Back in the early 1980s, Melanie Holmes was more interested in finding a playmate for her oldest son than writing a book about a geologist whom she had never met.
“We lived two blocks from each other,” Holmes said about her chance meeting with David Johnston’s sister, Pat, in a Chicago suburb. “She was pregnant when I met her, and my newborn was snuggled in a stroller.”
The two women had sons who were about a month apart in age, so they struck up a friendship based largely on their children.
Holmes is not sure when she learned her new friend’s brother was the U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist who perished on May 18, 1980, during the early moments of Mount St. Helens’ cataclysmic eruption.
“It was outside the sphere of our friendship,” she said. “That’s not what we were talking about. We were talking about kids and husbands and jobs.”
IF YOU GO
What: Author Melanie Holmes will give two talks about her new book, “A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston.”
When: Noon and 2 p.m. Saturday, the 39th anniversary of the May 18, 1980, eruption. Each talk will be followed by a book signing, with copies of Holmes’ book available for purchase.
Where: Johnston Ridge Observatory, at the end of Spirit Lake Highway (state Highway 504), 52 miles east of Castle Rock.
Cost: Free. The observatory usually charges $8 for admission but waives the fee on the eruption’s anniversary.
Johnston sent the famous radio transmission — “Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!” — seconds before being swept away by the volcano’s ferocious lateral blast. His body was never found, although road construction workers discovered pieces of his trailer in 1993.
This Saturday, on the 39th anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ eruption, Holmes will be at the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the mountain’s northern slopes. She will give two talks on her soon-to-be-released 240-page book, “A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston.”
Holmes, in a phone interview, said the book was an outgrowth of her longtime friendship with Johnston’s sister.
“It just came out of a conversation with two friends,” she said. “The more I started to go gingerly into this topic, the more it seemed that so many people had written things about him that were not accurate.”
Perhaps, the most egregious example was a 1981 HBO movie, “St. Helens,” that portrayed Johnston as a rebellious daredevil, quick to quarrel with his supervisors and ready to ferment chaos wherever he went. The film went as far as to show Johnston’s character tipping back whiskey with Harry Truman, the cantankerous owner of Spirit Lake Lodge who refused to evacuate and also died in the May 1980 eruption.
Johnston’s family was so aghast by these and other embellishments that they threatened a lawsuit if the filmmakers used Johnston’s name, which caused the lead character to be recast as “David Jackson.”
The truth, Holmes said, is that Johnston was a meticulous scientist who was neither quarrelsome nor rebellious and who never palled around with Truman. In her book, Holmes writes that Johnston was frustrated by Truman’s intransigence and dismissal of the volcano’s danger.
“I only watched it during research for this book,” she said about the movie. “I found it as offensive as all his close friends and family found it.
“That movie is a permanent splinter,” she added. “Both of David’s parents have now died, but it was a splinter that was never able to be removed.”
Once Holmes decided to write a book about Johnston, his sister provided her with names of childhood friends and other information. Holmes said she read thousands of pages of research articles, books, letters sent to Johnston’s parents following their son’s death and letters Johnston sent to his family before the mountain blew its top on what had been a tranquil Sunday morning.
“This is not the family’s take of who he was,” Holmes said. “It definitely helped for me to know (Pat) and for her to trust me.”
Holmes also visited Mount St. Helens and the David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver.
“I had to be at the Cascades Volcano Observatory,” she said. “You walk in and see David’s picture in the lobby.”
Another misconception that Holmes wanted to correct is that Johnston knew that Mount St. Helens would erupt. In 1980, volcanology was “an immature science,” she said, and the nation’s only volcano observatory was in Hawaii.
Johnston was trying to understand how gas emissions and levels figure into an eruptive process, she said.
“That’s what his worked hinged on,” she said. “And he would be thrilled on how far they have come with gas studies.”
Johnston suspected that Mount St. Helens would erupt and even mentioned how a volcano in Russia erupted laterally in 1956.
“Nobody knew what was going to happen — or when,” Holmes said. “He was there studying this science and trying to figure out the puzzle, and he died in the process.”
Thirty-nine years later, near the very spot where Johnston died, people can learn more about the man who uttered the five most famous words on an infamous day for death and destruction.