LITTLE MAC AND THE VOLCANO
I was more than a little surprised when "Little Mac" McAllister identified himself on the phone. He wasn't the type to call the local paper; heck, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't even read our little weekly rag. He just wasn't the reading type. Whatever information he'd need, he could pick up easier at the City Diner, or Fat Man's Tavern, or from Melody, his wife.
He didn't waste any time on social niceties now. "I wondered if you'd stop by the ranch
this afternoon. There's something out here I think you should see."
Stopping by his ranch meant a twenty minute drive out of town. "What's that?"
"Dunno. That's why you should look at it."
Well, put that way . . . I had to admit I was more than a little curious. Something was
certainly up, if Mac was asking me to come take a look at it.
"I have a meeting with Joan Collins (yes, that really was her name) at 1:00 to talk about
the school bond measure," I told him. "I can come out afterwards say 2:00, or 2:30."
I thought I heard a chuckle. "I'll have coffee on."
Joan Collins apparently wasn't on his Christmas card list. She wasn't on mine either, for
that matter, but when you run a small town weekly, you deal with the people who make the local
news. For better or worse.
We disconnected and I went back to milking two thousand words out of last weekend's
Volunteer Fire Department pancake feed.
The McAllister Ranch was twenty acres of mostly flat land along a small creek. It sat
among the foothills of the Cascades a few miles east of town, off County Road 151. It had
belonged to Little Mac's father (Big Mac) before him and was less a working ranch than a
country retreat from the construction business he ran in the city. I had been there a couple of
times over the previous two decades and from the point of view of someone who'd lived in one
bed room apartments most of his life thought the house was very nice. It was a two story
farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a beautiful oak shading the front yard.
I drove up the newly paved driveway toward the house shortly after two, my mind still
numbed from the hour I'd spent listening to Mrs. Collins, and parked my aging Honda beside
Little Mac's new Ford pickup and his wife's Explorer. Neither had a scratch or a speck of dust
Little Mac met me on the front porch with a grinding handshake. "Thanks for coming
I checked my hand for broken bones and admitted I was curious.
Little Mac nodded. "It's the damndest thing."
"Well, let's go see it."
"Hi, Tom." Melody McAllister appeared in the doorway behind her husband. "Mac
seems to have forgotten his manners. Would you like to come in for some coffee?"
"Oh," Little Mac looked chagrined, like he'd been caught with the cookie jar. "I was
going to take a look at the pasture first."
Ever the peacemaker, I suggested we take a look at whatever he had in his pasture, then
discuss it over coffee.
Five minutes later we stood in the pasture a hundred yards behind the house looking
down at a crack in ground. It was two inches wide at its widest and about four feet long. Thick
clouds of foul smelling steam drifted out of the opening and the air itself seemed tainted with
the stench of rotten eggs.
"Well?" Little Mac asked. "What do you think?"
"When did this start?"
"A week ago. Something like that."
I could only stare. It was the most incredible thing I'd seen in these parts.
"What is it?"
"I'm no expert," I told him. "But I'd say you've got a new volcanic vent here."
He nodded gravely. "That's what Melody thinks too."
For a few seconds we both stared at the smoking crack in the ground. We were standing
almost five feet away and I could feel the heat on my face. The meadow grass around the edges
of the crack was blackened and withered brown.
Little Mac looked at me. "So what do I do about it?"
I looked up at him. What do you do about it? What do you do about tornados,
hurricanes, tsunamis, or any other force of nature? You get out of the way. But the look in his
eyes told me he wasn't jerking me around, nor was he taking this development lightly.
"I don't know," I told him. "But I have a friend at the University who might have an
answer for you."
It might have been my imagination, but right then the ground beneath me seemed to
quiver just a bit.
The next afternoon, Little Mac and I watched as Henry Jenkins, a professor of geology at
the University who looked like Kurt Cobain after a rough night scrambled around the edges of
the crack taking readings on some kind of handheld device. I had been shocked at the changes
in just a day. The crack was now almost six inches wide and nearly ten feet long. And if I
wasn't mistaken the area around it had risen several inches during the night, as if something was
pushing up from below the meadow. I'm no expert, but I personally took that as a bad sign.
The fact that it was a beautiful spring day, just made the anomaly in Little Mac's pasture
seem all the more weird.
Finally, Henry returned to us, his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. "It's
incredible. And right in our back yard. This will make Mt. St. Helens look like yesterday's
news." He consulted his device. It looked like a Blackberry. "It's emitting sulfur dioxide at the
rate of ten cubit feet an hour and the ambient temperature at the mouth is approaching five
"So what is it?" Little Mac asked.
"A vent. You've got a vent just starting up. Do you have any idea how rare it is to
witness something like this? I'd like to set up a monitoring station immediately."
Little Mac just shook his head. "How do I stop it?"
Jenkins looked like Little Mac had just asked him if he believed in the Easter Bunny. He
stopped playing with his device long enough to look up at Little Mac. "You can't stop it. This is
part of a volcano."
He gestured at the Cascades lined up along the eastern horizon. "All these mountains are
volcanic. This is where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates come together.
Channels of molten rock criss cross the entire region, just under the crust, looking for a weak
spot. You might have a new mountain growing right here. It's probably just venting some heat
and gas, but if it decides to go into a real eruption, it will erupt. There's nothing you, I, or
anyone else can do about it."
Little Mac's eyes narrowed to slits as he gazed at the crack. "We'll see about that."
Two days later, I slipped into the City Center Diner to get a hamburger for lunch. The
days since Pr. Jenkins had officially identified Little Mac's pasture as the site of the world's
newest volcanic vent had been insane. Every tv station in Eugene had sent out a media van and
reporter to film the front of Little Mac's house he wouldn't allow them on his property and
interview anyone who would talk to them. Several of the local town fathers were mulling over
how best to financially take advantage of the town's new celebrity. Jason Billings over at the
drug store already had a series of volcano tee shirts displayed in the window.
The one person absent from all the hoopla was John "Little Mac" McAllister. The
problem was that Little Mac was not a good interview subject and had no interest in becoming
one. He'd always been a man of few words. In school, he'd been the jock who never said a
word in the back of the class, but always passed. He was a man who preferred to let his actions
do the talking and probably his greatest statement was his construction company. In the twenty
years since high school, he'd taken the small carpentry shop founded by his dad Big Mac and
forged it into one of the state's biggest and most successful heavy construction companies.
But that was history. All I wanted now was a quiet lunch and an hour with no one asking
me what I thought about it all. I slid onto a stool at the counter and accepted a cup of coffee
from Donna, who had been waiting tables there since the last ice age.
"Gonna have your regular burger?" she asked.
I nodded. "Please."
"Pretty exciting what's going on in our little town."
I nodded. "I think we've had about all the excitement we can stand."
She laughed and hung my ticket on the cook's wheel.
"Hey Tommy," George Sanders slipped onto another stool immediately to my right.
"You hear what Little Mac did today?"
I shook my head. George ran the local gas station/garage and was, by all accounts, one of
the worst mechanics around. He was pretty good at pumping gas though.
"I heard he kicked all the college types off his land and brought in two trucks of
concrete. I think he's going to try and plug up that crack."
You're kidding. I just looked at him. "Where'd you hear that?"
He nodded thanks as Donna handed him a cup of coffee. "From Mary Hanks."
Mary was the dispatcher at the concrete plant.
I tossed a couple of bucks on the counter and told Donna to cancel my order.
By the time I reached Little Mac's ranch, the second concrete truck was pulling onto the
County Road, heading back to town. I parked my car and ran back to the pasture.
Little Mac and a couple of other men were putting the finishing touches on a swath of
fresh concrete where the crack had been. George had been right. He'd plugged it up.
I just stood there, staring, absolutely dumbfounded. He'd actually filled a volcanic vent
Little Mac spotted me, stood and walked over. Smears of cement covered his hands and
stained the knees of his jeans and his boots.
"Tommy," he nodded and tried to crush my hand again. "What do you think?"
I didn't know what to say. The pasture was now a good foot higher than it had been the
first time I'd seen the vent. The kind of pressure it took to push solid ground a foot into the air .
. . I didn't see how some concrete would do much to stop it.
"Do you really think it will work?" I asked.
Little Mac gave a little bit of a shrug. "We put six yards in that hole. That's about four
I sighed. Maybe he knew something I didn't construction was his business, after all
and maybe he was going to make things worse. For now anyway the crack was sealed and for
the first time since I'd first come out I couldn't smell rotten eggs.
A couple of days later, Melody invited me to dinner and I accepted, less out of friendship
and the allure of home cooking than a deep interest in seeing whether Little Mac's plug would
actually continue to work. It was one of the most interesting dinners I've ever experienced. We
sat around the dining room table Little Mac, Melody, myself, and the McAllister children, ten
year old Jason and seven year old Bethany and discussed school and movies and current events.
Melody had cooked a beef roast, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn and it all tasted wonderful.
About every twenty minutes throughout the meal, the ground would begin to shake.
Plates would rattle in the cabinets and everyone would grab their water glasses to keep them
from tipping over. But other than that, and a brief pause in the conversation, it was all taken as
perfectly normal. There was no panic, no fear.
"Cool!" Jason would say, when it was over. "That was a good one."
It was like a weird form of dinner theater.
In between the quakes, I could hear a deep, primeval rumbling, similar to what your
stoLittle Mach makes when you eat something that doesn't agree with you. Geological
indigestion. But we continued with dinner as though it was all perfectly normal.
When we were finished, Melody and the children began clearing the dishes, while Little
Mac and I retired to the living room with coffee.
"Have you considered " I was interrupted by a particularly strong quake. For just a few
seconds, it felt like sitting on the deck of a ship in rough weather, rather than the living room of
a farmhouse. My chair moved several inches to the right across the floor and a framed painting
of a seascape fell off the wall. Out in the kitchen, Jason cheered.
"Has it occurred to you that it might not be safe here?" It certainly had occurred to me.
Little Mac got up, brushed at the stain where coffee had spilled on his pants and rehung
the painting on the wall. "This is my home."
"And your kids?"
He returned to his chair. "It's their home too."
That pretty much put an end to that line of conversation.
Five minutes later, the shaking began again. This time, I thought I could actually see the
walls swaying. Nick knacks fell off shelves, shattering on the floor. My coffee jumped out of its
cup and onto my shirt, but wasn't hot enough to burn. I doubt I would have noticed if it had. I
was listening to the deep rumbling that seemed to grow in intensity as the quake progressed.
In the kitchen, little Bethany was screaming. I tried to get up, but couldn't keep my
balance. Little Mac just sat there.
The night was shattered by a flash of light and a tremendous explosion.
Everybody screamed then and I found myself on the floor. Just as quickly, the quake
"Mac!" Melody called from the kitchen.
Within seconds, we were both in the kitchen, where Melody crouched in the middle of
the floor, clutching her children. Fragments of broken dishes were scattered across the floor
"Everyone okay?" I asked. Little Mac rushed over to physically check his family.
"We're okay." Melody nodded, though she didn't sound terribly sure of that statement.
She nodded to the window. "But I think you pissed it off."
Out in the pasture, a fountain of orange flames leapt into the sky.
A mile and a half away, on County Road 151, Leroy Jacobsen was heading home from an
evening at Fat Man's when the beer went through him. He toyed with the idea of trying to make
it home, but decided against it. His bladder control wasn't what it used to be. He'd catch
enough hell from his old lady as it was without showing up with wet pants.
He pulled his pickup off onto the shoulder, shifted it into park and left it running while
he climbed out and staggered over to the scrub to do his business. He was blissfully emptying
his bladder when he heard a strange whistling overhead and BANG! behind him.
He turned to see what happened and peed all over his shoes.
"Holy shit," he whispered.
A huge chunk of concrete had landed sLittle Mack on the cab of his truck, crushing it
like a beer can.
"Martha ain't never gonna believe this."
ERUPTION! the headlines screamed from the Portland and Eugene papers,
accompanied by a beautiful color photograph of the volcanic plume, complements of yours truly.
We were on all the broadcast and cable news networks and CNN ran a special on
volcanos. Suddenly, Calder's Bend was famous. Unfortunately, most residents were no longer
around to enjoy it. The State Police had arrived shortly after the eruption started and firmly, but
politely, asked everyone to evacuate for their own safety. Most did not need to be persuaded.
By the second day of the eruption, the ash and cinders lay two inches deep across town and the
sky was darkened by the cloud of smoke and ash pouring out of the volcano. The entire
landscape buildings, trees, lawns alike all seemed painted a uniform, washed out gray.
It looked like the end of the world.
From what I'd heard, even Little Mac had relented and sent Melody and the kids to
I didn't leave with the rest of the evacuees. I was quite possibly sitting on the story of my
journalistic career and I just couldn't force myself to walk away from it. Stupid, I know, but
there you go. Shows you how much I value my life.
A little after lunch, I walked into Fat Man's Tavern, brushed the ash off my shoulders,
removed the handkerchief from my face, and walked up to the bar.
"Decided to hang out?" The Fat Man said as he drew my beer. He wasn't really fat
anymore a bout with cancer had seen to that but the nickname had stuck.
I nodded, then shrugged. "I guess I want to see how it all turns out. How about you?"
He set the beer in front of me and waved at the building around us, now empty except for
him, me and Leroy Jacobsen, who practically lived here. "This stupid place has been my life for
forty years. If Little Mac's volcano is going to take it, I'd just as soon it took me with it."
I sipped the beer. It seemed to taste like ash.
I nodded at Leroy. "Sorry about your truck."
"Me too," he said with some difficulty. The beer in front of him wasn't his first. "The
damn insurance people don't believe me. 'Act of God.'"
He slipped into inaudible mumbling, directed at his beer. His only real friend.
"Has anybody seen Little Mac?" I asked the Fat Man (who wasn't fat). I was terribly
afraid he had died trying to fight the volcano, an Oregon version of Harry Truman, who had died
rather than leave his home on Mount St. Helens.
"I haven't seen him," Leroy said from down the bar, snatching coherence out of thin air.
"But he hauled a truckload of telephone poles up to his place yesterday along with a couple of
cat's and backhoes. Looked to me like he was building something."
The fat man nodded. "I heard he offered his crews a month's wages to help him save his
house. A handful took him up on it too."
I drained my beer and paid for it.
"You going up there?"
"I'm a newsman," I nodded. "I've got to see what's going on. "
Driving up to Little Mac's ranch was the most nerve wracking thing I'd ever done, with
the possible exception of asking Tiffany Reynolds for a date my junior year. (She politely turned
me down and four years later, married a wealthy plastic surgeon in La Hoya. I don't think I fit
into her life plan.) There was so much ash falling from the volcano, it was like driving through a
thick, hot fog, with the added complication of occasional cinders and pumice slamming into the
car like golf balls. The trip normally took about twenty minutes; today, I spent almost two hours
on the road before crunching finally into Little Mac's driveway. There had to be a half dozen
pickups parked haphazardly around the house, as well as two flatbed trucks and a water tanker.
I stepped out of the car and into chaos. The rumbling explosions of the volcano
competed with the engines of several pieces of equipment and a large generator. The forests on
the nearby hills had caught fire and roared out of control Overlaying it all was the constant
patter of cinders hitting the house and ground. Ash and cinders lay nearly six inches deep over
everything. The air was thick with ash and smoke.
I pulled my coat over my head and ran around to the back of the house.
The scene there was like nothing I'd ever seen, anywhere. The volcano was some five
hundred feet tall now, a perfect, stereotypical volcanic cone. Where the base of the cone
threatened to swallow Little Mac's house, a string of flood lights illuminated a dozen or so men
frantically bracing a wall of telephone poles that had been constructed in a "V" shape around the
back of the house. The ash and cinders of the volcano pressed against the wall and spilled
around either side. On the cone itself, an earthmover was busily pushing cinders off to the side,
away from the house.
It reminded me of videos showing men laying sandbags against a flooding river, only
here it was raining ash, not water.
My God, I said to myself. He's doing it. He's actually doing it.
"Tommy!" Little Mac spotted me and trotted over with a metal hard hat. "Better put this
on. Don't want to get beaned."
"How long have you guys been working on this?"
"A couple of days now. You here to help?"
I guess. I was here; I might as well.
"Sam's been up on the roof all day," he said. "He could use a break."
Fifteen minutes later, I was on the roof of Little Mac's house with a hose, trying to keep
the hot cinders from catching the house on fire. I would spend the next twelve hours there, then
rest for a couple of hours, before going up for ten more. For two days we all lived like that,
barely eating, hardly sleeping, and working like proverbial dogs.
Then, as suddenly as it started, the eruption ended. A kind east wind cleared away the
smoke and drifting ash and the world grew very quiet. The handful of exhausted men around me
stopped what they were doing and, in the sudden stillness, gazed up at the enemy they'd been
battling for so long. It stood there, slowly smoking in the sunlight, black as tar and awesome as
any idol. I gazed at it too, so tired that it physically hurt to move, and knew in my soul why the
ancient Hawaiians worshiped Pele.
Almost as incredible as the volcano, was the fact that we had succeeded in saving Little
Mac's house. Sure, it was scorched, streaked with muddy ash, and the windows had been
broken out of the back the side facing the volcano but it was still standing, still structurally
Almost a year later, the little town of Calder's Wait was back to normal. All the
accumulated ash and cinders had been washed or hauled away. Those buildings suffering minor
damage had been repaired, houses had been repainted and new landscapes planted. The
reporters and photographers from around the world had begun to drift away after a few weeks.
Now, just a few scientists and people working on books bothered to make the forty five minute
drive east of Eugene/Springfield.
On this Saturday morning, the town's movers and shakers had gathered in front of most
of the residents to dedicate the new Volcano Visitor's Information Center, built on a siding on
the edge of County Road 151. The Center featured a kiosk with photos of the area before the
eruption, the eruption itself, and the final volcano. Historic and scientific features explained the
workings of the volcano and its place in human history.
Coin operated telescopes (even here, the powers that be could not pass up the opportunity
to make a dime) strategically placed offered beautiful views of the volcano that had given
Calder's Bend it's fame.
After nearly two hours of self important speeches, Mayor Vera Klatch cut the ribbon and
a cheer went up as the Center officially opened.
My duty documenting the occasion nearly finished, I turned away to gaze at the object of
all this hoopla. The mountain loomed as awful and magnificent as ever, still black as night, a
perfect triangle rising amid the gentler hills around it. A single wisp of white vapor drifted away
from its peak. There was little hint of the violence which had marked its birth.
And there, cut into a notch at the mountain's base like Rip Van Winkle sleeping between
the roots of a massive black oak, was Little Mac's house, repainted and beautiful as ever. As I
watched, Little Mac's pickup pulled out of the drive and headed toward town. He must have
spotted me, because his arm shot out the open window to wave before he roared out of sight.