The Road Taken: Harry Truman and The Real World

Chapter 3: Here’s what the Northwest was famous for around the time I moved there: Mount St. Helens, the Green River Killer and coffee. The Green River Killer came on the scene in 1982 and, for the next two decades, he murdered at least 48 women. Ted Bundy, whose own killing spree had ended, on account that he’d been caught, helped paved the way for interest in any news about the Green River Killer. As for coffee, early on I came to realize just what a Mecca, Seattle was for coffee aficionados, of which, I was not one. Starbucks was readily available in the city, and coffee carts were popping up, even in outdoor gear stores, like REI. God forbid, Seattleites should have to walk more than half a block for a cup of joe.

But, just months after arriving, all the news focused on Mount St. Helens, and some small earthquake activity there. For weeks, the authorities debated whether to enforce evacuations, and when the order was finally executed, most in the area departed. Among those that stayed put, an old man named Harry Randall Truman who, for years, had lived near the mountain with his 16 cats. He gave lots of interviews to the local media, in which he balked at leaving. Not for a moment, did he believe he was in imminent danger. “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it,” he claimed.

Then, on Sunday, May 18, 1980, while G and I joined thousands of others, at the University District Street Fair, the mountain exploded. We’d been perusing the craft booths that morning, nibbling on Rainier cherries and morsels of rhubarb pie. G had just purchased a bunch of brightly colored sweet peas for me, which had become my favorite flower. It was a pristine, languid Sunday—one of those rare, sunny days when you can clearly see Mount Rainier in the distance. When suddenly, we noticed someone pointing to the south, with a look of fright on his face. We turned around in time to see massive clouds on the horizon, spewing ash into the atmosphere, and growing larger with every second. Keep in mind, Mt. St. Helens was too far to see from where we were, much further south than Mt. Rainier. Yet, we knew that if we could see the plumes from our vantage point on the north side of Seattle, that the devastation on the mountain must have been staggering. But this was well before cell phones, text messaging and tweeting. It wasn’t until later that we learned of the severity. How there were casualties, including old man Truman, who went down with the mountain, and presumably his 16 cats, too.

There’s something to be said for a man’s blind determination to stay in his home. Unlike Truman, I had no such loyalty to the house I now called home. From the get go, meeting the roommates was like meeting parents who didn’t approve of your relationship and who wasted no time in letting you know. I met Marigold first, and instantly sensed that she was holding a grudge. The way her smile turned into a flash of a grimace as soon as G introduced us, and the way she flicked her eyes as she glanced at me. Oh yes, she made it clear where I stood in her estimation.

Marigold was tall, lithe and, in summary, everything I wasn’t. Pretty young thing, was the expression that came to mind, with her short corduroy skirt, Frye boots and long, dangling earrings that jingled every time she tossed her thick, brown hair. G admitted they had dated, but added that he soon realized she wasn’t for him. Too high maintenance, he said with a wry grin, as if that would make me feel better about the situation, and how the girl with a grudge would be sleeping across the hall from us. Knowing I wasn’t pleased, he took my hand in his. I was the one, he reassured me. I believed him and figured I’d just have to do my best to avoid Marigold.

This Nazi villain (Ronald Lacey) in the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was the spitting image of Stan.

Stan, a slightly balding man with Aryan features and wire-rimmed glasses, owned the house and he never let you forget that. He and his girlfriend, Jeannette, along with their two cats, had the second floor to themselves. Stan, unilaterally made the decisions on everything relating to our living arrangements, and kept a cleaning schedule chart posted in the kitchen. It was as if we were the Von Trapp children and he was the captain, running our lives like a tight ship, and letting us know what was allowed in the house and what wasn’t. At least, he didn’t use a whistle to call us to dinner.

Meanwhile, Jeannette, was sweet and serene. A bit soft spoken, and ordinary looking, with not a stitch of makeup. She definitely embraced an earthy lifestyle. The only likeable one in the bunch, I never could figure out what she saw in Stan, who had a knack for making me feel small and unimportant, treating me with his mock disdain. Several years later, long after moving out, when the original Raiders of the Lost Ark film was released, I took one look at the Nazi pursuing Indiana Jones and was instantly reminded of Stan. It was all I could do not to break into a cold sweat.

So this was my new reality. My very own Real World. No welcome wagon here, just a bunch of mismatched roommates, which got me thinking: Maybe I should have taken a tip from old man Truman, and lived with 16 cats instead.

Oh, well. This was the choice I’d made, to follow G. This would have to be my home until we could afford to move out. Which meant I needed to find a job. Stat.