Tag Archives: Iowa

Confession of an Arsonist

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.  Waggoner Pic

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.

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Being Here (Where I Am)

“Do you think the wren ever dreams of a better house?” Mary Oliver

The desire to live here, there, and over there, in this, I may be the craziest person I know. On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon I went looking at high rise condominiums in downtown Seattle. I wanted to see what it would be like to reinvent my life from that vantage point, overlooking the port, The Sound, and into sunsets every night. Then hours later, setting up my city lot terrace on Queen Anne Hill, I thought, how could I ever leave all this….

This is the terrace we imagined from the deck that had been out back. A stone paved and planted formal outdoor room, evocative of many places: France, New Orleans, Boston’s Nob Hill…. This is the rock wall we envisioned and the climbing hydrangea we planted that now completely covers the high wooden fence surrounding us. Assorted wrought iron pieces collected in consignment stores up and down The Main Line in Philadelphia, painted black, and cushioned in a black & white awning stripe. The pair of magnolia trees that grew from saplings to their two-story height in a few short years—such is the growing power of the Pacific Northwest. The trees are shaped like topiary, low box hedges beneath kept trim, and potted herbs lined up like sunbathers on a étagère. Into this black & white outdoor room I specified all white flowers: rhododendron, climbing hydrangea, the stand of lilies beyond the fountain, and the dinner-plate sized blossoms the pair of magnolia trees serves up. Of course, the lavender plants will bloom in a lavender color, the rosemary, a blue, chives, mauve/pink, roses will climb over the fence, and other assorted plants, such as columbine and forget-me-not, have a way of hopping or dropping in. And like friends, they are all welcome.

As a child I frequently rearranged my parents’ furniture in the night. People would wake up and bump into things. As a single person and later, married, I was all too game for every move. I even remember the moves that we didn’t make, because I had, in a sense, inhabited them. With the position that would have relocated our young family to Iowa, I pictured a house with a wrap-around porch on a prairie where one could see anyone coming over the horizon in any direction. The house, the landscape and its serenity, grew on me such that I was almost disappointed when my husband did not take that position. Iowa.

I could fill volumes with all the houses I have loved that I did not live in. “The ones that got away,” I call them. Some people have affairs; I look at houses. Perusing MLS listings, attending open houses, drawing up floor plans if I’m interested, sketching, coming up with color schemes, and re-imagining life with each one. It’s like a chemical dependency, this willingness to make a complete overhaul of one’s life. In an effort to get more than one life in, I have to wonder, might it be at the expense of one life fully realized?

Yet there is hope. While I continue to look and sketch and imagine, I do notice a waning in the energy to pull off any of these desired moves. This has come with age. For the first time in my life, the thought of moving is exhausting—something others have known all along. And while I may still harbor harbor views, all I have to do is sit still on this terrace, plant, or clean up in this garden, and I can be where I am. And this I must do more often. And keep the drama on the page.

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