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Where Were You When?

May 18, 2016

It’s strange how certain dates stick in our minds. Today is one of those dates, one of those “Where were you when?” days. 

Sometimes we remember a date because it’s unique and combined with a personally significant event. For example, I will always remember the original release date of Novell GroupWise. It was called WordPerfect Office when it launched. And for marketing reasons it was called version 2.0. It’s official release date was August eighth, 1988. Let’s write that with slightly different notation: 8/8/88. The first service patch was released 10/10/88. Likewise WordPerfect 5.0 was released on May 5th, 5/5. (I don’t remember the year, because it wasn’t a year with a “5.”)

Sometimes the date becomes significant, but we forget way. Cinco de Mayo, is a huge celebration in the United States, even more than it is celebrated in Mexico. It occurs on May 5th, of course. But, most Americans couldn’t tell you why it’s significant. If pressed we might offer up a suggestion of “Mexico’s Independence Day.” It’s not. It’s the date of a significant battle between the Mexicans and the French. 

Even July 4th, which most Americans can identify was “Independence day” isn’t well understood. We know it’s Independence Day, but independence from what? Taxes? Slavery? Aliens? Even people who understand it, don’t really understand it. They will tell you it is the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, declaring our Freedom from Great Britain. That’s almost right. It’s the day the declaration was ratified, meaning it passed the Continental Congress. The document was signed weeks later. (Yes, that picture on the back of the $2 bill is an historical lie.)

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Other times, the event itself is so shocking, so noteworthy, that the date becomes impossible to forget. September 11th, is one  of those days. No one who was old enough to watch television that day will ever forget. Often we remember where we were, what we were doing, who we were with. 

Today, May 18th, is one of those days for me. Thirty-six years ago today, I was 14 years old, living with my family in Olympia, WA. It was a Sunday morning and my brother Richard and I were getting ready to go to church. At about 8:30, some 200 miles to the South, a mountain blew up. In one of the most spectacular and well documented eruptions in history, Mt Saint Helens blew over 1,300 feet of dirt, rocks and mostly ash off the top of what had been one of the prettiest  mountains in the Cascade range. The ash cloud was visible for miles. I remember standing on my front porch looking South. The southern sky was filled with clouds. Living in Western Washington, that wasn’t unusual. These clouds however, were growing. Just standing and watching, I could literally see them climbing into the sky. The ash cloud would reach 80,000 feet: fifteen miles into the air. 

The explosion was estimated to be in the 10-50 megaton nuclear bomb range. The largest man-made explosion ever was a 50-megaton bomb. (1 megaton is equivalent to one million tons of TNT.) The eruption was 2500 times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. 

Fifty-seven people died in the explosion, we think. There’s still some debate, but that number is pretty close. One of the most colorful characters was an old man named Harry S Truman. He was essentially a hermit who lived in a cabin in the forest on the mountain. When the earthquakes started a few weeks before the actual eruption, the area around the mountain was evacuated. Harry, refused to go. He insisted that he had lived his life on the mountain and that’s where he wanted to die. 

But, Harry, we don’t want to leave you all by yourself up here. 

I won’t be by myself.

Who else is here?

I’ll have the company of Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniels.

(For my non-drinker friends, those are the name of popular whiskey brands.) 

No trace was ever found of Harry or his cabin. He probably died before he even knew what hit him. 

Here’s to Harry and the other 55, or so people who lost their lives that day. Our small efforts to reshape the environment pale compared to what nature can occomplish in an instant. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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