Mount St. Helens killed Harry R. Truman, and created a folk hero | KNKX

Mount St. Helens killed Harry R. Truman, and created a folk hero

Sep 14, 2019

 


I found the record in a thrift shop not long ago. I think the 1970s-style cover art is what caught my eye: the painted likeness of an old man in a flannel shirt and a ballcap, staring into the distance while a cloud of smoke rises behind him. 

That man is folk hero, contrarian and human country song Harry R. Truman. 

This Truman, not to be confused with the U.S. president, was the owner of a lodge on Spirit Lake, near the foot of Mount St. Helens. 

The record is called “Your Spirit Lives On: The Musical Legend of Harry Truman.” It came out in 1981, with a dozen songs that tell and embellish the tale of Truman stubbornly refusing to leave his lodge, even as friends and scientists and government types warned him his mountain was about to blow. 

As he famously said: “That mountain and that lake are a part of Truman, and I’m a part of it.”

Harry R. Truman was an antihero of the American West, right out of central casting, with his colorful language, his ever-present whiskey and coke, his middle-finger to authority. 

And here’s something I hadn’t really realized, having transplanted to the Northwest three decades after the eruption: Truman didn’t become a folk hero when he died — he was already famous by then. For months, news teams there to report on the volcano’s rumblings visited Truman. He’d oblige them with invective, and they would spread the folklore all over the world. 

In his book, “The Mythical West,” historian Richard Slatta wrote that Truman’s death “immortalized him as a figure with many of the embellished qualities of the western hero ... (which were) in some ways quite different from his true character.” 

Paul Bunyan isn’t real. John Henry never sat down with a Japanese news crew and you can’t hear Davy Crockett’s voice on YouTube. We can have their legends and not worry about the messy fact of their humanity. But Truman is all there in the flesh — along with his beloved cats. 

As Slatta summed it up: “To some, he was nothing more than a crusty codger.” 

I’m a little torn about celebrating this man. On the one hand, what he did was self-destructive and block-headed and probably killed the 16 cats he supposedly loved so much. And yet, it was only by being at the wrong place at the wrong time that Harry Truman became the fullest version of himself.