Harry Randall Truman

Listen to the track 'Harry Truman' from the Headgear album 'Flight Cases' (Click control once to activate and use)
"If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it, 'cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway".

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Harry Randall Truman was the owner of the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake north of Mount St. Helens in the State of Washington. He liked to drink whiskey, swear, tell stories and play piano. And he loved his mountain. And on May 18, 1980, at the age of 83, that’s where he died when Mount St. Helens erupted with 500 times the force of the Hiroshima blast, right there on his mountain, with his 16 cats, a custom built 1956 pink Cadillac (which he picked up himself from the factory in Detroit) and about 38 bottles of bourbon whiskey, .

"I talk to the mountain and it talks to me"

However, there is more to Harry Truman than the notable circumstances of his death, now a part of Mount St. Helens folklore. Harry Truman was born in West Viginia in 1896. In 1918, on his way to France during the first World War, his troopship Tuscania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Truman survived and served during the war as an Army airplane mechanic in France, there he learned to fly. After the war, he married, had two children and ran a gas station in Chehalis, WA - until Prohibition made bootlegging booze a worthwhile enterprise. According to his neice Shirley Rosen, he ran rum to brothels from San Francisco to Canada. In 1926 Truman moved his young family to Sprit Lake. As the story is told, he ran afoul of gangsters making a hostile takeover of bootlegging routes and went into hiding in Spirit Lake taking with him a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun.

The rugged lifestyle didn't suit his first and second wives, whom he divorced. In 1947 he married his third wife Eddie and was crushed after her death in 1978. He regularily took fresh flowers to her grave and by some accounts he cried himself to sleep during those last years alone. Always a fan of Coca-Cola and Schenley's bourbon, his drinking increased. To some Truman was a crotchety old crank, too stubborn to listen to reason, and in many ways Truman was unpredictable like the mountain he lived by for more than fifty years. He could show old time rural hospitality at once and then on a whim throw someone out because he didn't like their looks. Locals tell tales of Truman backing up his edicts with the show of a gun. "He could be meaner than a toad at some times, but I remember that he was also encouraging in a kind of you-can-do-it-kid way," says his niece, Shirley Rosen, "We all have many facets to our personality, and he had a whole kaleidoscope,". In her personal memoir, "Truman of St. Helens: The Man and His Mountain", Rosen describes her uncle as "a salty curmudgeon who lived his life the way he really wanted to live. He was a tough man with a gentle side."

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Running the lodge wasn't Truman's only source of income. His part-time work included poaching bear and elk, flying seaplanes with illegal booze from Canada and cooking up "Panther Pee" - his own brand of moonshine. Truman also carved some outstanding friendships during his years at Spirit Lake. In 1953 he turned away his most famous guest, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When a rumpled old guy walked into his lodge, Truman instructed his niece, Elaine Rosen, to "tell the old coot that if he wants a cabin, we don't have any." After realising who "the old coot" was, Truman went after Douglas, asking him to return and the two became close frineds. In 1936, legendary movie producer Jack Warner made the film 'God's Country and the Woman' around Spirt Lake. His crew stayed at Truman's lodge, where Warner and Truman traded shots of bourbon.

People said Truman could talk faster than anyone and dance all night. And he never backed down to anyone, except Eddie. So when the first eruptions of Mount St. Helens prompted the evacuation of the area surrounding Spirit Lake, it’s of little surprise that Harry Truman chose to stay.

"If I left this place, it would worry me to death...If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it, 'cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway."

According to Harry’s brother-in-law Buck Whiting, "Edna used to tell Harry he’d become a legend, and Harry would make a joke of it. Edna died in 1978, and Harry lost interest in keeping the lodge going. Then the first eruptions started in March 1980, and when he said he wouldn’t leave his lodge, everybody wanted to talk to him. He enjoyed all the interviews and cameras and helicopters coming to his door. After he died, people wrote songs and books about him, and a Hollywood crew came in and put him in a movie. And we remembered what Edna said.

"I know that mountain like the wrinkles on my hand..."

Harry Truman was the only person who refused to leave his home. Within 90 seconds of the searing 300 mph blast, an avalanche of ash, mud and debris reached Spirit Lake. The waters of the lake were sloshed 800ft up the mountain and the Mount St. Helens Lodge was buried beneath several hundred feet of volcanic debris. No trace of Harry Truman was ever found. Today, Harry's Ridge, overlooking the site, and a Truman's Trail which cuts nearby, are named for him.

"I've lived here over 50 years...That mountain's part of Harry and Harry's a part of that mountain"

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SOURCES: Mike Barber (Seattle Post-Intellegencer), Shirley Rosen (Truman of St. Helens: The Man and His Mountain), Rowe Findley (National Geographic), Tom Paulu (The Daily News). Photographs by Roger Werth or as noted.