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Valley of Shadows

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Valley of Shadows

Summer of Fire

“Where time has stored our foot bats and the long skin of our voices... The guests in their summer colors have fled... and (we) kill the fire with a savage stick...” 


This summer is shaping up a lot like 1967. That year we also had a wet spring and early summer producing lush foliage, that then dried out, providing the fuel that fed the Sundance Fire that began in late August and eventually burned 56,000 acres.

Of course it was a serious matter, but that summer I was 11, the year before the “Jones House” adventure I related in my first column. AS a kid, for us it was a glorious end to summer before starting school a week later. Bright summer days that turned to a dull, brownish-yellow haze that the sun had difficulty at times piercing. And when it did, it was a red color which reminded me then of being on an alien planet with a red sun such as in my favorite TV show. (I won’t say it.) At night, a sullen red glow appeared in the sky over Schweitzer and Baldy.

All this added a depth of mystery to our kids’ summer. One thing I always thought odd, but of course this was still the time of the milkman, was Mrs. Tomoskovitch, the egg lady. A, shall we say stocky woman with gray hair tied up in a bun, she sold fresh farm eggs from her place on South Sagle Road. I’m not sure it was that fall, the following spring, or both when men came around selling buckets of morel mushrooms. As with most kids and their extremely sensitive taste buds, I hated the flavor I now love when I can (rarely) get it.
The next summer more salespeople came around, this time with a bonanza of ‘fireweed’ honey, then huckleberries from the fire area. Somewhere, I believe, I still have the National Geographic special edition chronicling the fire.

All this was the backdrop to the kid’s story of the old abandoned house on Fir and Ruth where nice town houses have since been built. On the enclosed front porch was what looked like a classic, black witch’s hat which was likely a black iron skillet. This still did not dissuade us kids from believing there was something mysterious going on there.

Several times we would see a figure that appeared to be a stooped old woman in dark clothing enter the back door just as we happened to be riding our bikes in the area.

Informal investigations by us (we later tried the back door) got us nowhere. Asking our parents, all the kids reported that as far as the adults were concerned, the house was vacant and had been for years. My dad asked why I was asking after telling me to stay away from the place (there was likely loose boards, and it would be trespassing, anyway). I said I wondered why there was a house with no one living in it was all.
Adding fuel to the fire of our imagination was the growth on the 50-foot lot seemed to be dry and dead or dying. On top of that, three of the kids during the last couple of weeks of August had bike accidents either on Fir or Ruth—naturally, a witch’s curse. Looking at the house and not paying attention to where we were riding didn’t have anything to do with it.

That fall was my last year at Lincoln School and, of course, all the talk was about the fire that was still being fought. The smoke was beginning to dissipate, but at the end of the week of classes, I remember my parents relating the rumor that it was coming down Schweitzer and that Sandpoint itself might be in danger. Of course, it was a story spread by alarmists, but for kids our age it was a thrilling prospect. We knew in the end that the all-powerful adults would have everything well under control, no matter what.

As bad as the Sundance Fire was, it could easily have led to catastrophe. Two smaller fires, one north of Trapper Peak and the other at Caribou Creek, would likely have joined with the other fires had they gotten out of control and, if so, North Idaho would today be a much different place.

That weekend, when the inferno failed to appear in our back yard, we hatched Adventure Plan B. I and three other kids were going to try to get into the house on Ruth and settle once and for all the issue of witch or no witch. When the time came, though, two of the guys suddenly came up with suspiciously convenient reasons (excuses) why they couldn’t do it.

My one brave, or dumb (however you look at it), friend who that winter exposed me to mumps (which I luckily didn’t come down with) and I rode our bikes around the neighborhood that Saturday afternoon, never passing directly in front of the house, to scout the best stealthy approach.

We decided the best way was down Fir from Division, lean our bikes against one of the large cottonwoods in the back yard, and sneak through the tall, dry grass to the back door.

The day was still smoky, but not as bad as it had been, though a gray overcast made for a gloomy day.
Things were eerily still as we snuck up to the house and peered in through the back door. All there was to see was deeper gloom. My friend tried the old, dull knob but it wouldn’t turn. That was the end as far as I was concerned. I’d never go to the length of breaking a window.

Starting back to our bikes, we suddenly heard the sound of someone coming through the old, overgrown shrubs and dry grass at the alley. We both scurried around to the south side of the house and thankfully the cover of an old bush just as a stooped figure appeared and came limping to the back door. The person wore an oddly shaped floppy hat and unseasonably long, greasy-looking coat that looked like oilcloth. We couldn’t tell if the person was man or woman. Whomever it was withdrew an old-fashioned key, unlocked the door, then slowly and deliberately closed it behind them.

After a few moments to make sure the person wasn’t still just inside the door, we hightailed it to our bikes and took off.

Later, being that they refused to be part of the adventure, neither my friend nor myself told our other two “gang” members what we had seen. On Halloween seven weeks later, we did walk by with the intention of actually trick-or-treating the place, but the house was utterly dark, except where a streetlight illuminated the front porch. The black hat (or iron frying pan) was gone. Was the witch out on patrol during her favorite night? 

(Author’s note: I’d like to briefly address some posts that I only recently became aware of concerning my Oct. 2009 column “What the college student saw.” First, I do not endorse any particular belief system. It is inappropriate for this publication. Secondly, I made generalizations about Wicca due to the limited space here. There was a suggestion that what I did report was inaccurate. I stand by what I wrote as it relates to the belief system in general. As with Christians and with other world faiths, there are sects within Wicca that may vary particular practices from what I reported.)

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Author info

Lawrence Fury Lawrence Fury is an inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer, and a conservative conscience for this area of North Idaho. He's also an expert on local ghost stories, and is compiling a group of them for future book publication. You can read more about him in a Love Notes feature for the River Journal

Tagged as:

fire, forest, outdoors, 1967, Sundance Fire

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