May 18, 1980
I’d turned 15 the day before and holy mother of God was I ready for summer vacation. I was winding down my one and only year at St. Thomas Academy, finishing off ninth grade, which would forever be my hardest year in school. My advanced placement biology class was more difficult than anything I ever took in college, and that’s a testament to St. Thomas Academy, not a knock on the University I graduated from years later, named after the same saint a few miles away in St. Paul.
St. Thomas Academy was a grind. I’d gotten pretty much straight A’s all through grade school without really having to exert too much energy and I suspected things would be the same way in high school. But that was when I thought I was going to Southwest, like all my brothers and sisters had.
I wasn’t. My parents had decided to send me to the Academy, mostly for football reasons, as I had proved to be a pretty good player and Southwest was a football wasteland. I remember having no real problem heading off to St. Thomas and at first I loved it– the football was great and I immediately established myself as a kid to watch on the ninth grade team.
Then school started and it was all downhill. My four brothers and sisters who were still in high school and grade school would get up around 7:15am, only to find me already gone to catch my bus during the first month of school, or after that I’d be standing at our front door, waiting for my carpool ride with three older guys I didn’t know. They were great guys, but I was a super shy kid and probably said five words to them the whole year. Plus they listened to Bob Dylan, which I didn’t get at all (but I did learn to like by the end of the year.)
I think it was ultimately my shyness that doomed me at the Academy, but that Biology class didn’t help. Or that my algebra teacher didn’t know algebra himself. I gave up on the math class, but I worked my ass off in Biology only to get high C’s. Hardest class I’ve ever taken by a mile. Throw in getting up an hour earlier than my siblings to polish my shoes and “brass”, and then getting home hours later than them made me feel isolated. Then after dinner I’d have two to three hours of homework while my public school siblings would be done in fifteen minutes.
I tried, but I became miserable. You weren’t allowed to rebel at St. Thomas Academy, so I rebelled at home. My parents should have kicked me out of the house I was such a jackass to them. I lived too far away from any of the people I now knew to ever hang out with them, so when I’d get back to school on Mondays and hear about all the “partying” at so and so’s house from the weekend, I felt like I was missing out.
It was a strange year, I didn’t hate the school, but I hated the long hours that going there entailed, and to a 14-year old there was no difference. But there always seemed to be something that kept me going. The Winter Olympics didn’t hurt obviously.
Then Southwest made it to the state tournament in hockey for the first time in a few years, so that got me through March.
Once spring hit, like any junior high kid, the thought of summer on the horizon was enough to get me to the finish line. Another important note about St. Thomas was that it didn’t have girls. I liked girls and I missed having them around. With no girls sitting in front of me in class, I was forced to find my daydreams elsewhere. That spring my hormones were mostly raging for one Kristy McNichol, who’d I’d seen recently in the movie, “Little Darlings” with Matt Dillon and Tatum O’Neil. I was a little timid to admit to this crush since my brother Joe had pronounced her a mutt at some point. Man, I went to an all boys military academy, anything with long hair looked good to me.
So how does an about to be 15-year old get pushed over the hormonal edge? The day before my birthday, Friday, May 16, I go to a movie with two of my brothers and my sister. We got in for free because Margy worked at Edina Theatre. The movie was “Fame” and Irene Cara was naked in it. It wasn’t cool naked though because she was crying as she took her top off for some sleazy broadway guy who was filming her. I mean, at 14 and 364/365ths, I pretty easily got past the exploitation of it and was able to just enjoy the nudity part of it.
Summer was coming, I was about to be released from a school I hated and there was a crying, naked black woman on a huge screen in front of me. I thought I was going to explode.
Then two days later, May 18, 1980, part of the world did explode. Mt. St. Helens erupted in Washington state, after 130 years of dormancy, killing 57 people and causing damage in the billions of dollars.
What the hell, a mountain exploded? I thought that only happened in old books or movies. The whole country stopped on a late Sunday afternoon to watch the evening news. (CNN would literally launch two weeks later, proving that the world waits for no man… or television network.)
The next day we learned that ashes from the explosion had landed in 10 different states! The devastation was pretty mind boggling: 185 miles of highway destroyed, thousands of animals and trees were wiped out as over a cubic mile of ash and lava spewed out from the mountain.
It was the biggest, “wow, we’re just tiny people on a tiny planet that could go at any time” moment of my lifetime.
Bob Segar had a huge hit on the radio at the time called, “Against the Wind”, (the opening words are the title of this post), which has the following lines:
“And the secrets that we shared… the mountains that we moved… caught like a wildfire out of control… ’til there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove.”
I transferred to a public school. Fame became an underground cult hit. Kristy McNichol, who it seemed was on the edge of stardom at the time, faded away after being dubbed a “troubled young actress”. She wouldn’t be diagnosed as bi-polar until 12 years later, and wouldn’t publicly reveal that she was a lesbian for 20 years after that. (Those who knew me in ninth grade would just nod their heads knowingly when told that I had a months long crush on a crazy lesbian.) Bob Segar just rolled on.
None of that really seems to matter under the scope of something like Mt. St. Helens. Just tiny people on a tiny planet.
It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago.