Elegy: May 18th, 1980 - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
May 18, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — I lived in Pullman, Washington when Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. Though 250 miles away, Pullman was in the path of the twelve-hour ash fall that turned day to night on that Sunday 32 years ago. Because it coincided with another significant but small spreading of ashes on that same day, I've tended to recast the event in largely symbolic terms — in a sense turning the mountain upside down.

Seattle, that great labor city, home of Dave Beck and big union shenanigans, of savory dark breads in Ballard smorgasbords, of fishermen and stevedores and roughneck sportswriters, is a boutique. There's everything here, but less, somehow, than when there was nothing.

Yet, even now, there are moments, in early fall for instance, when the city is perfect. A bus ride is a meditation; the sounds of children shouting in the Montlake playground on the lowlands beneath the Capitol Hill rim are timeless: it could be 1928. Late enough for good apples, warm enough yet to find bumble bees in linden trees making a humble music. The moment lasts a day.

Then, the ferries on Elliot Bay — one to Bainbridge, one to Bremerton — crawl back and forth like white stitching on blue serge; the young jagged Olympics are dynamic, dissonant cadences ripped out of the sky; the islands, the freeways, the towers, the clouds, all welcome the lyrical eye to play along a course from west to north; to praise a fir, a gull, a star; to wink, to expose memory to a world now misty, now bright. Defying irony, it considers the possibility of happiness.

Sydney Fortunato loved the city in these late September snapshots. She loved it madly, wholly. In return, she asked the city to lend her life a certain resonance. It must take her talents, which she considered thin; and her appearance, which she considered problematic (by turns ugly, then irresistible) and burnish them until there emerged a smoky warm logic to her accomplishments, a balanced, powerfully beautiful set to all her features. The city was the frame within which she acted out her life. It had power to ennoble her if it only would, to raise her up, and to declare her existence to a discerning yet loving world. Only existence, she knew, could soften her fears, gentle her condition.

Sydney Fortunato lived, and died, in that last snippet of time during which the light in a small storefront bookstore on an early autumn evening could still calm the soul.

It wasn't enough. She was twenty-nine years old in the spring of 1980. She would turn thirty on the very day the next fall when an actor who sold soap on TV would be elected president. Her life, her mind now, in May, preshadowed the surreality of that event, and of the decades ahead. The city, the world, hadn't enough love in it, enough reassurance to keep her here. The lightest load could break her back. The brightest news could make her weep.

After years of a rambling existence, common enough for her cohorts, of consorting with poets and revolutionaries and nuts, she had decided to learn a trade. Graduation from law school was a month away. She was editor of the law review, a fierce bohemian intelligence steeling herself to wear makeup and hose everyday and enter a downtown tower where decisions and money were made. Sydney Fortunato was about to have success, and she was scared to death of what she would have to give up.

May 18th, 1980, was a Sunday. Two days before, Sydney Fortunato bowed before the fears and gave up everything. Too little hope, too many pills. Early Sunday morning word reached friends in a town on the high plateau of Eastern Washington. That day, May 18th, her ashes were being spread on Lopez Island in the San Juans. The drumbeats of radio newscasts that morning were pounding out Mount St. Helens updates. But no one who knew and had just lost Sydney Fortunato paid much attention — the media had trumpeted the mountain's imminent eruption for weeks. The seismic readings, the rumblings; old Harry Truman, the caretaker of Spirit Lake Lodge, refusing to leave no matter what the danger.

The landscape of this part of Eastern Washington is eccentrically beautiful, dry and austere, softly rolling treeless hills covered in spring with young green wheat. Late Sunday morning a massive storm cloud approached on the prevailing southwest wind. It was warm that day, and bright. But in May the weather could go from sixty to snow within a couple of hours. Still, there was something odd about this cloud. There was no texture to it — no light or darker patches. It was a uniform charcoal. It came on, inexorably, larger, wider. Finally, news that the mountain had erupted (sending ash five miles in the air) penetrated even to distracted minds, and shocking leaps of imagination connected that news with this alien thing, approaching. By one-o'clock it covered the sun. By two-thirty it was dark as night, warm as a summer day, and raining, ash, from a great natural bonfire two hundred miles away.

Sydney Fortunato, brilliant, gifted, terminally desperate, without hope, had said she felt a kind of impotence about her, to be heard, to make her life worth living, to be loved by another human being. On the day her ashes were spread in a cove of an unspoiled wooded island, Nature spoke a loud eulogy, and turned hundreds of square miles, in the blink of an eye, into a moonscape, and ash fell, in places a foot deep, for twelve hours and four hundred miles to the east. Ultimately, like a tireless, mournful cortege a remnant marched up into the stratosphere and nearly circled the globe. The capacity of a pained imagination to grasp at symbols is epic. To one who knew of this bright, anguished life and saw it cut short, it seemed a proportionate response: the earth itself had felt it end, and commemorated it, with an event of historic, geologic dimensions.

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