Wednesday marked an anniversary of sorts for me.

On May 18, 1980, a volcano in the Pacific Ring of Fire erupted in spectacular fashion and a memory became etched in my mind forever.

The day was a Sunday. In Pullman, on the far eastern side of the state of Washington, the weather was much like it often is during that time of year – warm and sunny. Other than what form of recreation to be involved in, there wasn’t much to consider for me and the other 17,000 or so students at Washington State University.

While Mount St. Helens had been active for several months and spewed fairly sizable amounts of steam and ash a few times, its activity didn’t really present anything to be concerned with. Mount Baker (east of Bellingham in Washington’s North Cascades), Mount Hood (above the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland), Mount Lassen (in northern California), and even Mount Rainier (visible from most parts of the Seattle area and the granddaddy of Cascade volcanoes), had all been known to fire up once in a while and sometimes even darken their snow-and-ice covered slopes with smatterings of ash.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

When you live out west, a volcano showing some life is no big deal.

Some friends and I had chosen a Frisbee as our recreational source that afternoon. We were tossing it hard on a grassy area near the Steptoe Apartments, one of several on-campus complexes and the one in which we lived.

We were excited about knowing that our junior years were nearing conclusion, and we had more pressing things to think about than volcanoes – like what we were going to pick up for dinner at Rosauer’s grocery store.

It was just another day at Wazzu.

But at about 1 p.m. or so, something appeared over the wheat fields on the western horizon. Something big.

The Inland Empire of the northwest United States isn’t known for large thunder storms, so seeing a large layer of black looming over the outline of the Palouse region hills was strange.

Someone said, “wow, that looks like one heck of a storm system.”

The Frisbee kept flying and the small talk kept flowing.

A bit later, the layer had grown much larger and was obviously rapidly approaching. It stretched from north to south as far as the eye could see. And it was black as black can be.

Someone said, “maybe the volcano blew.”

Everyone stopped and looked at each other. A grim realization set in that that’s what really must have happened and that we were probably in for an undesirable experience.

And in fact, St. Helens had erupted at 8:32 a.m. that morning and sent a plume of ash more than 10 miles up into the atmosphere.

In an instant, a 9,677-foot mountain had become an 8,363-foot mountain. A 23-square mile landslide (the largest on the planet in recorded history) traveling at an astonishing 70 to 150 miles per hour had buried 14 miles of the North Fork Toutle River Valley to an average depth of 150 feet (but in some places reaching 600 feet).

The prevailing air movement was sending a massive cloud of ash eastward – and Pullman was directly in its path.

As the layer made its way overhead, it took on a puffy-bottomed, swirling appearance that was intimidating, if not science fiction movie scary. Anyone who laid eyes on the scene would have known right away that they weren’t looking your average clouds.

Then the ash started falling. A little bit at first – like an ash flurry.

But by about 2:30 p.m., the darkest dark imaginable had set in and a full-on ash storm had ensued. The ash fell so hard that everything was quickly covered, like during a strong winter snow.

The darkness was amazingly complete. The ash layer totally obscured the sun and all natural light was eliminated. The only light emanated from streetlights that eerily came on in mid-afternoon.

An ambulance drove slowly through the parking area in front of our building with loudspeakers blaring the repeating message “remain indoors until further notice; respiratory damage is possible.”

No doubt – every breath was like inhaling a mixture of flour and dirt. Once I had filled a large jar with some “clean” ash from the windshield of my car, we all went inside.

The hours went by and the ash kept “ashing.” The covering on the ground grew to several inches – remarkable when you consider that the stuff was finer than powdered sugar.

Since it was 1980, there weren’t dozens of forms of technology available to us where we could find out how long the situation was going to persist. When we finally gave up waiting and turned in for the night at about 1 a.m., we basically had no idea what we were going to wake up to.

For all we knew, our building – and the rest of the Inland Empire – was going to disappear under a giant blanket of ash.

It was pretty scary.

Fortunately, the ash storm subsided at about 2:30 a.m. and the final depth at our locale – 230 miles from the source – was about six inches.

Being a major university, WSU made a valiant attempt to continue operating a couple of days later. Students and teachers were issued those little white masks with the rubber bands on them and classes resumed.

But the ash got in and on everything. It ruined many car engines (not mine for some reason) and infiltrated climate control systems in every building. It made washing fresh produce virtually impossible and clean laundry hanging in the closet quickly took on a dusty, gritty feel.

The stuff basically became a major hassle and made carrying on almost unbearable.

After an impromptu and pared-down series of finals, school was mercifully halted a couple of weeks early.

The 270-mile drive home was never so sweet. To the west lay ash-free real estate.

As a summer job for several years in the 1970s and 80s, my brother and I put up Ace Fireworks stands all over Washington and Oregon. We’d load the flatbed truck with parts (fronts, backs, sides and tops) at the headquarters in Bellevue and head out for days at a time.

When we were working east of Portland in late June, St. Helens erupted again. This time the prevailing winds sent the ash in a southwesterly direction. I felt sick to my stomach as it started falling on us – in the rain no less.

“You’ve got to be kidding. This cannot be happening.”

The eruption was far less significant and the ash quit falling before it piled up. But talk about gross – wet ash was all over the place.

Other than my jar of ash and a boatload of vivid memories, I have nothing to show for living through such a weird set of circumstances.

In the days that followed the big blow, I took many photographs with a 35mm camera. But when I had the roll developed, there wasn’t a thing on it. I was heartbroken. I don’t know what happened, but I suspect the ash was to blame (it got into everything). Maybe the 400 speed film didn’t advance or was somehow ruined, but the pictures only exist in my mind.

You should have seen this street sweeper making a futile attempt to clean up a campus parking lot. Ash was flying like crazy – I think the sweeper was just repositioning it.

After 31 years, it still seems like yesterday.

May you never find yourself downwind of a major volcanic eruption.

Doug Davison is a writer, copy editor and advertising representative for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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