could publish this. It is wonderful.

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