You couldn’t pull me out with a mule team. That mountain’s part of Truman and Truman’s part of that mountain.

~Harry R. Truman, 1980

83-year-old Harry R. Truman drove a screaming-pink ’57 Cadillac, sipped whiskey and Coke all day, greeted government officials with a shotgun, and used language vulgar enough to curl wallpaper. And everyone loved him for it.

Mr. Truman was the kind of asshole that it’s impossible not to like. That makes his death during the explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980 all the more tragic.

The explosion of Mount St. Helens: May 18th, 1980

Like his personality, his life wasn’t a smooth progression but a haphazard parade of odd events. He wasn’t sure of his birthday, but he thought it was in 1896. In 1919, he and his shipmates had tread water for hours off the coast of Ireland after a U-boat attack. Mr. Truman delved into bootlegging after the war, running illegal booze up and down California, Oregon, and Washington. Prohibition ended that. Mr. Truman frequently poached on government land by flashing a fake game warden badge. By the time he bought the 50 acres around Spirit Lake, Mr Truman had grown tired of civilization. He still liked people, but only a few at a time.

Harry R. Truman died the way he lived: tipsy from his perpetual whiskey and Coke and spitting in the face of a pyroclastic flow propelled by explosive forces greater than a thermonuclear bomb. These cataclysmic forces sheared 200 square miles of dense Oregon forest like an Army barber and turned the sky over most of the Western United States gray.

The sky 200 miles from the eruption…

Harry R. Truman died the best way this writer knows. Not drifting off in the peaceful oblivion of sleep, but on his feet and angry. God bless him for it.

In the months, weeks, and days leading up to the cataclysmic Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980, this cantankerous innkeeper found himself the focus of regional, then national media. To the frustration of local law enforcement officials and the swarm of geologists monitoring Mount St. Helens reawakening, squads of reporters would weave their way to the Mount St. Helens Lodge. They knew this colorful old man would be willing to share his unfiltered opinion to anyone and everyone.

Did he believe it would erupt? “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow, but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.” 

What about the army of scientists urging the area’s evacuation? “The mountain’s shot its wad and hadn’t hurt my place a bit, but those goddam geologists with their hair down to their butts wouldn’t pay no attention to old Truman.”

What if the mountain erupts? “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it. This area is heavily timbered. Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away. Goddam mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”

The media loved him. Television viewers loved him. He’d happily sit and rattle off his opinions or anecdotes for anyone willing to listen, a perpetual drink in hand and his nose glowing red from the steady diet of alcohol. In photo after photo, reporters and crew beamed as Mr. Truman spoke. He was a crotchety old fellow, and honest to a fault, but he wasn’t cruel or a bully. And he was a fine storyteller.

Mr. Truman being Mr. Truman. Notice the smiles on the faces of reporters and crew.

Truman remains a controversial figure today: a folk hero to some, a fool to others.

Truman and Whiskey and Coke

He dismissed the warnings of scientists, law enforcement, his family, and an avalanche of letters that poured in from schools across the United States and even overseas, begging him to flee the mountain (the last supposedly moved him to tears). Even while earthquakes rattled his inn and the helicopters fled the mountain for the last time. For those last three days, it was just him, the mountain, his whiskey cache, and his 16 house cats.

It’s arrogant and assuming for anyone young or middle-aged to speculate on the thoughts of our senior citizens, Harry R. Truman included. People like him lived and breathed through the greatest events in American and world history. To dismiss his decision to stay as foolishness or worse, ignorance, tarnished his memory. He did his own thing.

I don’t think the decision was rash. He had guts and he had plenty of time to think it through. He was 83 years old and had lost his wife only two years prior. He had owned and operated the Mount St. Helens Lodge for 52 years, but had shuttered it since losing his wife. In 1980, it was just him, his cats, and his memories.

A younger Truman with his wife and freshly-painted inn.

There’s no need to speculate on his motivations for staying. He explained it clearly enough to reporters:

I’m going to stay right here because, I’ll tell you why, my home and my goddam life’s here. My wife and I, we both vowed years and years ago that we’d never leave Spirit Lake. We loved it. It’s part of me, and I’m part of that goddam mountain.

~Truman to National Geographic, 1980

Truman’s refusal to leave wasn’t suicide or fatalism, but the will of a tough, independent guy wanting to go out on his own terms, at his own home. When that pyroclastic flow finally came, burying his inn under a 30-foot tsunami of burning charcoal, I doubt it was any kind of surprise. In fact, I’d bet $100 he died with a twitch of a smile a curse word on his lips.

The last image

This (above) is the last image of Harry R. Truman, taken from an evacuation helicopter. They begged him to leave. He wasn’t interested, but he strolled outside to see them off. The winds buffeted his inn and the roar of the ‘copter drowned out any words. He offered the crew some friendly waves and smiles, then he turned and went back into his inn. He was never seen again, but is now buried under 30 feet of the mountain he loved.

Godspeed, Mr. Truman.

If you’d like to learn more on Harry R. Truman’s epic life, check out Truman of St. Helens: The Man and His Mountain by Shirley Rosen, available at Amazon HERE.