Elegy: May 18, 1980
by Bill Morelock | © Washington State University
Seattle, that great labor city, home of Dave Beck and big union shenanigans, of savory dark breads in Ballard smorgasbords, of fishermen and stevedores and roughneck sportswriters, is a boutique. There's everything here, but less, somehow, than when there was nothing.
Yet even now, there are moments, in early fall for instance, when the city is perfect. A bus ride is a meditation; the sounds of children shouting in the Montlake playground on the lowlands beneath the Capitol Hill rim are timeless: it could be 1928. Late enough for good apples, warm enough yet to find bumblebees in linden trees making a humble music. The moment lasts a day.
Then, the ferries on Elliot Bay—one to Bainbridge, one to Bremerton—crawl back and forth like white stitching on blue serge; the young jagged Olympics are dynamic, dissonant cadences ripped out of the sky; the islands, the hills, the clouds, all welcome the lyrical eye to play along a course from west to north; to praise a fir, a gull, a star; to wink, to expose memory to a world now misty, now bright. A captive of this uncanny scene is tempted to consider the possibility of happiness.
Sydney Fortunato loved the city in these late September snapshots. She loved it madly, wholly. In return, she asked the city to lend her life a certain resonance. It must take her talents, which she considered thin; and her appearance, which she considered problematic (by turns ugly, then irresistible) and burnish them until there emerged a smoky warm logic to her accomplishments, a balanced, beautiful set to all her features. The city was the frame within which she acted out her life. It had power to ennoble her if it only would.
Sydney Fortunato lived, and died, in what may have been the last snippet of time during which the light in a small storefront bookstore on an early autumn evening could still calm the soul.
None of it was enough. She was 29 years old in the spring of 1980. The city, the world, hadn't enough love in it after all, enough reassurance to keep her here.
After years of a rambling existence, common enough for her cohorts, of consorting with poets and revolutionaries and nuts, she had decided to learn a trade. Graduation from law school was a month away. She was editor of the law review, a fierce bohemian intelligence steeling herself to wear makeup and hose every day and enter a downtown tower where decisions and money were made. Sydney Fortunato was about to have success, and she was scared to death of what she would have to give up.
May 18th, 1980, was a Sunday. Two days before, Sydney Fortunato bowed before the fears and gave up everything. Too little hope, too many pills. Early Sunday morning word reached friends in Pullman. That day, May 18th, her ashes were being spread on Lopez Island in the San Juans, a favorite refuge. The drumbeats of radio newscasts that morning were pounding out Mount St. Helens updates. But no one who knew and had just lost Sydney Fortunato paid much attention—the media had trumpeted the mountain's imminent eruption for weeks. The seismic readings, the rumblings; old Harry Truman, the caretaker of Spirit Lake Lodge, refusing to leave no matter what the danger.
The familiar landscape of this part of eastern Washington is eccentrically beautiful, dry and austere, softly rolling treeless hills covered in spring with young green wheat. Late Sunday morning, a warm, bright day, a massive storm cloud approached on the prevailing southwest wind. Nothing out of the ordinary, since even in May the weather could go from sixty to snow within a couple of hours. Still, there was something odd about this cloud. There was no texture to it—no light or darker patches. It was a uniform charcoal. It came on, inexorably, larger, wider. Finally, news that the mountain had erupted, sending ash five miles in the air, penetrated even to distracted minds. By one o'clock it covered the sun. By two-thirty it was dark as night, warm as a summer day, and raining ash.
Sydney Fortunato, brilliant, gifted, inconsolable, had said she felt a kind of impotence about her. But on the day her ashes were spread in a cove of an idyllic wooded island, Nature spoke a loud eulogy and turned hundreds of square miles into a moonscape, ash falling, in places a foot deep, for 12 hours.
Bill Morelock '77 is a writer and broadcaster. He hosts Drivetime Classics on WCAL-FM, Northfield, Minnesota.