For a few years now I’ve been conducting a writing workshop at Queen Anne Manor, a retirement home in Seattle. What had begun as a six-week teaching practicum requirement for my MFA, shows no signs of ever letting up. “Confession of an Arsonist” by Paul E. Waggoner is an example of the stories we create each week from the material of our lives.
Paul began at The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in 1951 and worked as director for 36 years until his retirement. He then continued research, often with a colleague from Rockefeller University, and in 2012 they published that global cropland would reach a peak expanse in the 21st century, a sequel of their “How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature.”
Crossing the continent at ninety to live closer to his family, Paul joined our writing workshop. It is with his permission of course, that I publish this piece.
Confession of an Arsonist
by Paul E. Waggoner
Once upon a time in Iowa in a town called Centerville, celebrating Independence Day ranked up there with Christmas. Firecrackers ranked with stuffed stockings, candy canes and spicy stuffing.
For the Fourth of July, Centervillans planned for weeks. For weeks, the tall, lanky sheriff of Appanoose County grew a beard like Honest Abe’s. The man who wore the star awed youngsters and persuaded voters to keep him in office. The sheriff wore a top hat, just as Lincoln did when he delivered the Gettysburg address. The personification of law and order was awesome as he strode the courthouse Square.
Although Centerville was still the county seat and celebrated the Fourth in style, it had seen better times. In the 1890s, coal miners opened mines. Immigrants from Central Europe and Italy swelled the population. They dug coal and hauled it behind ponies that never came up the mine shaft to sunshine. But after World War I, hard times struck.
Nevertheless during the mining boom, men had become rich enough to build and then abandon what seemed like mansions to farm boys. Never mind that windows were shattered and plaster falling. The wealthy passed, but their mansions survived into the 1930s.
On the Fourth of July, boys from another neighborhood trespassed on our turf, the territory of the Maple StreetGang. We were prepared.
First, the Gang tried infantry tactics learned on the flickering screen of black-and-white Saturday matinees. Those maneuvers drove the invaders across the boundaries of the Maple Street Gang. Heavy artillery followed.
Other boys might carry lady fingers, sparklers and cones-of-fire. But we had Cherry Bombs, red but larger than a cherry. Our heavy artillery, they were nearly as large as golf balls.
After infantry tactic drove the trespassers back acros our boundaries, they retreated to a decaying mansion. No grand palace, but big enough to shelter small-town boys. In their dilapidated stronghold the fugitives scrabbled up broken plaster and pitched shards out missing windows.
You guessed what happened. Through windows our pursuing force lobbed our heavy artillery of Cherry Bombs. Smoke appeared at windows, closely followed by hotfooting, retreating invaders. The town’sfire siren wailed. We heard the roar of the fire engine approaching. The Maple Street Gang fled to its turf.
Now, safe beyond Iowa jurisdiction and shielded behind the statute of limitation, an apprentice arsonist confesses.