Shock blog exclusive!! This is the column I had planned to run Tuesday, but it was rejected at the last minute. So, dearest blog readers, here it is just for you:
The last time Mount St. Helens blew up, a production assistant at a Fargo, N.D., television station almost got killed. He was nowhere near the volcano.
With Washington state's volcano again making news, it gives me the perfect opportunity to share one of my all-time favorite stories. The following is a true story. Or, as true of a story as it could be when it was told to me -- 18 years after the fact, in a bar, after the story's teller and main character had had a few beers:
Television news didn't have as much flash two decades ago, at least not in "small market" towns like Fargo, so when their weatherman pointed to a map of the country, he pointed at an actual map.
I'm sure you're aware that when your favorite weathercaster points at a map these days, he or she is, in fact, pointing at a blue screen and a computer puts the map in behind them. Before that, weathercasters used a real map and a combination of magnets, dry-erase markers, and cheesy props.
The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was an unprecedented event; particularly exciting to the people of Fargo, where mountains, let alone ones that would blow up, are foreign concepts. It was decided that something extra-special needed to be done for eruption coverage.
The weatherman drilled a hole in his national weather map, right at the spot of Mount St. Helens. Through that hole, he ran a length of surgical tubing, allowing an inch of it to stick out the front of the map. Using Silly Putty, he then built an archetypal volcano around the bit of tubing and secured it to the map.
From there, the plan had been to use dry ice to make it appear as if smoke was coming from the mouth of the miniature Mount St. Helens. Almost immediately, though, it was realized that the dry ice wasn't going to work -- there was no way to force the steam through the tubing.
The weatherman called in the show's director and the two sat and stared at the map, trying to think of what, if anything, they could do. That's when they noticed a newly hired, chain-smoking production assistant nicknamed Shorty.
Unfortunately for young Shorty, smoking at the workplace was perfectly acceptable in those days. So, as the newscast went on the air that night, he found himself sitting behind the weather map with a piece of surgical tubing in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
The first news block passed and during the commercials Shorty heard the director's tinny voice buzz through his headphones.
"OK, Shorty, light up," the director said. "I'll let you know when to start puffing."
Shorty listened to the floor manager quiet the set and then count the seconds until they were back on air. There was a bit friendly crosstalk between the anchor and the weatherman. Shorty heard the words, "Mount St. Helens," and brought the cigarette closer to his lips.
"OK. Go, Shorty. Give me smoke," the director buzzed.
Shorty took a long draw from his cigarette and exhaled into the tube.
"More smoke, Shorty! I need more smoke!" the director shouted.
Shorty took a deep, quick pull and spit it into the tube. Then another. Then another. The floor manager came around to the back of the map and hissed: "More smoke!"
Puff. Puff. Shorty was hyperventilating. The stage manager lit a second cigarette and put it into Shorty's hand.
"More smoke!" shouted the director.
Puff. Puff. Puff. Shorty's stomach started to dance. He felt light-headed and his vision pixilated. Puff. Puff. Puff. He felt for the "talk" button on his headset.
"I think I'm..." he wheezed.
"DON'T TALK! SMOKE!" the director screamed.
Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff. The second cigarette fell from Shorty's lips like a spent rifle casing. A third was thrust upon him by the stage manager. Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff.
"Keep that smoke coming," the director shouted.
Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff. Shorty's stomach was spinning at approximately 3,000 rpm. The space around him started spinning just as fast in the opposite direction. He suddenly remembered that the weatherman's nickname was "Gus" as in "Gusty," as in "long winded." This guy could talk for hours. On one particularly slow news day he had famously delivered a 19-minute forecast. Nineteen minutes of weather! Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff.
Then, seemingly coming from several miles away, Shorty heard the weatherman say, "back to you." Through the headset he heard: "Good job, Shorty." And if you had been watching, you might have heard something, too -- a loud thud; the sound of Shorty falling from his stool behind the weather map.
The next night, when the station went to its weather segment, Mount St. Helens was conspicuously smoke-free.