Growing up in Yakima, in the 1950’s and 60’s, there were some spectacular (not in a good way) warehouse fires not far from “Bum Canyon”. — As well as hotel fires, in downtown Yakima. We used to watch these splendid blazes from our front yard, marveling at their awful pyrotechnics. — Flames shooting way, way into the sky. Sirens blaring!
I mentioned Bum Canyon. “What was that?” you ask. Well, I wrote a long, long blog story about it. It was a small canyon (for lack of a better term) near the South 1st/South 2nd Avenue neighborhood where I grew up. It was an amazing place, where we kids played, year-round. — Think tumbleweed forts in the summer, snow forts in the winter. It was a wide open area, home to jackrabbits and nighthawks.
An amazing, thrilling, but somewhat terrifying event took place in Bum Canyon, circa 1957. I wrote a little about it in that big blog story; but now, I’m here to tell the entire tale:
Mr. Munger, a man in his upper-middle ages, medium sized, with coal-black hair, lived on a big, grassy, corner lot, right across from Bum Canyon, in a house he built with his own two hands. At first glance, he appeared to be quite gruff, if not downright mean. But he turned out to be a pretty nice man. (Little David Ellis once broke into Mr. Munger’s property, and drowned all of his new-born bunnies. Every single one of them. Now, that could make anyone mean. But again, he was actually a nice guy.)
After having several casual visits with us, in and around the neighborhood, Mr. Munger took a liking to my slightly-older brother, Al III and me. He eventually invited us to come to his house for a visit, on a hot, summer day. — The kind of hot, summer day Yakima is famous for. He said, in a mysterious tone of voice, “I have something amazing to show you boys”. We carefully went down a flight of wooden stairs; descending to the finished basement, where Mr. Munger had his den. He instructed us to sit in a couple of occasional chairs; and in a room full of fascinating objects and mementos, he proceeded to retrieve a small curio cabinet from a dusty shelf of a bookcase. He then sat himself down in a big, overstuffed, well-used chair. — One could just tell that it was his favorite chair in the world.
Opening up the cabinet, the man showed us various keepsakes he’d stashed away in its little compartments. There were quite a few things in there, that caught the eye of a boy, including a few arrowheads, and some tiny beads made of bone. But the piece de resistance was this: opening the last compartment, he extracted a little cloth-wrapped bundle. He slowly, solemnly unwrapped it. When he removed the cloth, he was left holding a very small box, perhaps a matchbox, which was lined with cotton. On the cotton, lay what looked like a very old tooth. Mr. Munger said, “This is an old Indian tooth. And because I have it, this Indian will not go to the Happy Hunting Grounds.” My brother and I stared in awe at the tooth, pondering the heavy meaning of Mr. Munger’s words. — Looking back on that day, I think I know what sparked my interest in studying Native American items. Yes, I do….
I would say that a year went by. I’m not quite sure, because when I was eight, a year seemed like it went on forever. Now that I’m nearly 70, a year seems like a month. But anyway: one afternoon, Mr. Munger apparently decided to burn a few of his surplus tires in Bum Canyon. He just wanted to get rid of them. We kids happened to be playing in the canyon when he brought those tires, and stacked them up. We ran over to him and asked what he was doing. He said he was gonna burn those old tires. Well, we kids thought this was just swell. It really was!
When Mr. Munger saw how excited we were, he saw an opportunity to get rid of his entire stockpile of “useless” tires. He told us he had dozens more that we could help him burn. So we went back and forth between his house and the canyon, rolling tires by the score. Mr. Munger must have thrown gasoline on some. Because he got a pretty good blaze going. We boys, and girls too, fetched and rolled more and more old, dirty, black tires onto the flat floor of the canyon, and pushed them into the ever-growing fire. Soon a pall of thick, acrid smoke was filling the air. Things got very hot. And don’t forget: this was on a Yakima summer’s day. It was already 80-90 degrees out. — It was like, all of a sudden, were all standing too close to a fiery furnace. What had been fun, started to get downright scary, as dozens and dozens of tires fueled the fire, and the air grew more noxious. This went on so long, that, eventually, the sun went down. The dark skies above Bum Canyon were lit up like the Fourth Of July. Sparks and smoke ascended into the air as far as our little eyes could see. The heat got hotter, the crackling became a roar; it seemed that half of Bum Canyon was overtaken by a conflagration of incredible proportions. In other words, Mr. Munger had himself a tire fire!
Suddenly, we heard the screams of multiple sirens filling the air. Yakima Fire Department’s Engine Company was on its way! And ‘pert near every truck in the company rolled up to us, save the hook and ladder truck. Then, the area was swarming with firemen (for there were no firewomen at that time), each one outfitted in his awesome regalia. They yelled at us kids to get back. As we ran from the fire, they turned their huge, long, snaky hoses on it, shooting hundreds and hundreds of gallons of water at the flames. Slowly but surely, they got a handle on the situation, and after a few minutes, what had been a towering tire inferno became a smoking heap of soaked, melted rubber — and whatever else those 1950’s-model tires were made of. The last thing we saw, before we fled the scene en masse, was Mr. Munger being thoroughly chewed out by Fireman Dick Landis, and/or one of the other stalwarts of the YFD. I imagine he wound up paying a stiff fine for his escapade. We kids were lucky to get away with our participation in the mayhem, without being punished. — And lucky to have not been injured, or suffocated, come to think of it. Thankfully, no one had become too careless. Although, this whole fiery fiasco was the textbook example of carelessness.
As I recollect it, nary a boy or girl ever made a peep to Mr. Munger about this regrettable incident. We didn’t want to embarrass a grown man. We’d just say, “Hi Mr. Munger” when we saw him, while acting like nothing had ever happened.
It was years before Bum Canyon regained its normal appearance. Even though all of the tire debris was hauled out, most likely at Mr. Munger’s expense, a sludgy mess remained for years to come. We avoided it like the plague. — Not even a tumbleweed would grow in it. — But then, folks came paved the whole place over. So long, Bum Canyon….
By the way, Mr. Munger owned the vacant lot situated right behind the World War II-vintage, two-bedroom house we rented from the Cal Dugger family. We kids would play there, picking wildflowers, flying kites, making mud pies, holding neighborhood “gang” meetings. I remember another hot, Yakima summer day. Some kid suggested we get some shovels, and do a little digging in the lot. Just to see what we could find. Who knew? Maybe there would be some buried treasure. So, we split up, ran home, grabbed our parents’ shovels, brought them back to Mr. Munger’s vacant lot, and commenced to digging. And, we dug up a dead cat.
But that’s another story….
My thanks to Jackie Whitnall-Cox, for her kind permission regarding my use of one of her father’s amazing photos. See many more on the FB group page, Growing Up In Yakima.
Please read my long, long Bum Canyon story sometime. It contains a shorter version of the tire fire story in it; but it also has a whole lot more. Here’s a link: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/the-magical-place-that-was-bum-canyon/