short story

Volcano (part three)

and (drumroll please) the conclusion…

ERUPTION! the headlines screamed from the Portland and Eugene papers, accompanied by a beautiful color photograph of the volcanic plume, complements of yours truly.

We were on all the broadcast and cable news networks and CNN ran a special on volcanoes. Suddenly, Calder’s Bend was famous. Unfortunately, most residents were no longer around to enjoy it. The State Police had arrived shortly after the eruption started and firmly, but politely, asked everyone to evacuate for their own safety. Most did not need to be persuaded. By the second day of the eruption, the ash and cinders lay two inches deep across town and the sky was darkened by the cloud of smoke and ash pouring out of the volcano. The entire landscape‑‑buildings, trees, lawns alike‑‑all seemed painted a uniform, washed out gray.

It looked like the end of the world.

From what I’d heard, even Little Mac had relented and sent Melody and the kids to safety.

I didn’t leave with the rest of the evacuees. I was quite possibly sitting on the story of my journalistic career and I just couldn’t force myself to walk away from it. Stupid, I know, but there you go. Shows you how much I value my life.

A little after lunch, I walked into Fat Man’s Tavern, brushed the ash off my shoulders, removed the handkerchief from my face, and walked up to the bar.

“Decided to hang out?” The Fat Man said as he drew my beer. He wasn’t really fat anymore‑‑a bout with cancer had seen to that‑‑but the nickname had stuck.

I nodded, then shrugged. “I guess I want to see how it all turns out. How about you?”

He set the beer in front of me and waved at the building around us, now empty except for him, me and Leroy Jacobsen, who practically lived here. “This stupid place has been my life for forty years. If Little Mac’s volcano is going to take it, I’d just as soon it took me with it.”

I sipped the beer. It tasted like ash.

I nodded at Leroy. “Sorry about your truck.”

“Me too,” he said with some difficulty. The beer in front of him wasn’t his first. “The damn insurance people don’t believe me. ‘Act of God.'”

He slipped into inaudible mumbling, directed at his beer. His only real friend.

“Has anybody seen Little Mac?” I asked the Fat Man (who wasn’t fat). I was terribly afraid he had died trying to fight the volcano, an Oregon version of Harry Truman, who had died rather than leave his home on Mount St. Helens.

“I haven’t seen him,” Leroy said from down the bar, snatching coherence out of thin air. “But he hauled a truckload of telephone poles up to his place yesterday along with a couple of cat’s and backhoes. Looked to me like he was building something.”

“Really?”

The fat man nodded. “I heard he offered his crews a month’s wages to help him save his house. A handful took him up on it too.”

I drained my beer and paid for it.

“You going up there?”

“I’m a newsman,” I nodded. “I’ve got to see what’s going on. ”

#

Driving up to Little Mac’s ranch was the most nerve‑wracking thing I’d ever done, with the possible exception of asking Tiffany Reynolds for a date my junior year. (She politely turned me down and four years later, married a wealthy plastic surgeon in La Hoya. I don’t think I fit into her life plan.) There was so much ash falling from the volcano, it was like driving through a thick, hot fog, with the added complication of occasional cinders and pumice slamming into the car like golf balls. The trip normally took about twenty minutes; today, I spent almost two hours on the road before crunching finally into Little Mac’s driveway. There had to be a half dozen pickups parked haphazardly around the house, as well as two flatbed trucks and a water tanker.

I stepped out of the car and into chaos. The rumbling explosions of the volcano competed with the engines of several pieces of equipment and a large generator. The forests on the nearby hills had caught fire and roared out of control. Overlaying it all was the constant patter of cinders hitting the house and ground. Ash and cinders lay nearly six inches deep over everything. The air was thick with ash and smoke.

I pulled my coat over my head and ran around to the back of the house.

The scene there was like nothing I’d ever seen, anywhere. The volcano was some five hundred feet tall now, a perfect, stereotypical volcanic cone. Where the base of the cone threatened to swallow Little Mac’s house, a string of flood lights illuminated a dozen or so men frantically bracing a wall of telephone poles that had been constructed in a “V” shape around the back of the house. The ash and cinders of the volcano pressed against the wall and spilled around either side. On the cone itself, an earthmover was busily pushing cinders off to the side, away from the house.

It reminded me of videos showing men laying sandbags against a flooding river, only here it was raining ash, not water.

My God, I said to myself. He’s doing it. He’s actually doing it.

“Tommy!” Little Mac spotted me and trotted over with a metal hard hat. “Better put this on. Don’t want to get beaned.”

“How long have you guys been working on this?”

“A couple of days now. You here to help?”

I guess. I was here; I might as well.

“Sam’s been up on the roof all day,” he said. “He could use a break.”

Fifteen minutes later, I was on the roof of Little Mac’s house with a hose, trying to keep the hot cinders from catching the house on fire. I would spend the next twelve hours there, then rest for a couple of hours, before going up for ten more. For two days we all lived like that, barely eating, hardly sleeping, and working like proverbial dogs.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the eruption ended. A kind east wind cleared away the smoke and drifting ash and the world grew very quiet. The handful of exhausted men around me stopped what they were doing and, in the sudden stillness, gazed up at the enemy they’d been battling for so long. It stood there, slowly smoking in the sunlight, black as tar and awesome as any idol. I gazed at it too, so tired that it physically hurt to move, and knew in my soul why the ancient Hawaiians worshiped Pele.

Almost as incredible as the volcano, was the fact that we had succeeded in saving Little Mac’s house. Sure, it was scorched, streaked with muddy ash, and the windows had been broken out of the back‑‑the side facing the volcano‑‑but it was still standing, still structurally sound.

#

Almost a year later, the little town of Calder’s Wait was back to normal. All the accumulated ash and cinders had been washed or hauled away. Those buildings suffering minor damage had been repaired, houses had been repainted and new landscapes planted. The reporters and photographers from around the world had begun to drift away after a few weeks. Now, just a few scientists and people working on books bothered to make the forty‑five minute drive east of Eugene/Springfield.

On this Saturday morning, the town’s movers and shakers had gathered in front of most of the residents to dedicate the new Volcano Visitor’s Information Center, built on a siding on the edge of County Road 151. The Center featured a kiosk with photos of the area before the eruption, the eruption itself, and the final volcano. Historic and scientific features explained the workings of the volcano and its place in human history.

Coin operated telescopes (even here, the powers that be could not pass up the opportunity to make a dime) strategically placed offered beautiful views of the volcano that had given Calder’s Bend it’s fame.

After nearly two hours of self‑important speeches, Mayor Vera Klatch cut the ribbon and a cheer went up as the Center officially opened.

My duty documenting the occasion nearly finished, I turned away to gaze at the object of all this hoopla. The mountain loomed as awful and magnificent as ever, still black as night, a perfect triangle rising amid the gentler hills around it. A single wisp of white vapor drifted away from its peak. There was little hint of the violence which had marked its birth.

And there, cut into a notch at the mountain’s base like Rip Van Winkle sleeping between the roots of a massive black oak, was Little Mac’s house, repainted and beautiful as ever. As I watched, Little Mac’s pickup pulled out of the drive and headed toward town. He must have spotted me, because his arm shot out the open window to wave before he roared out of sight.

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