True Believers and A Volcano

True Believers and A Volcano

Ahh.  The Spring of 1980.  We had the Good, the Bad, and the Very Questionable.  The Miracle on Ice had just taken place where the Men’s US Olympic Hockey Team defeated the mighty Soviets.  Rubik’s Cube made its debut and monopolized our free time to align colored squares.  Post It Notes became available to the public after years of internal use at 3M.  Inflation was 13.85%.  The Blues Brothers movie hit the theaters.  Amazingly, the official newspaper of the Vatican, L’Osservature Romano, labelled The Blues Brothers a “Catholic classic” and “recommended viewing for Catholics everywhere.”  Huh?  

Yet, even with all this excitement, America could not get enough of a cantankerous, foul-mouthed, 83 year old, instant folk-hero who reportedly hated Republicans, hippies, young children, and the elderly.  This media darling included bootlegging, prospecting and inn keeping among his career moves.  

Being the kind-hearted soul he was, he divorced his first wife in the early 1930s.  His second marriage in 1935 was not long lived as he would throw his bride into a lake in order to win arguments, knowing full well that she could not swim.  Our hero then dated a local girl only to marry her sister, Edna.  That marriage lasted until Edna’s death in 1978.  Looks like the third time was the charm (and, apparently, Edna could swim).

As part of the media frenzy surrounding him and his actions, during the Spring of 1980, he appeared on a front page article of the New York Times.  Time, Life, Newsweek, Field & Stream, and Reader’s Digest composed profiles of him.  For the Millennial crowd, being featured in all these newspapers and major magazines at the same time in 1980 is akin to being the most popular thing on the internet.

Of course, these words describe Harry Truman.  No.  Not the “Buck Stops Here” guy who dabbled in politics.  Instead, we speak of Harry R. Truman, the caretaker of Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake at the foot of Mount St. Helens.  You may recall Harry as the gruff, defiant inn-keeper who refused to leave the “Red Zone” around Mount St. Helens despite evacuation orders and stern warnings from Mother Nature herself.

Mount St. Helens rumbled back to life in March 1980 signaled through a series of earthquakes.  The volcano had been dormant since the 1850s.  On March 27, 1980, steam began venting from Mount St. Helens and the north side of the volcano began to bulge from the pressure.  Continued earthquakes, venting steam, and a growing lava dome fascinated us all.  Between March and May, national nightly news reports included updates about the volcanic activities.

However, constant geological reports began to wear thin after a few weeks in the news cycle.  Even with dire warnings that a volcanic explosion could be imminent with the threat increasing daily, videos showing the now familiar scene of venting steam lost their edge.  The media needed a new or exciting angle for this clearly newsworthy event unfolding before us.

The press discovered Harry Truman.  With his glass of whiskey and Coke in hand, Harry refused to leave his home at Spirit Lake at the base of Mount St. Helens.  Harry became the “must interview” for reporters.  Very little journalistic digging would be necessary to determine that Harry was a “character”.  Locals provided background stories about Harry posing as a U.S. Forest Service game warden in order to fish on Native American lands; or Harry getting forest rangers drunk to avoid new charges on various incidents; or Harry poaching on or “borrowing” gravel from federal lands.

Better still, Harry Truman became an instant quote machine.  “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it.”  “This area is heavily timbered, Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away, the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”  “You couldn’t pull me out with a mule team.  That mountain’s part of Truman and Truman’s part of the mountain.”

When confronted with the scientific evidence suggesting an imminent volcanic explosion, Harry scoffed and replied: “the mountain has shot its wad and it hasn’t hurt my place a bit, but those goddam geologists with their hair down to their butts wouldn’t pay no attention to Ol’ Truman.”

Mount St. Helen was back in the news with an uptick in ratings with this new human interest, folk-hero angle.  Harry Truman became part of the story and as much of the story himself.  Grade school children sent him banners and notes of support.  Harry received fan letters from across the country.  Women sent him marriage proposals.  Local authorities confronted new problems as greater numbers of reporters flocked to Harry’s Lodge seeking interviews in the heart of the danger zone for volcanic activity.  

Did this crotchety eighty year old see his golden opportunity to become a media sensation with new seismic activity at Mount St. Helens?  Highly unlikely given Harry’s history.  After World War I, Harry prospected for gold.  When Prohibition hit, Harry smuggled booze along the West Coast.  Prospecting and bootlegging are not typically identified as very social endeavors where people crave attention.

After running an automotive service and gasoline station for a few years, Harry grew tired of civilization.  Harry secured 50 acres on Spirit Lake at the foot of Mount St. Helens where he opened Mount St. Helens Lodge.  He and Edna operated the Lodge for 52 years.  After Edna’s death in 1978, Harry closed the Lodge and survived by renting out a few boats and cabins during the summer months.  Harry appeared content being isolated from almost all.

In the Spring of 1980, the press did not find a local resident seeking publicity or even one willing to play along for some instant celebrity.  Rather, in Harry Truman, they discovered the real deal.  Harry cavalierly tossed evacuation orders in Spirit Lake as if they were his second wife.  Harry disregarded warnings from long-haired scientists who could not possibly know the mountain the way he did after half a century.  Harry Truman was a true believer in his own certainty.

On May 17, 1980, a group of local officials and geologists once again visited Harry and implored him to evacuate.  Harry responded: “I don’t have any idea if it will blow, but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.”  On the morning of May 18, 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake triggered a massive collapse of the north face of Mount St. Helens triggering the largest known debris avalanche in recorded history.  With this seismic shift, the volcano exploded with vegetation and structures flattened over a 230 square mile area.  In light of his proximity to the eruption, scientists theorize that Harry died from heat shock in less than one second with his body vaporized.  The site of the Lodge was immediately buried below a 150 foot landslide.  After the eruption, Spirit Lake measured 200 feet higher in elevation.

Harry Truman lived true to himself and died on his mountain.  My guess is that if Harry were forcibly removed from his Lodge and he had to live among others after the eruption, he would have simply given up on life, at least as he knew it.

Not often, but at times in mediation and settlement conferences, we come across the Harry R. Trumans of the world.  These are the true believers in their positions or causes and almost nothing will change their minds.  They would prefer to die on the mountain than alter their positions.

All parties and participants in mediation come in with a firm belief in the merits of their legal case and arguments.  The lawyers dutifully advance the key points as advocates and there exists a belief that each party is right.  For these parties, their resolve in being right is tempered with the goals of amicable resolution.  Backing off positions results in achieving agreement and finality.  On-going legal costs can come to an end.  Settlement achieves certainty of result rather than proceeding toward the uncertainty of juries and trials.  The key, of course, in reaching resolution is compromise and most mediation participants accept that dynamic.

Then there are the true believers.  Harry Truman ignored evacuation orders claiming that he does not care.  Harry disregarded the scientists’ overtures asserting that they were simply wrong.  Harry steadfastly refused to compromise noting that if he were wrong, he would go down with the mountain itself.

How can a mediator approach a true believer?  One method, of course, is to tell the story of Harry R. Truman.  The true believer can sympathize and root for Harry, but might not want to end up below a metaphoric 150 foot avalanche debris pile after a trial.  Harry’s steadfast refusal to accept even the possibility that he was wrong resulted in his own demise.  That outcome can be avoided for the mediation participant.

The mediation forum itself can be used as a tool.  My experiences suggest that, at times, these true believers need someone to listen to and hear their stories.  The true believers usually possess a “why” they feel so passionate or strongly about an issue or cause.  The litigation process is far from conducive to getting these stories expressed except eventually at trial itself.  The cathartic process explaining their stories to an attentive audience – the mediator – may be enough to allow them to move forward.  Someone has heard them and respected their stories.

Harry could not be saved from himself.  Perhaps some Harry Trumans cannot be saved.  Nonetheless, Harry’s plight could possibly teach others that extreme consequences may result with extreme positions.  We might also learn how to better address the Harry Trumans we encounter.

Recommended Posts