Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Lava Chronicles

“Now my girl quickly said to me
Man, you'd better watch your feet
That lava comes out soft and hot
You better lova me now or lova me not…”

-- “Volcano,” Jimmy Buffett

Like many of you, I had to cancel much of my European air travel for the past 10 days or so. That’s how it is in the unpredictable volcano game.

You really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about volcanoes. Weathermen students spend less than a day on them in meteorology school. Volcanoes are close to the bottom of the ladder on the Natural Disaster Scale, like beets and the worthless radish hug the bottom rung on the food ladder.

Granted, what I know about volcanoes is ant hill-sized, including only the following:

* Jimmy Buffett, “Sulpher smoke up in the sky, pretty soon we learn to fly!”;

* The history of Pompeii, buried in ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the 1st Century. Historians suggest the residents of the prosperous city didn’t know Mount Vesuvius was a volcano waiting to happen, small consolation to guys like Pliny the Elder and the other 20,000 or so who perished during that single day. Naples-area realtors who’d sold “Beautiful Hillside Lots!” had some serious explaining to do; and,

* For art class in fourth grade I did a chalk drawing of Mt. Fuji. It was put on display in the lobby of my hometown’s First National Bank, which was about the size of the cloakroom in our fourth-grade classroom. I drew Fuji in it’s non-erupting state, mainly because we were out of red chalk.

So I’m in unchartered water here.

But I do know something about newspapers, and while the recent eruption of the Iceland Volcano has grounded air travelers and upped the dry cleaning bills from Aberdeen to Dusseldorf, it has also laid waste to more than one headline writer and television anchor.

The problem with this volcano is its name: Eyjafjallajokull. (Pronounced “eyjafjallajokull.”) Whatever!

It’s Icelandic for “island-mountain glacier,” something we don’t see a lot of in Louisiana. Looks like a 4-year-old found the typewriter keyboard.

Whatever happened to naming things after simple things, like “Driskill Mountain” or “Caddo Lake”?

“Henrik’s Hill” or “Petur’s Volcano” would have done the trick. You can’t swing a cold cat in Iceland without hitting a Henrik or a Petur.

But that’s another story. The problem here is that Icelandic geographers and city planners fumbled. Names like Eyjafjallajokull make it hard for publicity folk. Besides being impossible to say, words like “Eyjafjallajokull” have a snow ball’s chance, even in Iceland, of getting into a headline. WAY too long.

This is why you’ll often see headlines like “Big Ben in trouble,” but rarely “Roethlisberger in trouble.”

“Tiger” and “Dr. J” and “The Babe” and “Mt. Fuji” and “St. Helens,” those are headline writers’ dreams. Compact. Tell-all. Easy to spell. For hurricanes, three syllables – “Katrina” – is all that hurricane namers are allowed. True.

As tragedies and global problems often do, this most recent volcanic eruption has reminded me how bright our American military is. Because no one could say the volcano’s name without sounding too Icelandic, too drunk, or too smart for their own good, the military shortened it to “E-15.” That’s because it starts with an E and has 15 letters following.

Roger that.


(Reprinted from The Times and The News-Star, 042510)